South Miami’s treasured neighbor, Tropical Audubon Society is celebrating its 75th Anniversery this year, and the Doc Thomas House on Sunset, its 90th.

South Miami’s treasured neighbor, Tropical Audubon Society, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, kicking off the festivities with a three-day Earth Day Weekend party (see “In & Around Town”)

The grassroots nonprofit environmental organization known as “South Florida’s Voice of Conservation” is headquartered in the historic 1932 Doc Thomas House, located just 1 block east of Red Road. Many locals have passed the unassuming board-and-batten cypress cottage at 5530 Sunset Drive hundreds of times without noticing it. This is the year to get to know the society that does so much for local flora and fauna, along with advocating for Miami-Dade County’s drinking water supply.

Our local chapter of National Audubon Society was established in 1947, a seminal year in South Florida conservation. Along with the society’s founding, 1947 saw The Everglades: River of Grass published by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and the long-awaited dedication of Everglades National Park — three milestones that brought regional environmental issues to the fore.

The often-elusive Painted Bunting, pictured here among Blanketflower, is drawn to native landscapes. [Photo: Simon Tan] 

Tropical Audubon president, José Francisco Barros, says the society’s mission to “conserve and restore South Florida’s ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats,” has shaped its advocacy work then and now. “We’re marking our 75th with an unrelenting focus on helping propel Everglades restoration and protection of Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay, and Pine Rocklands.”

The society’s mission has its roots in early 20th century South Florida history. Plume hunters had been exploiting the wealth of birds nesting in Florida’s vast wetlands for decades. Entire colonies of herons, egrets and spoonbills were being decimated. Miamians were compelled to take a stand. The fledgling Cocoanut [sic]Grove Audubon Society that formed on April 16, 1915 would play a significant role in protecting remaining waterbird populations, and achieving national park status for the Everglades. It was after a WWII hiatus that its members regrouped to form Tropical Audubon Society.

Ever since, Tropical Audubon has remained on the frontlines of South Florida conservation and environmental protection issues — from helping defeat a proposed Jetport in the Big Cypress last century, to presently standing firm against the expansion of SR-836 beyond the Urban Development Boundary, and advocating for Sea Level Rise mitigation. 

Another important date for the society was December 31,1975—the day that South Miami pioneer Arden Hayes “Doc” Thomas died. He left the 1932 Doc Thomas House and its 2.2-acres to Tropical Audubon. Now deemed an authentic relic of Old Florida, it was designed by architect Robert Fitch Smith in the Cracker-style with Arts & Crafts Period influences. 

Tropical Audubon Society offers a diverse lineup of outings and programs, including birding,
butterfly and field trips — from local forays to grander international adventures.

The charming cottage has earned recognition as an architectural gem locally and nationally. On its 50th birthday in 1982 it was designated a historic site by Dade County; it was then listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2014; and it earned Florida Heritage Site status in 2016. Be sure to stop and read the Florida Historical Marker that stands sentinel in the cottage’s pollinator-friendly front yard. 

A gracious open-air front porch frames the cottage entry. The original front door opens to the expansive, vaulted tidewater red cypress-lined living room designed by Fitch to wow guests of the day.
A mahogany-pegged oak and walnut floor, and a towering limestone fireplace anchor the impressive room. Built-in benches feature hideaway storage. A dining alcove, evocative of an inglenook, is tucked between the fireplace and kitchen. Ornamental saw-tooth and scalloped woodwork designs are repeated indoors and out. 

The historic cottage and near-native grounds — alive with birdsong and threaded with nature trails — have provided an ideal setting to educate, entertain and engage the community for going on 50 years. On-campus events include Bird-friendly Gardening Days and guided House Tours, Bird Walks, Conservation Concerts, Bird Day, BEE-cause Flea, alfresco dinner parties (April and November bookends called Walk in the Woods with Wine & Whisk), Members Migration and the annual Go-Native Plant Sale.

Young naturalists learn bird identification at the annual Bird Day event at Tropical Audubon Society’s
Steinberg Nature Center.

Locals can take advantage of Tropical Audubon’s free, weekly guided bird walks from August through May, and/or dig in with master gardeners once monthly to learn about bird- and pollinator-friendly landscaping. Concerned citizens can also participate in the society’s Lights Out Miami campaign, designed to minimize bird deaths during Spring and Fall Migration. Environmentalists can sign up for the free Tropical Audubon Ambassador program, an adult environmental education and advocacy program. (Visit for calendar listings.)

Last year, the society took the Cape Florida Banding Station under its wing, fortifying South Florida’s longest-running community science project at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on Key Biscayne.

This year, Tropical Audubon is launching the community phase of its $1.2M Capital Campaign to restore its historic Doc Thomas House and showcase its near-native 2.2-acre Steinberg Nature Center campus. Seed money from private donors got the campaign off to a roaring start, but the cottage still requires additional restoration. Campaign resources will also fund a grounds master plan. R. J. Heisenbottle Architects, Douglas Wood Associates and Red Door Construction have been engaged to restore the 1,551-SF cottage that’s considered the crown jewel of storied Sunset Drive. (Call 305-458-5557 to contribute.)

Readers can get involved with Tropical Audubon Society at many levels — from purely enjoying the festivities it hosts to volunteering in various capacities (Mistress of the Bird Baths anyone!?), to proactively supporting its nonpartisan conservation activist role in our community. Or just pack lunch and enjoy it in the shady picnic grove behind the house, or walk the nature trails between dawn and dusk. Tropical Audubon has something for everyone, and its pedestrian gates are always open.

The quaint Doc Thomas House cottage, completed in 1932, is now an architectural treasure listed in the National Register of Historic Places; it’s also designated as a Florida Heritage Site and a Dade County historic site.

Captioned photos provided by Tropical Audubon Society


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