Sunday, May 24, 2009

Venetian Pool Open Again!

Being so bummed out by the tearing down of St. Stephen's Church, I thought I do a new post on something very positive and uplifting. The Venetian Pool in Coral Gables is once again open to the public after a complete renovation that has left the site still looking like it did so many years before. Thank you Coral Gables, it is one of the few things left in Dade County that has been preserved and maintained in it's original beauty! The pool, so-named for its Venetian-style architecture, began as a rock pit for the stone quarried to build Coral Gables in the 1920s by city founder George Merrick. Today, its waterfalls, coral caves and grottos, architecture, loggias, porticos, sandy beach, cobblestone bridge and a palm-fringed ''island'' earned it a historic landmark designation in 1989.

Believe it or not, in the 1950s and 1960s pools in some one's back yard were a pretty rare sight. Only our neighbor Mr. Geigenshot, the president of Dade Federal Savings and Loan had the wealth and position to have one put in. Growing up in the Shenandoah part of Miami, we kids would jump on our bikes on hot summer days and head to the public pools in the area. Our hangout was the city pool next to the Boy's Club on SW 32nd Avenue. Painted a rather sickly shade of government green, it was a crowded venue with little aesthetics to redeem it. Of course, we loved spending the day there carousing with our friends and being warned for the umpteenth time by the lifeguard to cut out the horseplay! By days end, we headed home with a good sunburn and a strong smell of the over chlorinated water.

However, for a really special treat or some one's birthday or special occasion, we got taken to the Venetian Pool. It was like an island holiday at a ritzy hotel for us kids. Natural cold spring waters without a trace of chlorine and surrounded by what appeared like the backyard of a Venetian Palace. We could hide from the sun's rays in the beautiful grotto away from the prying eyes of the lifeguard and engage in all sorts of horseplay. Of course, this could lead to minor tragedies in our horseplay. My New York City cousin managed to crack his head open on the grotto's craggy roof as we fought a particularly vivid water battle. While much blood was spilled, it was just a minor scalp would that ended the day somewhat abruptly! We had a great time!

Friday, May 22, 2009

St. Stephen's Church-Another one bites the dust!

Once again, the rich and greedy of Miami, ignoring all pleas of preservationists and lovers of our community, have torn down an important historic building and a big part of my Miami memories. On May 5th of this year, in a stealthy and secretive move, the church elders called in the wrecking ball. Going back on their word to preservationist Arva Parks Moore and community leaders, they summarily tore down the 1912 church, the oldest in Miami. Their argument? Not good enough for the students, has a few leaks, blah blah get the picture. The real story? A deal with Jorge Perez and the Related Companies to build commercial space on the coveted MacFarlane location to line their greedy little pockets. Hardly news in Miami but still shocking that the religious leaders and community church members would do such a dastardly deed.

In 1958, now so many years ago, I attended St. Stephen's Episcopal Day School on it's inauguration. I have wonderful memories of that little school on the edge of Peacock Park where me and my buddies would run around playing our games and trying (unsuccessfully!) to stay out of mischief. I remember our headmaster Father Densmore herding all our classes to make the procession into the chapel every morning. The church was an anomaly in its day, a spacious airy structure that felt warm and filled with light all day long. It was in the Mission style and unique in a city of traditional stuffy churches of classical style. It would mark special events like when we went there to pray for the safety of the new Mercury astronauts. I actually liked to go to church every day! Not many 9 year olds could make that claim today!

When one gets older and begins to lose their immediate family, these pentimentos are what keeps us anchored to this world and feeling we are part of a greater family, a community of people tied by our common past and the physical spots that remind us of them. Preservation, therefore, is not just about keeping beautiful old buildings and monuments in place. Rather, it is about preserving our common memories and experiences and passing on a small piece of them to generations here and yet to come. To me the church was not just a wonderful old building meriting salvation but also a repository of all my memories of those early days of my youth, of Father Densmore and Mrs. Agnes Johnston, my fourth grade teacher. Of my buddies Vose Babcock, Nat Heiner, Brian Bowman, Malcolm McNaughton and Jesse Merritt. Of whatever surrounded that beautiful old church that was the Coconut Grove of my memories. Now it's gone. Shame on you Pastor Wilifred Allen Faiella! You may become a successful entrepreneur with your new venture but you have destroyed a beautiful thing.