Should the City Save the Building Where it was Born?
It is a building little noticed these days, muted with dark grey paint and hidden behind a one-story addition where LaSalle cleaners operated for years before it moved up the street. And it was little noticed when, in February of last year, the city’s Historic Preservation Board voted against granting historic designation to the building, located on the northeast corner of LeJeune and Aragon.
But it turns out that the 1923 structure was literally where Coral Gables was invented.
“That building is the birthplace of Coral Gables,” says Karelia Carbonell, president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables. “It’s where George Merrick and Denman Fink created the plans for the city. That building preceded City Hall. It’s where Merrick’s construction company was housed.”
According to Dona Spain, the city’s historic preservation officer, the building had been altered too drastically for historic designation – which would have protected it. “There is no question that the history of that building is significant,” she says. “[But] it had been so altered that its historic significance had been compromised.”
Also, the building’s owners did not want a historic designation, since that would compromise their ability to develop the property, strategically located across the street from City Hall. The result was a deal cut with the city in April to lease the property for a parking lot, once it had been demolished.
Then a member of Carbonell’s private, non-profit historic association learned of the imminent demolition, and spread the word. The result was a ground swell in popular opposition to the idea, which prompted the city – during a heated July city commission meeting – to rescind its offer to lease the property for parking. Commissioner Michael Mena closed the debate by making a first motion to rescind the original resolution in support of the building’s demolition, then a second motion to pursue negotiations with the property owner. Both motions were passed unanimously.
Does this mean the building will be saved? Far from it. As Spain points out, the city cannot legally block demolition if owner Mirella LaSalle wants to knock it down. But the city staff has been instructed to negotiate with her, and the building “could be brought back with sufficient funding,” she says.
Whether the city has the resources to do that, or whether a heroic developer will come forward with a plan to restore and save it, are big “ifs.” To the naked eye, the main building still seems to be intact, albeit without the porte-cochere that once served as an early gas station – though internal damage is reported to be severe. (See Time Machine, page 80)