A Sanctuary for the Arts

Mike Eidson, Olga Granda and the Transformation of a Gables Church

By J.P. Faber

December 2019

For Mike Eidson, the Coral Gables attorney who has a passion for saving historic structures, the discovery was nothing short of an epiphany: After struggling for years to save and restore the old Coconut Grove Playhouse, he discovered a 2004 report that Dona Spain, the director of historic preservation for the city of Coral Gables, had written about the two First Church of Christ, Scientist buildings on the corner of Le Jeune and Andalusia.

The two “sanctuaries” were designed by famed architect Phineas Paist, the same man who designed Douglas Entrance, the Colonnade Building, and Coral Gables City Hall. The first sanctuary building was designed in 1928 and finished in 1933; a second, larger building was designed in 1937 and finished in 1942. In the 1950s, two rows of offices and classrooms were added, forming a courtyard connecting the two structures.

“From the first time I saw this I thought of it as a campus. I thought, ‘We can have a cultural arts campus right here in the middle of Coral Gables, in the prettiest place in the city, and create a new town square,’” said Eidson. The buildings are, in fact, right across the street from Paist’s City Hall building, with Merrick Park between them. “This could activate the entire area.”

That was a year ago. Since then, Eidson and his team have won over the church members and signed a long-term lease for the larger of the buildings, a 454-seat auditorium that will serve as the central performance space for what he describes as “a multi-purpose, multi-discipline complex for dance, theater and music.” Eidson himself has committed $1,000,000 to repurpose the building and launch the programming. “We can have this whole thing open in six months, with performances. Our idea is to educate and create.” This month the newly dubbed Sanctuary of the Arts will hold its inaugural event, a four-day celebration with dance and music.

For Eidson – who restored the building that houses Books & Books, tried to save the now demolished LaSalle building, and fought for years to bring back the Coconut Grove Playhouse – the new Sanctuary is a refreshing breakthrough in his personal quest to preserve local historic architecture. It also allows him to make use of the knowledge gained in those efforts, especially with the Playhouse.

Coral Gables attorney Mike Eidson

“We got engineers and architects to show how we could create a cultural arts center [there]. It was pretty much the same idea we are thinking about here. With this, we are transferring all that knowledge,” he says. A key leader in the Playhouse campaign was Olga Granda, a Coral Gables native who was raised blocks from the church. She is now the Artistic Director and CEO of the Sanctuary of the Arts. “Because of my love of historic restoration, I led the Coconut Grove Theater Foundation for two years,” says Granda, who was originally trained as a dancer. “So, when Mike suggested I work on this project, it was a culmination of a life spent in the arts – and in this area… Little by little we worked out a partnership with the church, and I took on the job of finalizing the lease and the organization.” That multi decade, renewable lease allows The Sanctuary to use the larger of the two church buildings, the one which faces City Hall across Andalusia. The smaller of the sanctuary buildings will continue to be used for weekly services by First Church of Christ, Scientist.

“We are very supportive of this,” says Liegh Marion, the clerk of the church. “The church at the moment is not using the main building, and it’s a beautiful building with lovely rainbow windows… We think it will be a great blessing to have this right in the center of the community.”

One of the blessings, says Eidson, is the fact that both church buildings have been kept in immaculate condition. “If you walk in the doors today, it would be just like you were walking into the 1930s. Almost nowhere else could you find that – and find someone that would be willing to let you use it.”

Now comes the task of transforming the facility, programming the artistic performances, and bringing in various artists-in-residence who will use the former church offices as studios and classrooms. Already, lighting and sound equipment has been ordered, drapery picked out to reduce inside lighting during shows, and new flooring shipped for installation in the lobby.

“The next stage is to figure out what can be done here,” says Granda. “I consider myself a multi-disciplinary artist, and to curate is an art.” The first benchmark will be putting on a play in April, which requires retrofitting the church stage to accommodate theater. “It’s a very ambitious project,” she says. In the meantime, the property’s 13,000 square-foot lawn will be activated for outdoor performances.

“Right now, our vision is a 100-year vision,” says Eidson. “Everybody else wants to come and tear [the church] down. We want this to be here forever.”

Sanctuary of the Arts Festival Square
Dec. 20-23, 2019

Celebrate the opening of Sanctuary of the Arts with four days of performances, family-friendly activities, and holiday treats. Free performances by over 20 local artists including musicians, dancers, theater artists, and poets. Shop for handmade goods made by artisanal vendors, tour the Sanctuary’s historic campus, and learn about upcoming programs. Performances programmed by Buskerfest Miami. www.sanctuaryofthearts.org