Community Voices, Politics, Village Life

Opinion: Preserve the Past. Let Villa Serena Stand

Iris Guzman Kolaya is native Miamian and researcher of local history. She wrote this opinion piece for the Spotlight.

Is nothing in Miami sacred?

In its constant quest for all things new, Miami has traditionally paid little attention to its past. From Henry Flagler on down the line, each new arrival seems to view the city as an empty canvas waiting to be painted anew. It is as if the city grid were a large Etch-a-Sketch, which, with a few shakes, can be wiped clean and ready to start over again. And yet, even by Miami standards, the recent news regarding the fate of Villa Serena is astonishing.

As the Spotlight highlighted yesterday (following an article in the Miami Herald by Andres Viglucci), it seems that Miami’s newest transplant, financier Ken Griffin, is exploring the possibility of moving the historic Villa Serena estate from its current waterfront location immediately south of Brickell to a new, underdetermined location elsewhere in the city. The startling idea proves, as if any proof were needed, that nothing in Miami is sacred, not even one of the few remaining historically designated estates on Biscayne Bay.

Writing for the Spotlight, longtime community advocate Andy Parrish suggested that we should set aside our shock, and instead accept the political and economic realities of the situation. While I am not naïve about the realities Parrish presents, I would argue the opposite. We need to fight to preserve the few architectural and historic gems that remain in our community. We should not accept the unacceptable.

Built in 1913 by statesman William Jennings Bryan, among the most famous Americans of the early 20th century, Villa Serena somehow managed to avoid the wrath of God (in the form of multiple hurricanes) and the greed of developers for more than a century, only now to find itself susceptible to the whims of a billionaire businessman. To be fair, the blame doesn’t lie solely—or even primarily—with Mr. Griffin. Miamians don’t need assistance destroying our history. We have managed to do that quite well on our own. But at what point is enough, enough?

As historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot observed, “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” It is high time Miami’s residents assert their power to preserve and protect Miami’s past and take elected officials to task for continually kowtowing to developers and those with financial means—individuals who have traditionally wielded extraordinary and nearly unchecked power over our physical landscape.

Interestingly, no one disputes the architectural and historic significance of Villa Serena. Even Griffin recognizes its importance to our community. If he truly wants to share this historic gem with the public, as his representatives have indicated, he can do so without moving the home an inch and jeopardizing the structure. Its location, perched atop the once-expansive Miami rock ridge, is an integral part of its legacy. Villa Serena is one of the precious few historic estates still intact on their original sites. Let this one stand.

It is up to taxpayers to hold Mayor Suarez, our city commissioners, and the Historic & Environmental Preservation Board (HEPB) accountable. We must take back the reins of preservation from those who see our past as a roadblock to progress, rather than the foundation for our future. 

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