Villa Serena Labeled Historic Home
Written by Risa Polansky on October 11, 2007
By Risa Polansky
Brickell Avenue’s Villa Serena, former home of noted orator and politician William Jennings Bryan, has been flagged for historic designation in the midst of the owner’s attempts to sell the waterfront property.
Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board last week ruled "that the property met the criteria for designation, and they instructed staff to proceed with the full designation report," said Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, preservation officer.
In the interim, "there’s a protection for buildings while they’re being considered," she said, preventing anyone from demolishing the house.
The pending designation "did affect the first sale" of the home, 3115 Brickell Ave., said Jorge Uribe of Sotheby’s International Realty.
"The house was under contract and is no longer under contract because of historic designation," he said.
The bay-front home is listed at $12.9 million.
A "very wealthy individual from out of town," who Mr. Uribe declined to name, "was going to tear it down — he wanted to build something new. The historic designation simply limited him too much, so he decided to move on to something else."
The request to deem the home, a historic structure came from "several organizations and individuals," Ms. Kauffman said, including the Dade Heritage Trust.
Until now, "it just never has gone through the full process, the designation process," she said.
But it should, said Arva Moore Parks, local historian and chair of the Miami Planning Advisory Board.
Villa Serena represents the "last piece of the original Brickell Avenue," she said, and may be "the most important unprotected residence in Miami."
Prominent South Florida architect August Geiger, who built the first public school in Homestead, the clubhouse for the Miami Beach Municipal Golf Course and the original Miami City Hospital, built the Bryan house in about 1914, Ms. Kauffman said.
It sits only three doors down from national landmark Vizcaya, Ms. Moore Parks said, next to the former home of early Florida Gov. William Sherman Jennings, cousin of William Jennings Bryan.
Actor Sylvester Stallone once lived between Vizcaya and the former governor’s residence, she said.
The listing for the seven-bedroom, six-bathroom home touts a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to "restore or build your new family compound."
But historic designation could limit an owner’s ability to alter the property.
"Historic preservation does not necessarily take away all economically viable use," said Toby Prince Brigham of Brigham Moore, an eminent domain and property rights law firm with offices in Coral Gables and throughout Florida.
However, "it may impose limits on the property, which would reduce its fair market value by limiting its use," he said.
Should that be the case, Florida’s Bert J. Harris Private Property Rights Protection Act specifies, he said, that a property owner must be compensated "if any government action directly limits the use of property and causes a loss of fair market value, which is an inordinate burden on the owner, and which, in fairness, should be borne by the public as a whole."
Mr. Uribe is optimistic that, while designation would eliminate many potential buyers, "just because it’s designated historical, is the value going to plummet? Not necessarily."
Though it makes the house "less appealing to the mass" because its low ceilings and small rooms don’t suit today’s market, the high price already narrows possible buyers, he said.
The historic home may still appeal to "a special piece of buyers from the Northeast who appreciate something historic," he said, and are looking for a second home.
"As a place to come spend a winter vacation or a Thanksgiving," he said, "the property itself is magnificent."
Already, Mr. Uribe said he has a "very interested party" that is "interested in keeping it (the home) as is, basically restoring it."
The William Jennings Bryan house is to be considered for final designation in early December, Ms. Kauffman said.
Mr. Bryan, a populist best known for his three runs for US president and his service as the anti-Darwinism prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey trial, likely came to Miami for the weather after spending years in Nebraska, Ms. Moore Parks said.
Here, she said, he hosted "Sunday schools" that served largely as a tourist attraction in the former Royal Palm Park, now Bayfront Park, that drew about 16,000 listeners.
Coral Gables founder George Merrick paid Mr. Bryan $100,000 to speak daily at the Venetian Pool on topics such as the value of Florida real estate, she said, and he is credited with the idea of creating a local pan-American university: the University of Miami.
William Jennings Bryan died in 1925.