Does The White Hand Know What The Left Hand Is Doing?

At the east end of Charles Avenue in Coconut Grove, Florida are two festering, open wounds: The Coconut Grove Playhouse and the E.W.F. Stirrup House.

I’ve written extensively about the historic 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House, but far less about the 86-year old Coconut Grove Playhouse. In the beginning, despite them being catercorner from each other, I assumed they were two separate stories. My focus has always been in saving the E.W.F. Stirrup House, so I just put the Playhouse out of my mind. I concentrated on learning everything I could about the E.W.F. Stirrup House and Mr. Stirrup’s amazing legacy.

That the Coconut Grove Playhouse was undergoing the exact same kind of Demolition by Neglect as the Stirrup House, seemed like a bizarre coincidence. However, through my research I’ve come to realize two things: 1). Many of the same people are involved in both the Stirrup House and the Playhouse; 2). There are no coincidences in multimillion dollar real estate deals.

While the same rapacious developer claims effective control of both properties — and the same I’ll-do-anything-for-any-developer-City-of-Miami-Commissioner appears poised to help any way he can — something far more important connects the Coconut Grove Playhouse and Mr. E.W.F. Stirrup.

History is complicated: In the years just before Miami annexed the sleepy little village, the power-brokers of early Coconut Grove (read: White folk) drew up the Bright Plan, an ambitious building project that would have transformed the downtown area with Mediterranean-style fountains, a Mediterranean-style town hall, and a large golf course. Nothing ever came of the Bright Plan because the bottom dropped out of the Florida real estate market and Miami annexed Coconut Grove. However, one building from the Bright Plan was actually built: The Coconut Grove Playhouse, hence the faux Mediterranean-style architecture. E.W.F. Stirrup may have felt it was worth selling off a sizable plot of land (of what had traditionally been the Black Grove) to bring culture to Coconut Grove.

Mr. Stirrup had to walk less than 250 feet from his front door to the box office of the Playhouse. I wonder, as I always do in cases like this, whether Mr. Stirrup was allowed to go inside the movie theater he allowed to be built. Movie theaters in those days, if they allowed Black folk at all, were strictly segregated. Black seating tended to be in the upper balconies. I have yet to find the information that would answer these questions for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, but it’s interesting to speculate based on what is known about the period.

White hand, Black hand; Left hand, Right hand

Members of the Coconut Grove Chamber of Commerce in front of the
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 1946, when the building was already 20 years old.

Tonight the right hand and the left hand might as well be in two separate time zones. At 6:00 PM, in White Coconut Grove, Richard Heisenbottle will be presenting architectural drawings of a renovated Coconut Grove Playhouse at a private yacht club. Heisenbottle is well-known for his historic renovation work, which includes the Trapp Homestead in Coconut Grove. Heisenbottle also took part in a Coconut Grove Playhouse Charrette of several years back. No telling whether these designs sprung out of the charrette or are wholly new designs and ideas for the site.

Almost as if there is a competition, at 7:00 PM, in Black Coconut Grove, the Charles Avenue Historic Preservation Committee meets. Among the topics that will hopefully come up at that meeting are the E.W.F. Stirrup House and historic design elements for the Charles Avenue Historic Designation Roadway, a title the street picked up last year.

There’s just one problem: The Coconut Grove Playhouse and the E.W.F. Stirrup House are both on Charles Avenue. These two historic community resources have to be part of the same holistic vision in order to save the unique character of West Grove. However, that will never happen if these groups don’t start talking to each other. The Playhouse people seemed unaware of the Charles Avenue Historic Preservation meeting and the Charles Avenue Preservation people were unaware of the Playhouse meeting.  

IRONY ALERT: The Coconut Grove Village Council was unaware of both meetings. It’s been a well-established pattern for the City of Miami to keep the Coconut Grove Village Council in the dark. It didn’t learn about Trolleygate until the ground had already been broken and the foundation poured. Commissioner Marc D. Sarnoff admitted to purposely making an end run around the Village Council during Trolleygate, and that wasn’t the first time either.

Looking west along Charles Avenue from the back of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The Charles Avenue historical marker is on the right and the stately, 120-year old E.W.F. Stirrup House on the left.

Coconut Grove could become the jewel of south Florida, if only the Right Hand knew what the Left Hand was doing and if only the White Hand knew what the Black hand was doing. I’m learning that Coconut Grove is just segregated that way, the way it has always been.

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