by Jeff Blakley
The Town of Homestead was incorporated on January 27, 1913 but its officials had no municipal building in which to meet. They met at two different buildings before the Town Hall was built in 1917: Tatum’s Real Estate office on Railroad Avenue (Russell F. Tatum was Homestead’s first mayor) or in Sistrunk Hall, which was a wooden building located just west of the Bank of Homestead building. Sistrunk Hall was built in May of 1912, shortly after construction began on the Bank of Homestead building in March of that same year. It was built by Edward A. Sistrunk, who may have been from White Springs, Florida. He was in Miami as early as 1907, when he married Eva Lenora Carter. It is unknown when he came to Homestead, but his wife was a member of the Homestead Sewing Circle (the predecessor to the Homestead Women’s Club) in 1912 and he was the Chief of Police of Homestead in 1916. In 1912, according to a manuscript found at the Florida State Archives by Dr. Greg Bush of the University of Miami, Mr. Sistrunk owned the Homestead Grocery (now the home of Ages Ago Antiques) and sold it to W. J. Nobles who, in turn, sold it to Charles T. Fuchs, Sr., the founder of Fuchs Bakery. His son, Charles T. Fuchs, Jr. moved the business to Railroad Avenue (now Flagler) and then bought a franchise from Holsum Bakery and moved the business to South Miami. Sistrunk Hall was where various fraternal orders and community groups met and it also had a movie theater which pre-dated the Seminole Theater. Sistrunk Hall, like so many other wooden buildings of that era, burned down in the early morning hours of August 31, 1916.
According to an article that appeared in the February 8, 1917 issue of The Homestead Enterprise and the minutes of the meetings of the Council of the Town of Homestead, William J. Krome, representing the owners of the Commerce Addition, proposed a location for the new Town Hall on Krome Avenue north of Mowry. The Commerce Addition had been surveyed by Richard L. Bow, the son of Lily Lawrence Bow and platted by William J. Krome on September 30, 1914. George W. Hall, part of a group of men including William H. Sykes, William Nobles, Fred Loomis, Tom Evans, Frank J. Powers, A.T. Jackson, David Sullivan, William A. King, William O. Bryant (later the first police chief of the City of Homestead) and Garland M. Budd proposed a location in the 250 – 400 block of S. Krome Ave. Conveniently enough, that location was part of George W. Hall’s Hall’s Addition (Book 3, Page 73) to Homestead. There was a considerable amount of time devoted to discussing the location for the new town hall before the Council narrowed down their options to either lots 7 and 8 ($700) or lots 11 and 12 ($600) of Block 1 of the Commerce Addition. By a vote of 4-3 on February 7, 1916, the Council decided to build the new Town Hall on lots 7 and 8 of Block 1 in the Commerce Addition. $300 towards the cost of the lots had been promised by City Auditor Sid Livingston from “the citizens to apply to the purchase of either of the two propositions.”
The Commerce Addition plat is available from the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts website – it is in Book 2, Page 97. William J. Krome was acting as attorney in fact for W. D. and Ida V. Horne, J. E. and Alice R. Miller (Miller’s Addition to Homestead – July 30, 1912, Book 1, Page 147), R. F. and Jessie Tatum (Mayor of the Town of Homestead, a lawyer and owner of a real estate company) and his wife, Isabelle B. Krome. These people were the owners of the property when it was platted.
The Commerce Addition was later purchased by the Homestead Realty Company and was assessed at $6,900 on a delinquent tax list published on August 16, 1917. The officers of The Homestead Realty, Farms & Investment Company were Henry R. Pridgen, President and Director; Archie J. Campbell, Vice President and Director; Russell F. Tatum, Secretary, Purchasing and Sales Agent and Director; Thomas A. Campbell, Director; and Henry Brooker, Sr., Director. It was incorporated on August 26, 1916.
It seems as though there was quite a political struggle over where the Town Hall was to be located. The Homestead Realty Company was the winner and Hall’s group were the losers. No doubt, it didn’t hurt that there was a sum of money proffered to influence the Council in their deliberations.
In August of 1917, George W. Hall traded his property in the Homestead area, consisting of 6 homes, 14 vacant lots and 40 acres of land in the Redland to Charles H. Woodbury for land in North Dakota (where Woodbury was from) and moved north.
The new Town Hall building was designed by Harold Hastings Mundy, who was born in 1878 in Ontario, Canada but never became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He died in 1932 and is buried in the Hamilton Cemetery in Ontario, Canada. Mundy was a Dade County Schools architect who designed, among other schools, Coconut Grove Elementary, Robert E. Lee Junior High, and Miami Edison High.
The contract to build the town hall is among the documents that belong to the City of Homestead. That contract, costing $4,418 plus the cost of the doors, was awarded to John F. Umphrey on February 5, 1917. He was the low bidder, having come in below a bid from a Miami company for $5,600 and a Florida City company for $6,574. Umphrey was a local contractor who built a number of local buildings, including what is now known as Neva King Cooper School. Two buildings that he built that have been demolished were the George W. Hall residence at 304 S. Krome Avenue, the first California Mission Bungalow built in 1916 and Homestead High School, demolished in the 1970s. He also started the construction (but did not finish – he was fired by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs) of the Lodge in Royal Palm Park, which was moved to Homestead in the late 1950s. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and demolished..
The Town Hall building was mostly completed by August, according to an article that appeared in the August 16, 1917 issue of The Homestead Enterprise, but it did not have a septic tank yet. Fred Gidloff was awarded the $275 contract for the septic tank on December 3, 1917 and completed it on April 1, 1918. The lack of sanitary facilities didn’t stop town officials from moving in, however. Business was conducted in the new town hall from early September, 1917 on. The first floor, where the fire truck is now on display, housed the fire and police departments. In the rear of the building were four jail cells for white people. There was a separate wooden building in the parking lot behind the Town Hall that housed African-American prisoners, according to Bill Losner. The second floor was where the municipal offices were located.
In 1956, the Town Hall was remodeled after two city departments moved out. The police department moved to its new quarters just east of the municipal power plant. That building now houses the Homestead Utilities offices. The fire department moved to its new building on N.W. 2nd St. between N.W. 3rd and 4th Avenues. The jail cells were removed and the bottom floor was turned into office space for the growing city government.
The Town Hall served the needs of the residents of Homestead for almost 60 years. A new city hall, which had been in the planning stages since 1964, was built at 790 N. Homestead Boulevard in 1975. Edward M. Ghezzi, a well-known Miami architect who had moved to Homestead and had an office in the Redd Building (1922), designed the new city hall after being awarded the contract to do so in November of 1973. The bas relief mural on the front of the building was designed by a well-known Miami artist whose name I have been unable to discover. Ghezzi also designed the Shark Valley overlook in Everglades National Park. The official dedication of the new city hall was on November 23, 1975.
After the city vacated the old building, it was used as a senior citizen center and an office for the State of Florida’s parole and probation office until 1980, when the City of Homestead, at the behest of local merchants on Krome Avenue who wanted more parking, decided to demolish it. This decision resulted in a furious opposition movement. The vote on January 4, 1980 in favor of demolishing the building was 5-2, with Nick Sincore, Bill Dickinson, Bill McConnell, Walter Rutzke and Tommy Wilson in favor and Irving Peskoe and Ruth Campbell in opposition. Those in favor of demolition claimed that a new building, to be built in Musselwhite Park for $60,000, would replace the space that the senior citizen center occupied and which would be lost by demolishing the old City Hall. No thought was given to the history of the building. The opposition movement, led by Peskoe and Campbell, garnered donations of about $61,000 from the community and a State grant of $173,363 for the restoration of the building. Those community members who donated more than $250 are honored on an “Above and Beyond the Call” plaque mounted on the wall on the left side of the entrance to the Museum. The tiles on the wall, with the contributor’s names on them, honor those who contributed up to $250 towards the project.
George Santayana is often quoted as having written that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That wise saying applies to what the City of Homestead is now planning to do: to demolish the old Bank of Homestead building (1912) and the block of buildings to its south, including the Redd Building (1922) and the building where Fuchs Bakery got its start in 1913. This business block was platted in 1911 by John Ulric Free, one of the early pioneers of this area. Unfortunately for these buildings, there doesn’t seem to be a group of people passionate enough about their impending demolition to try to save them.