We set up a committee of residents to explore the six waterfront properties that exist along Old Cutler south of the “Snowden Canal” and north of what is now Palmetto Bay Village Center. We ended up owning two of these, Thalatta and the Ludovici Park/Library/Community room complex.
It is a delight to finally have Thalatta Park reopened to the public, both for everyone to enjoy by sitting or walking by the bay, as well as providing a wonderful facility available for rental. I hope all of you will come to our “grand re-opening of the park” and see the newly refurbished Carriage House as well as substantial improvements made so that it is more suitable for public use. Both the property’s history and the history of how we acquired it are interesting.
The estate house was built in the 1920s by the Connett family who lived there for many years. They named their property “Thalatta,” an archaic form of the Greek word for the sea, known from writings of ancient history as the cry of a Greek Army that around 500 BC was defeated in Persia, and after a long retreat, saw the sea, which meant they were able to return home.
When we purchased the park we felt it proper to keep the original name. The house was built in the Mediterranean Revival style of architecture that was popular in Miami during the 1920s, using materials of hand-painted tiles and carved stones. The property has had several owners and suffered significant damage during Hurricane Andrew. A ship was blown ashore during the hurricane and landed on this property.
Edward Haas purchased the property in 2003 and applied to the village for a zoning variance. I remember the meeting well as it turned out to be a wonderful history lesson concerning the property and the surrounding areas. He started renovating it, but by 2004 he needed to sell it. He wanted it to remain a historically significant site and approached us concerning purchasing it.
We held a public meeting and the overwhelming desire of our residents was to buy it. The village arranged a five-year bridge loan from the Florida Land for Public Trust of $3.5 million to cover the cost of the purchase. We then started vigorously looking for grants to cover the cost. Clearly we didn’t have anywhere near that amount of money, being a newly formed village.
Our obtaining these grants is among the greatest successes of our new village. I remember going to Tallahassee in 2004, together with our mayor, Eugene Flinn; our previous village manager, Charles Scurr, and Olga Cadaval and Anna Garcia from our village staff. We made a major presentation to the Florida Communities Trust, a body set up with state funds that gives grants to municipalities for conserving and using endangered lands.
We were awarded a grant of $2.7 million. Through much hard work we also received additional grants of $500,000 from the South Florida Water Management District for giving them an easement for water flow on the eastern side of the property, a total of $380,000 in several grants from FRDAP (Florida Recreational Development Assistance Program), $120,000 from Miami-Dade Safe Neighborhood Parks, and $50,000 from the Florida Division of Historic Preservation. Our grants totaled $3.75 million totally covering the cost of acquiring the property.
We held several meetings to decide what to do with the property. The park was opened to the public in 2006, seasonally on weekends, for passive use as a bay front park. Our council decided that we wanted to preserve the historical nature of the building and hired an architectural firm, the Gurri Matute team, to give us plans for remodeling both the main building and the carriage house and maintaining their historical features. Much of the renovated property, as you see it now, flowed from these plans.
The inside of the carriage house was totally “gutted” and rebuilt. The main house, however, other than restoring part of the outside to its original appearance, is almost unchanged. The ground floor will be open to the public but the second floor needs considerable repair.
The total cost of renovation of the estate house was estimated at about $1 million and I hope that the present and future councils will find moneys to carry this out and both save and make this important historical building useful to the public.
We already have started saving funds for this when the previous council passed an ordinance that directed all moneys gained from rental of the property, minus expenses, to be used at the Thallata property, rather than mixed with the general funds.
The story of how this park and building were purchased and partly renovated is a clear example of the benefits of incorporation and what the citizens of our village and a motivated council can do when we all work together. I hope the future will show a continuation of this cooperation, with everyone looking out for the greater good.
Ed Feller, MD, is a former Palmetto Bay Village councilmember.