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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
June 2018

Archaeological finds could mean historic designation at the former American Legion Post 29

SLegion_1ome Miami Upper Eastside residents thought that the American Legion Harvey W. Seeds Post 29 should be preserved as an historic structure. The 30,000-square-foot building was 49 years old, while the chapter itself -- part of a nationwide social organization for U.S. military veterans -- is now 100 years old. It was also adjacent to the 37-acre Legion Park, which has been designated historic by the City of Miami.

But the Post 29 building was never historically designated. Instead, demolition crews ripped it down in the fall of 2016, clearing the way for a future five-story apartment complex.

It turns out there’s still plenty of history on the site -- even some prehistory.

Since Post 29 was demolished, archaeologists have uncovered pottery shards, animal bones, a bone pin, shell tools, charcoal, glass, marble, kaolin pipe stems, an ink bottle, a circa-1898 nickel, and a toy cap gun. Some of the items discovered probably date back to around 500 B.C., a time in South Florida considered prehistoric by archaeologists, when the Tequestas inhabited the region. Others items dated between the 1880s and the 1920s, back when this area was part of a settlement known as Lemon City.

And they’re not finished. Even now, weather permitting, archaeologists from the Davie-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, a non-profit led by longtime archaeologist Robert Carr of Miami Circle fame, can be seen behind chain-link fences, methodically probing holes dug down to the bedrock. What they’ve found so far has been enough for them to declare that parts of the ground where Post 29 once stood are “potentially eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places,” according to a January 2017 report the conservancy filed with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department. The archaeologists have even given the site a name: 8DA15131.

“The cultural material associated with 8DA15131 has yielded and likely will yield more information on prehistoric and historic culture and subsistence in Miami-Dade County,” the report states. To obtain that information, Carr’s team recommended that the eastern portions of the 3.6-acre site be preserved. If that isn’t possible, they recommended “a Phase III archaeological assessment be conducted to document those parts of the site that will be affected by new development to act as mitigation for the loss of the site.”

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The report adds: “It’s also recommended that a sign be erected at the new development to interpret the site for residents and visitors.”

Brian Pearl, principal of Global City Development, says that he and his partners are following city protocol. Pearl also insists that the discoveries won’t interfere with plans to build a 237-unit apartment building on the property. “According to the archaeologist working on the site...to date there have been no findings that would prevent us from constructing our building as submitted to the city,” Pearl states in an e-mail to the BT.

Indeed, an archaeological management plan submitted by Archaeological and Historical Conservancy states that most of the trenches where artifacts have been discovered can be preserved within the project’s eastern boundary setback. The report also notes that few intact artifacts have been found on the western and southern parts of the parcel.

Those apartment buildings have been demolished, and so have the developers’ plans for a massive up-zoning. Following intense opposition from nearby residents, the Miami City Commission passed an ordinance banning the city from becoming a co-applicant with developers in pending “special area plans.” That effectively killed Global City Development’s hopes for building higher and more densely than current zoning would allow. Pearl states that his team will now simply build their project under those current zoning guidelines (see “City Finds Itself in Conflict with Itself,” July 2017).Uncovering ancient artifacts wasn’t part of the builders’ original game plan. Global City Development and its partner, Asia Capital Real Estate (ACRE), initially intended to build a 4.2 million-square-foot complex on 6.5 acres just south of Legion Park -- land that until recently also included 17 low-rise apartment buildings just west of NE 7th Avenue.

Even without the up-zoning, Global City and ACRE can still develop a 237-unit apartment building between NE 7th Avenue and Biscayne Bay that they’re leasing from American Legion Post 29 for the next 75 years. As part of that lease, the builders will give Post 29 a new facility within the apartment building as well as an undisclosed amount of cash.

Because the land is fronts the bay, the city’s historic ordinance required the developers to pay for the archaeological survey now under way.

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“An area is considered to be potentially archaeologically important if it’s by the mouth of the Miami River or shorelines of both sides of Biscayne Bay,” explains historian and BT contributor Paul George. “Early Miamians got around by canoes. They got around on water.”

They also tended to build their villages near the water, as did the Tequesta, a tribe that occupied the southeastern portion of Florida between 500 B.C. and 1762 A.D. It was the Tequesta who, some 2000 years ago, likely built the 38-foot Miami Circle, which was discovered by Carr and then-county archaeologist John Ricisak in Brickell in 1998.

The site by Legion Park is no Miami Circle. Rather it was probably an ancient dumping ground.

According to the conservancy report, the 8DA15131 site was part of the 35 acres claimed by William Temple Pent in 1885. In 1897, Pent sold part of his land to a Washington, D.C., scientist named S.K. Brown, who called his estate Rockland and grew pineapples, citrus, mangoes, guavas, pears, and sugar apples.

In 1910, Brown sold Rockland to Baltimore businessman William Ogden, a hard-drinking eccentric and colorful character. Ogden renamed the property the Tee House Plantation and, around 1915, converted Brown’s house into a coral rock mansion, where he entertained friends like tire magnet Harvey Firestone and silent movie star Billie Burke. (The name derived from the shape of the house, like the letter T.)

At least part of that mansion still exists today as Legion Park’s community center, which stands immediately north of the Post 29 site. The conservancy report also notes that part of the original concrete foundation of the Tee House extends into 8DA15131.

Eventually the Tee House Plantation grew to 45 acres. In the early 1920s, the estate changed hands again. This time the purchaser was Ed Ballard of Indiana, who ran the mansion as a restaurant and illicit casino and speakeasy. According to some reports, it also served for “a stint as a brothel.”

The illicit activities were enough for the State of Florida to seize the property in 1933. A year later, the state sold the Tee House Plantation for $1 to the Harvey W. Seeds American Legion Post 29, a chapter founded in 1919 and named after the first Miamian to have been killed in World War I.

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After the transfer, parts of the original mansion were demolished and the house was converted into Post 29’s clubhouse and meeting room.

In the 1960s, Post 29 sold its clubhouse and 37 acres of its land to the City of Miami for $862,000, which then turned it into a public park. Proceeds from the sale were used to build the 30,000-square-foot Legion Hall, which included a restaurant and bar, on land that the chapter still owned. By the 1990s, that bar, as well as the property itself, had become a popular venue for live music, rave parties, and drum circles -- until 2011, when code enforcement, spurred by noise complaints, shut down such activities.

During a recent visit, the BT encountered archaeologist Alan Noe working on the site. He couldn’t say much about what he’s found under the soil. “More often than not, we’re under a gag order from the developer,” Noe says. His boss, Robert Carr, confirms that in a brief phone interview with the BT. “We’re in an agreement with the developer where we cannot discuss or reveal the results or what we are working on in any detail,” Carr says.

Noe did mention that he found several items in the rubble that were apparently left in the building, including 20 American flags and binders containing Post 29’s financial records. “I was just kind of casually going through their records and as the years went on I could see there was a bigger [financial] problem,” Noe says. “There were more letters sent to people about collecting more dues and paying more dues.”

Noe also couldn’t comment as to whether the site would be preserved. He did, however, state that history wasn’t necessarily on the preservationists’ side. “I’ve been with this job for six years, and we’ve never won a case for preservation, even when we had sites that met the criteria for UNESCO World sites,” Noe recounts.

But Arva Moore Parks, a respected local historian and preservationist, says there is something that can be done: The city can designate the Post 29 site as historic, much like the city did with Legion Park back in January 2017, or as an archaeological zone. This would mean that any building permit issued at Post 29 must first be approved by the city’s Historic and Environmental Protection Board, Parks notes.

“I’m mindful of Bob Carr’s work,” Parks adds. “And if he says a site has archaeological value, then I would go with what he says.”

 

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