Tomorrow, April 7, is Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ birthday. In a lot of ways, she is my idol – conservationist, writer, feminist, activist for environmentally sustainable urban planning and civil rights. She is perhaps best known for her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass and her tireless preservation work for the Everglades.
Throughout most of her adult life, Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived with her cats in a 1926 cottage located at 3744 Stewart Avenue in Coconut Grove. The one-bedroom, 943 square-foot, wood-and-stucco structure was designed by architect, George Hyde. In her autobiography, Voice of the River, Marjory described her home:
I didn’t need much of a house, just a workshop, a place of my own. All I wanted was one big room with living quarters tacked on. I knew an architect, George Hyde, who drew up some plans. He mostly built factories, which was fortunate, because I hoped my little house would be as stout and as sparse as a factory with not much to worry about.
A minimalist before her time! According to her autobiography, the house had no air conditioning (it was built to capture the breeze), electric stove, or dishwasher – perhaps not even a proper kitchen until 1948 – and it still showed the exterior flood water mark from the 1926 hurricane. It also did not have a driveway because Marjory didn’t have a car and never learned to drive. Nevertheless, it was a popular gathering place for the writers and activists of the time. Friend and fellow reporter, Helen Muir wrote in her own memoir, “She would come up and have a sherry, and then I would walk her home, and then she’d walk me back, and we would have another sherry. What fun she was.”
The National Historic Landmark Nomination report lyrically describes the house:
The architectural character of the house is completed by a massive oak tree at its front façade that provides an umbrella of shade and vernacular domesticity to the entire house, complemented by the surrounding lush natural South Florida vegetation. The house has “the distinct look of an English country cottage,” writes historian Jack Davis of Douglas’s home. “Though hers was nestled in a tropical garden.” Douglas took inspiration from the tropical flora and fauna of both Coconut Grove and the home. The neighborhood was, and is, a “half garden, half community” covered by a rich canopy of palm trees and banyans. She especially admired the sweet smells of growing lime, grapefruit, and flowers that wafted across the community while “dashing blue jays,” woodpeckers, and songbirds flitted between the trees. The home is also closely surrounded by vegetation that provides constant shade and attracts wildlife. Douglas would often write while seated on the open back patio, listening to songbirds and marveling at the trees in the evening twilight.
In 1995, the City of Miami designated the house a historic site. After her death in 1998, Friends of the Everglades (a group she help found) wanted to turn the house into a museum and educational center, but neighbors objected with concerns about traffic and parking.
The house sat empty until November 2006, when the Florida Division of State Lands made plans to move the house to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens. The idea made some sense given Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ involvement with the gardens and that location’s ability to handle visitors to the museum; but amid concerns of damage to the house and the cost to move it, plus the objections of preservationist, friends, neighbors and 100 “Marching Marjorys”, that idea was also scrapped.
The feud, which is pitting neighbor against neighbor, preservationists against environmentalists, and many of the people who consider themselves Douglas’ friends against one another, has its roots in a kind gesture aimed at sustaining Douglas in her last years.
As Douglas celebrated her centennial in 1990, friends lobbied the Florida Legislature to purchase her property with the understanding that she would live there until she died. Then it would become a small museum to honor her simple lifestyle and remarkable life.
Though best known as the grand dame of the Everglades, Douglas also was a crusading feminist, civil-rights activist, journalist and author. She often held court in her book-filled home, which had no driveway, stove or air-conditioning.
Lawmakers were happy to oblige and coughed up $150,000 in 1991, giving the Florida Division of State Lands oversight of the property. In turn, the division entered into an agreement with the Dade land trust to manage it.
“She was really destitute in the end, and we wanted to help her in her old age,” said Susan Gruber, a former lawmaker who sponsored the bill in the state House. “She had done so much for the state.”
Blind and nearly deaf, Douglas would live seven more years, dying May 14, 1998, at 108. But even as the tributes from luminaries such as President Clinton and Gov. Lawton Chiles poured in, distrust and suspicion were poisoning the relationship between the land trust and Stewart Avenue residents.
In April 2007, the State of Florida appointed the Florida Park Service to maintain the house “as a lasting memorial to a remarkable woman who saved the Everglades.” While giving an Earth Day speech in the Everglades on April 22, 2015, President Barack Obama announced that Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ Coconut Grove home had been designated a National Historic Landmark. No further plans have been made, so for now the little house that Marjory built sits in the garden she loved so well. Happy birthday, Marjory Stoneman Douglas
If you are as obsessed with historical architecture as I am and want a more detailed description of the house, here you go: Marjory Stoneman Douglas House National Historic Landmark Nomination