When Bahamian immigrants settled in South Florida in the late 1800s, they brought with them their techniques and style of building. Since South Florida’s terrain was similar to that of the Bahamas, the settlers understood how to build on the rocky soil using the local materials of pine wood and coral rock for construction. Their houses were sturdy and built to endure hurricanes and flooding. The early Bahamians not only used these building methods for their own houses, but also influenced white settlers to build with the local materials (Novoas pg. 6-7).
George Merrick, founder of the City of Coral Gables and former president of the Historical Association of South Florida, wrote in 1941:
I believe these Bahamians had a most distinct and important influence. They had built their homes on their own island…and they brought here their skill of masonry building. Today, some of the oldest buildings in Coconut Grove and Old Cutler are of the same construction, which has been in use for over one hundred and fifty years in the Bahamas. Built without cement, with only native lime mortar, these houses have withstood countless hurricanes...
The design of the Bahamian-influenced West Coconut Grove houses reflected who they were as a people, and “most of the houses had front porches and were very close to one another with no setback from the street” (Novoas pg.12). As noted in Marina Novoas’ Charles Avenue Designation Report:
Their houses were constructed so that one doing chores inside could easily keep their eyes on children playing in the backyard and be aware of who was coming or going on the street. All of the activities were outdoors, interacting with the community, with the house merely providing shelter.
Frank Stirrup, an original Bahamian settler, built many of the first homes in Coconut Grove, and sold them at affordable prices to his community (Placensia pg.4). The architecture that Stirrup followed was shotgun-style. Novoas says, “The name ‘shotgun’ was given because of the typical alignment of the house’s doors; supposedly a bullet fired at the front door would pass straight through the house and out the back door.” The original shotgun-style house was brought from Africa to Haiti and other Caribbean islands including the Bahamas.
The impact of Bahamian culture on the West Grove architecture is clear. In her essay entitled, “The Bahamian Influence on the South Florida Shotgun House," Denise Andrews says:
The history of the African People suggests that members of a community were families, or clans--a single lineage. The communities were composed of one head of household and the extended family members of household--which could be hundreds of people. Compounds were created so that families could live together communally. Traditionally, there was no concept of privacy or single mindedness as we know today. Family and family life was central, intimate and communal.
It is evident through both my written research and oral history interviews that the original, tight-knit West Coconut Grove community was affected by the close proximity and style of their homes, as well as the design of their neighborhoods. Their built environment reflected their identity as a people.
This background would be incomplete without addressing the racial history of the time. The early community of Bahamian settlers had an agreeable relationship with white settlers in the years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was no distinct segregation, and blacks and whites came together in the community, particularly at church (Placensia pg.8). Unfortunately, as Miami began to grow, city leaders wanted to annex Coconut Grove to create what they called Greater Miami, the biggest county in Florida. Although Coconut Grove residents strongly opposed this, the annexation still took place in 1925. After the annexation, the southeast "White Grove" thrived with new industry while the northwest "Black Grove" was neglected and given fewer and fewer resources by the city. The racial divide was obvious, and although no physical wall between the neighborhoods existed, they were separated by a disconnected street grid which restricted interaction between the two areas. Ultimately, wealthy landlords bought up West Grove property, built multi-family homes, then abandoned them, leaving the area to deteriorate. The annexation was a pivotal moment in that it fragmented the strong, energetic community that the West Grove once was (Novoas pg. 13).
My background research also focused on the communicative role of architecture: the influence of culture on architecture and how the built environment shapes members of a community. I gained insight into how architecture can affect social interaction and human behavior as well represent a society’s values.