Conservationists’ prayers to save a religious-themed garden in Coral Gables went unanswered, paving the way for the garden, adjacent church and a school to be leveled and replaced with a 10-story luxury apartment building.
The Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board voted 6-2 Wednesday to reject the Garden of Our Lord at 110 Phoenetia Ave. to be considered historical. The history of the garden dates back to 1951 after it was commissioned by St James Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is the product of architect Robert F. Smith, the same mastermind behind some of the buildings at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and the Doc Thomas House, a relic of old Florida and home of Indiana transplants, and the South Miami pioneer and pharmacist, Arden Hayes “Doc” Thomas, who ran a drugstore in the Gables in the 1920s.
According to the garden’s history, many of its trees and shrubs were grown from seeds Hazel Westby brought from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem in the early 1950s. At the time, Westby was a professor at the University of Miami and living in Coral Gables. Westby is said to have been on leave from university to teach at the American University in Beirut when she acquired the seed. Based on the seeds she brought home, many of the trees in the garden now date back over 2,000 years to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The church was considered for historical designation in July 2021, but did not meet the required criteria, according to the City Preservation Office. Century Homebuilders then stepped in and bought the property from the church in November 2021 for $9.8 million. The developer submitted a comprehensive plan map and site plan in January 2022.
“When we designate, we need to designate everything within this property,” said Michael Maxwell, a member of the Historic Preservation Committee, noting that the buildings do not meet historic designation criteria.
Century, a Coral Gables development company, told city officials early last year that it was renovating the 1.5-acre property that includes the garden, the now-closed St. James’ Church and the Crystal Academy behavioral therapy school for children with autism. redesign wants to build 200 apartments there. The site is just steps away from the Coral Gables Woman’s Club.
The developer has apparently promised Crystal Academy some space on the property, according to the company’s website and comments made by people connected to the school during Wednesday’s historic review board meeting.
The proposed residential development on Phoenetia Avenue will align the site with the original vision of Coral Gables founder George Merrick, a factor that prompted some members of the Historical Preservation Committee to vote against preserving the site, which includes the garden, church and school. Original plans for the city stated that Merrick intended this block of Phenetia to be residential rather than a park.
A Miami Herald reporter was unable to reach a Century Homebuilders representative Thursday to provide a timeline for construction and completion of the apartment building, among other things.
Coral Gables resident Bonnie Bolton, daughter of the late feminist and civil rights activist Roxcy Bolton, petitioned the board in December to keep the garden, or 20% of the property. Bolton claimed during Wednesday’s meeting that the garden should be preserved for a number of reasons, including the fact that it was designed by Smith. She and other residents who prefer historical designation wanted to preserve the garden because it is “sacred space” and have the developer build around that part of the property.
“Our Lord’s Garden exceeds the city’s criteria for historic designation, culture and history. We applied under nine different criteria when only one is necessary,” Bolton told board members on Wednesday.
Several board members urged the developer and preservationists to continue discussions and explore whether statues and plaques commemorating veterans can be salvaged from the garden.