Billionaire owner wants to move Jennings Bryan’s historic Miami villa

By ANDRES VIGLUCCI Miami Herald – Dec 25, 2022 – in the Lincoln Journal Star

MIAMI — Billionaire and Miami newcomer Ken Griffin, who has received an effusive welcome from local politicians as he moves his Citadel financial empire here from Chicago, wants them to do something for him: Take one of the city’s most significant historic homes off his hands.

In September, Griffin bought the expansive bayfront estate of banker and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht for a record $106 million. The estate includes Villa Serena, the stately Mediterranean home of one of America’s most eminent historic figures, Progressive-era politician and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan of Lincoln. The private home, protected as a historic site under city preservation law and meticulously restored by Arsht, has stood imposingly for 109 years on a limestone ridge overlooking Biscayne Bay.

In an unusual bid that a leading Miami preservation architect called “a shock,” a Griffin representative got a city agency set up to fight poverty in Overtown and the old Omni district north of downtown to begin exploring taking Villa Serena as a “donation” and moving it somewhere else.

That initial contact prompted an official at the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency to take the representative, Miami architect James Wall, on a tour to identify a possible alternative site for the house, though all five of the city commissioners who oversee the agency said they knew nothing about it when contacted by a Miami Herald reporter.

Removing it from its historic site, appalled local historians and preservationists say, would strip the 1913 home of much of its significance and could cause damage or collapse. The house is among a handful still standing from the days when Brickell Avenue was lined with lavish bayfront estates and known as “Millionaire’s Row.”

A Citadel spokesman, Zia Ahmed, said Griffin hopes the historic house can be opened for public use for the first time, but that would require moving the villa off his newly acquired property, which includes an adjacent mansion that Arsht built.

Arsht spent a substantial sum on the restoration of Villa Serena, which she used as a guest house and for social events. The villa can be glimpsed through an arched gateway from the street.

“This is just an idea in the very early stages right now,” Ahmed said. “Ken’s team is exploring potential options wherein the general public would for the first time be able to visit and see this historic home at a different location.”

Ahmed said Griffin has a record of sharing historic and artistic treasures with the public, citing loans to museums from his art collection and his $43 million purchase of a rare copy of the U.S. Constitution that’s now on exhibition in Arkansas.

Details closely held

Because there is no formal proposal and no documentation, details of the potential move are hard to come by — including who in the city fielded the request from Griffin’s team or requested the involvement of the quasi-autonomous Omni group.

Ahmed, responding to questions from the Herald, put a reporter in touch with Wall, a Miami architect who said he is working as a consultant on the proposal. Wall said he approached the Omni group directly and without prompting from anyone because he knows the agency has a record of doing high-quality preservation work on historic buildings. He thought its administrators might be amenable to Griffin’s idea.

Ken Griffin, the founder and CEO of Citadel, on Nov. 5, 2014, in Chicago. E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune

“Their reputation is strong. It’s a great opportunity to open this house to the public, and I wanted to hear what their thoughts and process might be,” Wall said. ”It’s a complex project and I’m taking it very slowly to make sure the project is possible, and to do it right.”

Ahmed stressed that Griffin did not ask for and does not expect any special treatment from the city. Wall said he has no further meetings scheduled with city or Omni group officials for now.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, in a response to questions from the Herald about the city’s handling of the proposal, issued a brief statement saying he supports opening Villa Serena to the public, without elaborating or mentioning Griffin or the possible plan to move the house. Suarez last month led a “fireside chat” with Griffin in an appearance hosted by the Economic Club of Miami that news outlets like Bloomberg and Real Deal Miami described as boosterish and “gushing.”

“The idea that the public could visit this historic house for the first time and for generations to come is incredible. The citizens of Miami, South Florida and visitors from all over the world would be able to appreciate firsthand its significance and beauty so we hope this project moves forward,” the Suarez statement reads in its entirety.

Soledad Cedro, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Suarez did not ask the Omni group to consider the proposal, noting that he has no formal authority over the agency. Cedro said she could not elaborate further because she doesn’t know the details of Griffin’s proposal.

Griffin, 54 and worth an estimated $32 billion, is a major Republican donor who has backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely believed to be readying a presidential run. Suarez, a Republican in a nonpartisan post, is also known to harbor presidential aspirations.

The only public notice of Griffin’s intentions came in an item listed for “discussion” on the agenda for the Dec. 6 meeting of the city’s historic preservation board at the request of the Omni group, which later asked that it be postponed. Because the item was not up for a vote, the agenda contained no supporting materials or documents.

But Humberto “Bert” Gonzalez, executive director of the Omni group, told the Herald he was recently asked by his “superiors” to drive an architect representing Griffin around the area to find a new location for Villa Serena. Gonzalez declined to specify who asked him to do so. In a subsequent email in response to followup questions, however, Gonzalez called that a “misunderstanding” and said no one from the city instructed him to do anything. He said he was approached directly by an architect working for Griffin, but was not sure of his name.

Gonzalez said the idea is for Griffin to “donate” the villa to the agency and move it from its historic location, though at first he added he didn’t know what use the anti-poverty agency could put the villa to, nor whether the move would involve any public funds. By state law, a community redevelopment agency like the Omni group can spend money only within its legally defined boundaries, though historic preservation is an allowed expenditure.

He stressed discussions are “very preliminary” and nothing has been decided.

In the interview, Gonzalez said the agency owns little property of its own in the Omni group’s district and none that could be used to accommodate the large, two-story villa. And he added that logistics of moving such a historic structure would be daunting.

“Obviously, logistically to move a house that size, I don’t know how that happens. They said it could be done,” he said, referring to Griffin’s team.

Gonzalez also said he didn’t know why the Omni group in particular was chosen to look into the move, but noted the agency has extensive experience in saving historic structures, including its home, a restored 1926 Mediterranean firehouse, and the Dorsey Memorial Library, among others.

Preservationists appalled

Prominent preservationists and historians contacted by the Herald reacted with disbelief and consternation when told of the potential move of Villa Serena.

“This is unbelievable,” said Paul George, resident historian at the HistoryMiami museum, while laughing with incredulity.

William Jennings Bryan, who settled in Lincoln in 1887 to practice law, became known as a famed orator and leader of the populist wing of the Democratic Party. Journal Star file photo

“William Jennings Bryan was a larger-than-life figure in U.S. history,” he said. “It’s a very significant house. It’s very entrenched in that location. If you take it away from its original location, you take a lot of its historic context away. It’s just crazy.”

Leading Miami preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, who oversaw four years of painstaking restoration work on Villa Serena after Arsht bought the property, at first thought when contacted by the Herald that a reporter was joking.

“Oh, c’mon,” said Heisenbottle, who has also overseen restoration of Miami City Hall and downtown’s 1926 Olympia Theater. “The house has such a rich architectural history and cultural history, with the folks that created it and all the folks that have owned it.

“You just don’t move historic homes and put them in a petting zoo somewhere. This is really a shock.”

Christine Rupp, director of Dade Heritage Trust, Miami-Dade’s largest preservation group, said historic buildings should be moved only “for absolutely critical reasons.”

“Historic buildings are not relocated out of convenience,” Rupp said in an email. “Properties that are historic, like Villa Serena, may be privately owned but they embody the history of a community. That history belongs to all of us.

“One of the reasons Villa Serena is historic is its location, facing Biscayne Bay, along the ridge. To remove Villa Serena from its historic setting is to strip it of some of its critical elements.”

Arsht, however, said in an interview she has no issue with the idea of moving the house, though she did not speak to Griffin about it.

“I knew of the idea because the agents and the different teams had mentioned that he was considering it,” Arsht said. “I think if I had a problem with that I would have said no. But I don’t.”

The reason, she said, is that Jennings Bryan did not say much about the home’s yard or surroundings in his writings.

“He loved that house. His wife went to Cuba to pick up the tiles, which are magnificent. He does refer to bougainvillea over the entrance. He entertained there. They had tea on a Saturday and 1,000 people would come. That can be replicated on any piece of land,” she said.

“It’s a shame people can’t see the house. I felt that in moving it, there were more pros than cons.”

There is some evidence, however, that Jennings Bryan did care about the home’s exterior. “Working side-by-side with the laborers,” according to the city of Miami’s official designation report, he helped build the low stone wall that lines the property along Brickell Avenue. The report says he also left much of the native growth around the house in place, including 80 varieties of trees and shrubs, noting in a 1913 interview that “nature is the best landscape gardener after all is said and done.”

Heading to Miami

The city of Miami was just 16 years old when Jennings Bryan, seeking relief from harsh winters in Nebraska for wife Mary Baird’s arthritis, decided to build a winter home in what was then a rustic outpost. His arrival brought national attention to the nascent city. Villa Serena, whose architect is unknown, soon became Jennings Bryan’s year-round residence and a place of respite from the pressure of national politics.

A renowned orator who ran three times unsuccessfully for the presidency — in 1896, 1900 and 1908 — Jennings Bryan was a singular and complex figure in U.S. history. Called “The Great Commoner” for his sympathy with working people, he was a Democrat and leader of the pro-labor Progressive Movement. He opposed American imperialism and championed what in his day were considered radical positions, including the eight-hour workday, a minimum wage, the right of unions to strike and women’s right to vote.

Fairview, a residence at 4900 Sumner St. adjacent to the current Bryan East Campus, was the Lincoln home of William Jennings Bryan for 15 years. Nebraska State Historical Society

He served two terms in Congress from Nebraska and as secretary of state in the first two years of Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president, but, as a supporter of neutrality in World War I, resigned in 1915 when the president moved to intervene militarily in Europe.

Jennings Bryan was at the same time a conservative Christian who advocated for Prohibition and led the fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1925, he famously represented prosecutors looking to fine a Tennessee teacher in the Scopes Trial for violating a prohibition against teaching Darwinism and won the case, only to collapse and die days later. That ruling was later overturned on appeal.

Jennings Bryan, ranked No. 5 among the 150 Notable Nebraskans by the Lincoln Journal Star in 2017, arrived in Lincoln in 1887 to practice law.

Later, in Miami, he set down roots and became a familiar figure, teaching Sunday school to large crowds outdoors in a city park. He hosted presidents and other eminent guests at Villa Serena, and on Sundays, Miamians would gather at the bayfront below the home’s rear balcony, from where Jennings Bryan would address the dozens of visitors.

Jennings Bryan also was paid handsomely by Coral Gables founder George Merrick to fire up buyers in daily speeches at the Venetian Pool. Jennings Bryan’s daughter, Ruth Bryan Owen, for whom he built a home in Coral Gables that’s today also a designated historic landmark, went on to become a significant political figure in her own right as the first woman in Florida elected to Congress.

In the decades since Jennings Bryan’s death in 1925, Villa Serena was carefully nurtured by a succession of prominent owners, though Arsht said it had not been lived in for years when she bought the property in 1996. It was designated a protected historic and architectural landmark by Miami in 2007 and is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Slew of hurdles ahead

Should it advance further, Griffin’s plan would face significant jurisdictional, legal, political and logistical hurdles, starting with the difficulty in finding a suitable site for the house in the midst of a development boom that has driven up land prices — a trend especially evident in the Omni group’s district, which is zoned for high-rise construction and is seeing extensive new development.

The plan would require approval by the city’s historic preservation board and the city commission and would be logistically complex as well as risky. In 2003, the move of the original Miami High School, a compact wood bungalow, across a couple of blocks in Brickell required extensive planning, permitting, the closing of streets and disconnection of overhead utility lines. Preservationists also recall the collapse of half of a historic home into rubble in the mid-1980s as it was being moved in two pieces from the Omni district to Watson Island.

In addition, there would be questions about the Omni group taking a role in such a move, which so far has not been reviewed by the agency board.

The Omni group is overseen by the five-member Miami commission sitting as the agency’s board, and is independent from the city administration or city manager’s office. The board chairman, Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, said he had nothing to do with the proposal and knows nothing about it.

Commissioner Joe Carollo, the Omni group board’s vice-chair, as well as commissioners Christine King and Ken Russel also said they have nothing to do with or knowledge of a plan to move Villa Serena.

A city source with knowledge of Griffin’s proposal said the hedge fund financier has engaged Wall and a Stuart, Florida, company named Brownie Structural Movers to assess the potential move. The specialists have concluded it would be feasible to cut Villa Serena into vertical slices and transport it in pieces to a new site, where it would be put back together and restored once again, the source said.

Clearing Villa Serena off his property would obviously allow Griffin to expand the mansion Arsht built or erect a new mega-mansion, the city source noted.

Land newly unencumbered by a historic villa could also appreciate in value, and the house donation — and expenses related with relocation — would also allow a large tax write-off.

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