Tucked away on the south bank of the Miami River, on the edge of Little Havana, are “The Ladies” — four cotton candy-colored wood-framed homes that epitomize “Old Florida.”
Built in 1908 as boarding houses for laborers who flocked here for work, the four are reopening their doors as the River Inn Miami after months of painstaking restoration. They’ll be leased by co-living company Roam, although there will soon be a kitchen, container bar, and cafe open to the public.
The Inn is the latest project of developer Avra Jain, known for bringing dilapidated historic sites back to their former glory like she did with the Vagabond Hotel in the MiMo District. With names like Rose Arms and the Gilbert House, the Inn buildings harken back to a bygone era anchoring Riverside, a community that only exists in history books today.
“They’re older than pretty much everything in Miami,” said Francine Madera, the Inn’s creative director and project manager.
“With everything that’s changing, there gets to be a place in Miami where you can feel what it was about. This is it. You can know Miami as it was originally, not just high-rises and condos. There was something else here.”
It was Madera who nicknamed the buildings “her ladies.” Spending every day for months unearthing historical details hidden behind layers of paint and managing the careful repair of the neglected structures, she fell in love with the buildings.
“If you don’t love it, you can rip it all out,” said Madera. But if you take a close look, “you could see the charm that needed to be unveiled.”
Before it was the River Inn Miami
The Tequesta Indians were the first settlers along the river, but by the late 1800s, white Americans were moving there as laborers and filling up boarding houses.
“You could stay in Henry Flagler’s hotel for a lot of money, or you could come to the Miami River Inn,” says local preservationist Sallye Jude, one of the Inn’s previous owners.
The area became known as Riverside and the boarding houses and neighborhood thrived through the 1950s.
“This just symbolizes for me the oldest part of Miami,” said Dr. Paul George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami who grew up taking walks along the riverfront with his father.
The buildings continued to function as a boarding house until the 1980s, with rooms rented out for $100 a week, according to Jude, who bought the buildings one by one in the 1980s.
By then they were in a state of neglect, much like the rest of downtown Miami. Jude began painstakingly repairing them, obtaining a historic site designation in 1987 and turning them into a bed and breakfast in 1990. The property hosted Miami luminaries like Everglades champion Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who celebrated one of her birthdays there.
“I’ve always liked the saying, ‘The city without a past is like a person without a face,’” said Jude during her first visit to the Inn post-restoration.
The building is filled with throwbacks — exteriors and floors of Dade County Pine, a fireplace made of coral rock, catwalks connecting the upper floors to the bridge over the river. The process of restoring them was made up of small discoveries.
Just a couple weeks ago, the carpenter was preparing to trim the white front door so it could close properly. As he sanded it, he was stunned to discover a real mahogany door — a rarity in South Florida, especially then — hidden by layers of white paint.
“We were at the point of ‘We can’t keep doing any more, we’ll never finish’,” said Madera, speaking about the renovations to the buildings. But then they saw the mahogany and said, “OK, we have to do that.”
And early on in the renovations, one of the construction workers accidentally broke off a piece of tacky green tile that decorated a fireplace. The first reaction was “crap!” The second was one of awe.
The hole in the tile revealed perfectly preserved red brick, straight out of a New England home. When they chipped away the rest of the tile, they discovered a totally intact fireplace that has become the centerpiece of one of the common rooms.
The rooms are filled with 1920s and 1930s wooden furniture rescued from a fate in the rubbage bin with fresh coats of paint and reupholstering in bright, modern fabrics. Antique Singer sewing machine tables have been turned into pedestal sinks and nightstands. The claw foot bathtubs have been cleaned and reinstalled and the pulley-system windows have been carefully reinstated.
“With history you’ve got to let the property be what [it wants] to be,” Madera said. “Historic preservation is about roots.”