Saving the Gables Church Garden

The Daughter of a Famous Local Activist Leads a Fight to Save a Historic Gables Church Garden From Being Bulldozed for Condominiums

Growing up as the daughter of a trailblazing Florida feminist and Coral Gables community activist, Bonnie Bolton learned the power of persistence early on. “My mother used to say that one person can make a difference,” says Bolton, whose pioneering mom, Roxcy Bolton, died in 2017, at the age of 90. Inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, Roxcy Bolton was a tireless advocate for issues ranging from the rights of women and minorities to the landscaping of Coral Gables streets.

“Every day before we went to school, she reminded us, ‘This is your country, and you have the opportunity to be a change-maker.’”

At 57, Bonnie Bolton may not have the public profile her mother earned over a lifetime championing progressive causes, but she is now clearly on the radar of Gables city officials, thanks to her efforts to save the Garden of Our Lord, an oasis of tranquility on the grounds of St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church. The garden and the church are slated to be bulldozed to make way for a nine-story luxury apartment building.

“There is no doubt Roxcy would have taken up the issue of the garden,” says Bolton, who remembers first visiting the North Ponce site with her mother when she was no more than six. “She would have objected to what [the developer] wants to do.”

The developer is Sergio Pino, whose Century Homebuilders Group bought the 1.5-acre property from St. James for $9.75 million. According to the plans submitted to the city in January, Pino’s project would include 177 condos, 16 ground floor live-work units, a “rooftop amenities deck,” and more than 300 parking spaces. The project also includes constructing a new home for Crystal Academy, a private school for children with autism that now uses the church offices for classrooms and the open space adjacent to the garden. Pino’s condo project would require a zoning change from religious/institutional to mixed use.

In an effort to preserve the garden, created in 1951 at the corner of East Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Phoenetia Avenue, Bolton has asked the city to designate it as historic. Included in her 130-page application are statements from several local architects attesting to the garden’s significance as a burial ground, a botanical treasure of plants mentioned in the Bible, a repository of plaques commemorating military and civic heroes, and a key component of the “green corridor” that runs from Ponce to the Douglas Entrance.

Joanna Lombard, a professor at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, compares the garden to “a valuable heirloom discovered hidden in your grandmother’s closet,” in part because of the architect who designed it. “Robert Fitch Smith is right up there with George Fink and Phineas Paist,” she says, referring to the founding architects who worked with George Merrick in Coral Gables’ 1920s creation.

The garden is fronted by a curved wall of Florida keystone that links the space to the Fink-designed Coral Gables Woman’s Club across the street, notes Lombard. Behind the wall are a variety of trees and flowering shrubs, some of which may be traced to seeds collected in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem in the early 1950s by Hazel Westby, a UM faculty member who spent a year teaching home economics in Beirut.

Near the gated entrance to the garden is a sign bearing an invitation, in English and Spanish: “Come in! Meditate, pray, or simply enjoy God’s creation.” But that gate is now locked.

“A garden sitting on consecrated ground should not only be respected, but also preserved,” says Karelia Martinez Carbonell, president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables. “This is a green space, which church members invested in to honor the community. It should not fall to indifference.”

Carlos Marin, a former member of the city’s Board of Architects, says the garden represents a rare meditative space in the Gables, and while it may have been little used, “such spaces are there for people who need them. Just because you don’t see a crowd doesn’t mean it is not valuable.”

Inside the Garden: Seeds from Jerusalem and a Statue of Christ

Bolton’s efforts to save the garden have received a cool recep- tion from city officials. In July 2021, an attorney working for St. James requested the city look at the property to see if it qualified as historic. Warren Adams, director of Historical Resources and Cultural Arts, replied in a letter dated Aug. 9, 2021 that the property “does not meet the minimum eligibility criteria for designation as a local historic landmark. Therefore, the Historical Resources staff will not require review by the Historic Preservation Board if an application is made at this time for a demolition permit.”

Century Homebuilders acquired the property later in 2021 and submitted development plans to the city in January 2022. Bolton filed her application for historic designation in July, triggering a review by the Historical Resources staff. If the staff finds the garden ineligible for designation, Bolton can present her application to the nine-member Preservation Board. Through a spokesperson, Adams declined to comment on Bolton’s application while it is under review.

Commissioner Kirk Menendez said he and Pino have arranged to have a large Carrera marble statue of Christ and the commemorative plaques now in the garden moved to Little Flower Church, where they will be installed in a new setting.

Few Gables residents visited or even knew of the garden before Bolton launched her mission to preserve it, says Menendez, a member of Little Flower. “The proposed new location will allow all Coral Gables residents to be able to truly enjoy the beauty and splendor of the garden and the statue for prayer and meditation.” Once the plan for a new garden is revealed, Menendez says, “I think people will understand.”

With the consent of relatives, Pino said he has already relocated two sets of remains interred in the garden wall. In July of last year, a Miami funeral director was hired to probe three areas in the garden to search for other remains. None were found, according to the funeral director’s report.

“It is not a popular location where people gather,” says Pino of the garden. “I have spoken to a lot of supporters; I have not received one call from anyone saying one negative thing” about the project. “I feel that what we’re doing here is the responsible way to do it… [The garden] doesn’t belong there anymore. I understand the sentimental [attachments], but in my heart, we’re doing what is right.”

What Pino is calling the “Crystal Project” is one of several proposed construction projects in the North Gables that promise to change the look of the area. Also on the drawing board are three high-rise buildings on Ponce de Leon Boulevard that would yield more than 320 residential units, along with separate multi-unit housing developments nearby on Sidonia, Zamora, and Santillane avenues.

All are part of a trend toward an upscaling of the city’s architecture that many residents say they oppose. “As a citizen of Coral Gables, all of this type of development concerns me,” says former Mayor Don Slesnick. Regarding the Century project in particular, Slesnick cited “a lack of open space, the size of the project, and the removal of mature oak trees.” Adds the staunch supporter of preservation efforts: “I hope those who are in charge will take note.”

As she riffles through stacks of papers at a table in her small apartment just a block from the garden, Bolton’s battle against powerful interests can seem quixotic. She is a slight woman, a philosophy major at Trinity College in Vermont who makes a living teaching English to Spanish speakers. She lives on a modest budget. She has no car, relying on public transportation. Like her mother, Bolton does not use a computer or a cell phone. Her eight-page argument for preserving the garden, included in the historic designation application, is printed by hand.

“I am grateful for what she is doing,” says architect Nanette Martinez, who lives nearby. “This is a walkable neighborhood of one- to two-story buildings, on streets lined with beautiful trees. I hope the developer can come up with something more responsive to the surroundings, not just create a huge concrete mass, while saving the garden.” Although she has gained backing from prominent architects and preservationists, Bolton admits that rallying neighborhood support for her cause has been slow. Still, she continues her campaign, giving presentations to the city’s Landmarks Advisory Board and the Gables American Legion post, and talking individually to members of the Tropical Audubon Society, Bike Walk Coral Gables, the Coral Gables Garden Club, the Montgomery Botanical Center, and other local groups.

“Bonnie is doing a very thorough and dedicated job trying to save the garden,” says Slesnick. “Her mother would be proud of her.” Slesnick says he faults the church, in decline for years, for letting the condition of its buildings and the garden deteriorate. “It will be a task to save the garden as it is now,” he says.

Bolton knows the odds are against her. “I have never done anything like this before,” she says. “I am going at this in a different manner than my mother. She would be more dramatic, maybe chain herself to the gate or climb over the wall. But she is my muse.”