October 4, 2022

PastForward Preview: Chris Rupp on Preservation in Miami-Dade County—The Magic City

In 2020 and again in 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation was poised to be in Miami, Florida, for the PastForward National Preservation Conference—before the COVID-19 pandemic changed our world.

While we are disappointed at being unable to share Miami’s remarkable history and preservation work with conference attendees in person, we are keeping the Miami story central to the virtual experience of PastForward Online 2022. This year, the key conference themes are: Historic Preservation is Climate Action, Encouraging Inclusion and Diversity Through Preservation, and Understanding Preservation’s Role in Real Estate Development. Miami is a perfect example of where these three priorities intersect in one place.

For insight about some of the impactful work happening in Miami that will be featured during the conference, we spoke with Chris Rupp, the executive director of Dade Heritage Trust whose mission is to “preserve Miami-Dade County's architectural, environmental, and cultural heritage through preservation, education and advocacy efforts.”

PastForward Online 2022 took place November 1-4, 2022.

Dade Heritage Trust is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2022. How has the work of the organization evolved over the past several decades?

Dade Heritage Trust started as a grassroots advocacy organization, working with governments, partners, and Miami residents to ensure the built symbols of Miami’s heritage had a place in the city’s evolution. Eventually through private monies and government grants, the organization assisted in the restoration and rehabilitation of publicly owned buildings. And, as historic preservation evolved, the organization’s mission expanded to not only include architecture but also environmental and cultural preservation.

When I came to Dade Heritage Trust in 2015, my goals were: promote the benefits of historic preservation, showcase the organization’s good works through public programming and partnerships, engage a more diverse audience, and most importantly, create a meaningful education program, all to position the organization in a manner so that our initiatives could help solve and address issues associated with the rampant growth of Miami.

How do the PastForward 2022 conference themes relate to the work of Dade Heritage Trust?

Through our broad mission statement, we engage in all three of these issues. We are addressing environmental preservation head-on with the presentation of our Miami Canopy Coalition initiative which is a study on the benefits of urban tree canopy and urban trees in general. Through a grant from the Miami Foundation, we hired a team of attorneys and policy experts to create a white paper (which actually turned into a book!), that serves as a tool for governments and urban planners on the how-tos of tree preservation and protection and green infrastructure. Additionally, we partnered with the University of Miami School of Architecture and School of Engineering by funding a workbook they created to educate owners of bungalows in East Little Havana as to how to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise.

In the realm of diversity—we are doing a lot. The architectural heritage of neighborhoods of diversity and color in Miami has largely been overlooked. Over the last two years, we received grants to survey/document the African American neighborhoods of Brownsville and Liberty City, and we are currently working on the creation of a federal historic resource area in Overtown.

We moved for and received historic designation for the Lawson Thomas Law Office in Overtown—Thomas was the first [Black] judge in the state of Florida and was heavily engaged in early civil rights issues. Also, this year, our Historic Places, Green Spaces K-12 educational program has added an African American Heritage program track, introducing students to three significant venues in Miami: the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum (Miami was the only city in the United States to have a segregated police precinct), the Hampton House (a former Green Book motel), and the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust (Miami’s segregated beach and the only place Black people could swim).

As for real estate development, our important survey work shows that the historic fabric and resources of older neighborhoods must be researched and acknowledged before massive zoning changes are made that could ultimately negatively impact the historic integrity, fabric, and culture of the area. Since 2016—in addition to our current survey work—we have conducted surveys and documented the neighborhoods of Little Havana, Silver Bluff, Coconut Grove, Allapattah, Shenandoah, and downtown Miami.

Our work with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2017 in Little Havana resulted in a re-look and eventual halt of proposed up-zoning the neighborhood.

View of storefronts in Little Havana, Miami, Florida.

Advocacy is one of the core goals of your organization. Can you tell us a little about how your recent advocacy work and partnership efforts address relevant current issues such as climate gentrification, development challenges, and the affordable housing crisis?

The most important work Dade Heritage Trust is doing right now is in the preservation of NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housing). In 2019, we went to our Miami-Dade County District 5 Commissioner, Eileen Higgins, with an idea to preserve historic buildings AND preserve the affordability they offer.

Little Havana is in her District, and we felt that our first project would champion our preservation cause and promote Little Havana as a National Treasure. She was sold on the idea and in the Miami-Dade County 2019-2020 fiscal year budget, Dade Heritage Trust was awarded a $1M grant to purchase and restore a multi-family residential building. We closed on the building in the summer of 2020 and are completing the final unit this month.

Since then, we have received another $1M and are in the process of purchasing our second building to preserve and make affordable. We have been assured that a minimum of another $1M is coming our way in this year’s budget. This is great work. We designate the building, preserve, restore it, and maintain affordability in a community where affordability is now considered a crisis.

With Miami-Dade County as our partner, this program has been a great example to the development community.

We are excited to share a little bit of Miami history and culture in the PastForward conference program this year. What would you like attendees to know about what makes Miami such a unique place to do preservation work?

Oh so much! The rate of growth, the people from everywhere who are crowding into this diverse melting pot who think Miami started the day they arrived! Miami has always been known as The Magic City because of the constant growth and change, and that is the beauty of Miami. Such a diverse population with so many stories and so many architectural symbols of that diverse heritage. The key is education. We can’t expect people to advocate for saving something they don’t know exists or don’t know the story behind it.

With people from everywhere, always looking for a fresh start, Miami is a place where an idea can be hatched and embraced and before you know it, that idea has come to fruition—just like our affordable housing idea.

There is a degree of openness and ingenuity in Miami that is so refreshing. There is no old guard.

Also, in terms of preservation, Miami is so rich because of our various styles of architecture, our proximity to Biscayne Bay and of course our population and rich arts community. In Miami, preservation is about the power of partnership.

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