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The Second Oldest House In Miami Is Under Threat

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Now that Miami-Dade has untangled the Gordian knot that is the Coconut Grove Playhouse—in time for it to reopen in 2018 at the very earliest—it's time to look at the historic preservation of the neighboring Charles Avenue. In a little noticed move in 2012, Miami's Historical and Environmental Preservation Board voted unanimously to christen Charles Avenue a Historic Designated Roadway, which runs from the Playhouse at Main Highway to the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery at Douglas. The practical effect of the honorific? Nothing.

The designation recognizes Charles Avenue as the oldest residential street in all of Miami. Coconut Grove itself predates The Magic City, which swallowed it during annexation in 1925. The first house on what was originally known as Evangelist Street, due to all the churches, belonged to Washerwoman Mary. Mariah Brown, her real name, worked in the late 1880s at the nearby Peacock Inn, one of the first tourist traps in South Florida. Her husband bought a plot of land from the Frow family, among the original homesteaders, and built a one story Conch-style house a half mile from where she worked. Unfortunately, the original house no longer stands. The simple Conch house at 3298 Charles Avenue is a recreation.

This means that the oldest house on Charles Avenue is the no-longer-simple E.W.F. Stirrup House. It was once smaller, but has been added onto so much over the years, that you can barely see its Conch bones. The impressive 2-story house, anchoring the double-wide lot near Main Highway, is the second oldest house in Miami after The Barnacle, built by Stirrup's contemporary Ralph Middleton Munroe, known as the Commodore.

Compare and contrast: The Barnacle, now a State Park, has been restored to its turn-of-the-last-century magnificence. The E.W.F. Stirrup House was last occupied by renters; left empty to undergo nearly a decade of Demolition by Neglect. What separates these two structures, aside from a few thousand feet? Both are from the exact same era. One owner has been memorialized; one owner has been marginalized. What's the difference?

While the Commodore's story is well known and easy to find, it takes some digging to learn about Ebeneezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup. While he arrived in Coconut Grove a few years after Mariah Brown, Stirrup put a far more permanent mark on Coconut Grove and South Florida than almost anyone, including Commodore Monroe.

Stirrup was part of the Bahamian immigration in the 1880s, when crops were failing in the Bahamas. Stirrup started in Key West where he apprenticed as a carpenter with his uncle. Later he moved up to Cutler Bay, eventually settling in Cocoanut Grove, the original spelling of the village before annexation. However, this was not before he returned to the islands to marry his childhood sweetheart Charlotte Jane. He brought her back to Florida, during an era when boats were the only efficient way to get around South Florida and the Caribbean.

Carpentry was a marketable skill, especially in a growing community that once had millions of board feet of Dade County Pine growing wild in what was still considered swampland. During the day, Stirrup would have hired himself out to the Peacocks, Commodore Monroe, or anyone else who wanted to pay his price. However, he also hired himself out to the Frow family to clear lots. The Frows were land rich, but cash poor, and could not always pay Stirrup in cash. Consequently, when Stirrup cleared a lot, he was deeded a lot. Eventually E.W.F. Stirrup became the largest landholder in Coconut Grove, which also accounts for how he became one of Florida's first Black millionaires.

If that were Stirrup's only accomplishment, it would be an impressive enough legacy. However, Stirrup created something in his lifetime that was unique to the United States. At one time Coconut Grove had the highest percentage of Black home ownership than in any other place in this country. This was due entirely to Stirrup's foresight. In the late 1800s he was espousing ideas almost heretical in the Jim Crow south. As Kate Stirrup Dean, Stirrup's daughter tells it:

"Father believed in every family having a house, a yard and a garden, so you would feel like you had a home. He felt that people became better citizens when they owned their own homes."

To that end E.W.F. Stirrup built more than 100 houses, with his own hands, at night, while Charlotte Jane held a lantern, on the streets surrounding his own. Long before the commercial center of Coconut Grove gravitated to Grand Avenue, Charles Avenue was not only the residential district, but it was also the business district of Kebo, the African name the original residents gave their neighborhood. Laundries and stores dotted the street.

At the other end of the Historic Roadway is the Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery, named lovingly after Ebeneezer Stirrup's childhood sweetheart and wife. At one time this was the only graveyard where Black folk could be interred in Miami. Over the last few decades a false rumor has grown up around the Charlotte Jane Cemetery. You'll find many links on the internet insisting John Landis filmed the graveyard scenes for Michael Jackson's Thriller there. However, these scenes were folmed on a backlot in Hollywood.

For all of these reasons tour buses run down Charles Avenue, the Historic Roadway, all year-round and far more often during Black History Month. While many people still remember the contributions of Miami's first residents in building the rest of The Magic City, this history is being lost as West Grove slowly gentrifies.

However, it's the E.W.F. Stirrup House that is in the greatest danger of being lost to mold, termites, and inattention. Lost along with it will be the legacy of Ebeneezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, a proud man who had a greater influence on South Florida than most others you can name. A Facebook page has been created to Save the E.W.F. Stirrup House for future generations. Hopefully, no one will have to explain to those future generations how this beautiful house could have been saved, but wasn't.
—Headly Westerfield

For more on the history of the E.W.F. Stirrup House and Charles Avenue, see the archives of Headly Westerfield's blog 'Not Now Silly' here.

· Happy Birthday Coconut Grove!!! Now Honour Your Past [notnowsilly.blogspot]
· Unpacking Coconut Grove: A Compendium [notnowsilly.blogspot]
· E.W.F. Stirrup House historic designation report [City Of Miami. Warning: PDF]
· Charlotte Jane Memorial Park Cemetery [notnowsilly.blogspot]
· Coconut Grove tree cutting near historic home has riled neighbors [Miami Herald]
· Coconut Grove developer fined after cutting down 100 year old trees along Charles Avenue [Miami New Times]