When hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin announced plans to relocate his company Citadel to Miami last year, some predicted his presence—and subsequent bet on the local real-estate market—would shape the future of the city. Now, some local preservationists say Mr. Griffin is being cavalier about protecting the city’s past.
A proposal by Mr. Griffin to relocate a historic home on a site he purchased in Miami’s Coconut Grove for $106.875 million last year has become controversial in the community. Preservationists say a property of that level of historic designation, built around 1913 for three-time presidential candidate and onetime Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, shouldn’t be moved, outside of extreme circumstances. Mr. Griffin says moving the home, possibly to a city-owned site, would allow the public access to it for the first time since it was built over a century ago.
Richard Heisenbottle, the preservation architect who wrote the National Register of Historic Places designation report for the property and who restored the home for the previous owner, called the idea of moving it “disturbing.”
“Normally, properties that are listed on the register are only relocated when there is no other way to save them,” Heisenbottle said. “This is not just some house. This is truly a very, very special house.”
The William Jennings Bryan residence, known as Villa Serena, is one of two homes on a property Mr. Griffin bought from philanthropist Adrienne Arsht in September. Ms. Arsht used the roughly 5,000-square-foot Villa Serena as a guesthouse and built a larger primary home, named Indian Spring, on another part of the site. Preservationists say Villa Serena is a testament to the grand-estate days of Miami’s early history, when Coconut Grove was experiencing an economic boom. That boom was epitomized by the construction in 1916 of Villa Vizcaya, the winter home of industrialist James Deering.
One of the few homes still standing from that era, Villa Serena sits atop a portion of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge, a limestone bluff that drops 12 feet from the home’s elevation to the water’s edge. The house, which underwent an extensive multiyear restoration by Ms. Arsht after she bought it in 2007, is Mediterranean in style and finished in smooth stucco, with four, two-story towers with low pitched hip roofs, according to the historic-places report.
Inside, it has sunny, formal sitting rooms with arched entryways on the main floor, plus sweeping views of Biscayne Bay. Ms. Arsht’s furnishings included what is believed to be the home’s original dining table, found at the Women’s Club of Coconut Grove, as well as vintage pieces such as a shadow box of Bryan’s presidential-campaign buttons. Beside the fireplace, she placed a life-size cutout of Mr. Bryan, replicating a photo of him.
The home’s importance, preservationists say, stems from the man for whom it was built. Mr. Bryan was a three-time nominee for the presidency, in 1896, 1900 and 1908, but lost each time. He was a Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1915. Later in life, he served as prosecutor in the infamous Scopes “Monkey” Trial, where he argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The property was built as Mr. Bryan’s winter home on a site his family bought in 1912 from Mary Brickell, whose family was among the first to establish a home in Miami in the late 1800s, according to the historic-places report. He and his wife, Mary Baird Bryan, settled on Coconut Grove after looking on the West Coast and Northern Florida. The site was “an arborist’s dream,” according to a historic-preservation report by the City of Miami, with more than 80 varieties of trees and shrubs, including gumbo, wisteria, avocado and mango.
The house, designed and built for about $15,000, or nearly $450,000 in today’s dollars, was a refuge for Mr. Bryan from his political life. For the interiors, Ms. Bryan selected decorative Cuban tile, and for the fireplaces they chose rare Italian marble from a demolished mansion in Washington, D.C. Outside, they created a rooftop garden. The Bryans entertained prominent dignitaries, including President Warren G. Harding and jeweler Louis Comfort Tiffany.
To move the property, Mr. Griffin, 54, would have to get permission from the city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, which reviews applications based on standards outlined by the Secretary of the Interior, said Zia Ahmed, a spokesman for Mr. Griffin. The first step, he said, would be to present the plan to the board. If the plan is rejected, Mr. Griffin could appeal to the Miami City Commission.
Mr. Ahmed confirmed that the billionaire is evaluating the possibility of moving the property but that so far no site has been identified to receive it. While some speculate Mr. Griffin might seek to replace Villa Serena and the adjacent Indian Spring with a larger mansion, Mr. Ahmed said it is “too early to know” what, if anything, Mr. Griffin would build in its place.
The proposal follows Mr. Griffin’s relocation of his family and financial empire to Miami from Chicago, promising to infuse billions into the local economy. Citadel is building a new headquarters on the waterfront. In recent years, Mr. Griffin has purchased hundreds of millions of dollars in personal real estate, buying homes in Miami and Palm Beach. The billionaire and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez spoke together at the Economic Club of Miami in November 2022.
In June, the Mayor Francis Suarez had written on Instagram: “I want to give a warm Miami welcome to my friend, Ken Griffin, who I can now officially call a Miamian.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Suarez said the mayor isn’t getting involved in any plan to move Villa Serena but is in support of the project.
“The idea that the public could visit this historic house for the first time and for generations to come is incredible,” Mayor Francis Suarez said in a statement. “The citizens of Miami, South Florida, and visitors from all over the world would be able to appreciate firsthand its significance and beauty, so we hope this project moves forward.”
Mr. Griffin hasn’t made his proposal official by filing paperwork—early inquiries by Griffin’s representatives into the possibility of moving the property were leaked to the local press in December—but it is already rankling some locals.
“I’m always for development and progress, but in this particular instance, I think the preservation of this home [in its original location] is essential,” said Manny Angelo Varas, a local developer and builder at MV Group USA, whose homes have been purchased by the likes of the family of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. “I think it should be conserved for generations to come, so that our kids and grandkids will be able to understand our history.”
Preservationists reject Mr. Griffin’s argument that the move would result in public access to the house. If public access was his only goal, the hedge funder could open the property for tours for a few days a year, they said.
“I would suggest that you periodically run special events,” Mr. Heisenbottle said. “He doesn’t have to come and open the door himself.”
Mr. Ahmed advised seeking comment from architectural historian and author Randall Robinson, who describes himself as more open-minded about moving the house than others in the architectural conservation world. He suggested the home could be moved to one of the many bay front parks in Miami, where it could sit in a similar context in terms of landscape.
“It would impact its significance, I can’t deny that,” Mr. Ahmed said. “But moving it for the purpose of making it public, I believe, trumps those concerns. It’s not really a part of the community where it is now, where you can’t see it, touch it, go into it.”
Source: Mansion Global