Doc Thomas House
Preserving the Past, Protecting the Future
Considered the crown jewel of storied Sunset Drive, the 91-year-old Doc Thomas House is at the center of a three-phase project focused on restoring and preserving the historic cottage that serves as Tropical Audubon Society (TAS) headquarters. The distinctive structure is a late example of Florida wood-frame vernacular architecture with Arts
& Crafts movement influences apparent in its ornamental woodwork and numerous built-in features.
It’s now going on a century since South Miami-area pharmacist Arden Hayes “Doc” Thomas hired Architect Robert Fitch Smith to design a house that would harmonize with its natural Pine Rockland setting. In restoring it, Smith’s original design and ethos — which included the use of native materials such as Tidewater Red Cypress, Dade County Pine, oak, mahogany, and oolitic and coralline limestone — are being honored.
Since being gifted to TAS by
Thomas upon his death in 1975, thousands of Miamians have visited the benefactor’s former home. The now-iconic landmark structure serves the community as a hub for South Florida environmental groups, a beacon of environmental advocacy and a charming, rustic repository of local history.
Although the Doc Thomas House is now a bona fide architectural treasure listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a state-designated Florida Heritage Site and a Dade County Historic Site, the
multiple effects of heat, humidity, hurricanes and daily use have taken a significant toll over the decades.
So, Miami-Dade County’s leading environmental conservation organization launched a $1.2M Capital Campaign to address the extensive needed repairs and restoration of the quaint,1932 cottage that sits just east of South Miami and south of Coral Gables in unincorporated High Pines.
Following a professional building condition assessment completed in the spring of 2019, TAS engaged R. J. Heisenbottle Architects, Douglas Wood Associates and Red Door Construction to get restoration of the 1,551-SF historic structure underway. Phase 1, encompassing critical repairs to the house’s sub-structure and putting on a new cedar shingle roof, has been completed.
Funding and completing Phase 2 will focus on
exterior and interior finishing work, while Phase 3 will concentrate on enhancing the Steinberg Nature Center, the 2.2-acre near-native grounds that are home to the Doc Thomas House.
Most of Phase 1 was accomplished with the financial support of private donors, The Villagers, Inc. and First National Bank of South Miami. “It’s a huge relief to have the essential, structural stabilization of the Doc Thomas House completed,” notes TAS Board member and Historian Dan Jones, “Yet there is much more to be done. We’ll need more private and public dollars to get us across the finish line,” he says.
An estimated $900,000 must be secured to meet the campaign goal and complete Phases 2 and 3.
“We launched our “Preserving our Past, Protecting our Future” Capital
Campaign to ensure our society’s historic house and wooded grounds will remain hubs for environmental activism and assets to the community for at least the next 90 years,” says TAS President José Francisco Barros. “It’s a big lift for our organization, but we’re counting on our philanthropic community to help us get it done.”
A literal green oasis surrounded by cheek-to-jowl retail and residential, the wooded grounds act as a magnet for those seeking sanctuary in Nature — a need felt all the more acutely during the pandemic lockdown. Visitors bird-watch, wander the trails that thread the Pine Rockland and Tropical Hardwood Hammock habitats, learn about gardening for birds and other pollinators, or bring a bite
to enjoy lunch in the shady picnic grove. For these reasons and more future Capital Campaign dollars will also support the implementation of a Master Plan to enhance the site’s natural beauty, upgrade or restore outdoor infrastructure and expand conservation education opportunities.
“Our Capital Campaign provides a unique opportunity to simultaneously support historic preservation, ensure environmental advocacy and sustain a “green island” in an urban setting,” Barros says. “Its benefits to wildlife and our community will be realized in perpetuity.”
PHASE 1 RECAP
In September 2020, Phase 1 was tackled in four stages over one year, working from the ground up:
Tropical Audubon Society’s Sunset Drive campus has been known as the Steinberg Nature Center since 2011, named in honor of the late environmentalist, birder, benefactor and board member Alan Steinberg. The Steinberg Nature Center trails are is comprised of Hardwood Hammock, rare Pine Rockland and pollinator habitats. The 2.2-acre Steinberg Nature Center grounds serve as a haven for wildlife and a mecca for humans seeking nature
1) House Foundation Repairs
2) House Structural Repairs
3) Porch Structural Repairs and Restoration
4) Roof Replacement
• Spalled concrete foundation piers were repaired and bolts connecting the piers to the floor frame were replaced where necessary.
• Damaged wood support beams and posts were replaced and/or reinforced beneath the house and around its perimeter.
• Any rotting cypress board-and-batten siding was replaced. Much of the “siding” is actually both the exterior and interior sidewalls of the house’s two wings. Therefore, the visible inner sides of the wood were then carefully stained to match the existing interior walls.
• The porch’s west side roof beams and sheathing were replaced as were any deteriorated support posts within the porch columns.
• The porch screening and screen door were removed to return the porch to its historically accurate appearance.
• Enhancements were made to the roof substructure and, finally, cedar roof shingles were installed. The new shingles closely resemble the original, wood-shingled roof.
• As the project progressed, metal strapping and brackets were attached between the different components of the house’s wood frame to provide additional structural support.
Doc Thomas House is now stabilized, “hardened,” and much better protected against the elements. In addition, the front porch rehabilitation/restoration and the roof replacement improved the house’s outward appearance and brought its front view closer to its original look.
To learn more about the Doc Thomas House and Tropical Audubon Society’s “Preserving our Past, Protecting our Future,” Capital Campaign go to https://tropicalaudubon.org.
Article by Hunter Renshaw
Photos provided by Tropical Audubon Society