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Miami's ancient Tequesta Indian circles not on display

March 07, 2020 - 12:02 AM

MIAMI - People walk by the original Miami, Florida, every day and don’t even know it. Or they think the downtown corner where Miami’s first residents lived is a ruptured sewage line under repair.

“It looks horrible and it’s been like this for years,” said businessman Yones Machichi. “I figured it was a sewer that went bad or a trash pit.”

Why would he assume otherwise? The 35-foot wide carved limestone circle is strewn with discarded coffee cups. A plastic bag is stuck on a patch of weeds. No signs hint at the monumental significance of the site. But it was here, 2,000 years ago, that the Tequesta Indians built a village on the banks of the Miami River.

By 1838, in the same spot, American soldiers dispatched to the bottom of the Florida peninsula were encamped at Fort Dallas, a strategic post for fighting the Seminole Indian wars.

A half century later, Julia Tuttle gave the plot to Henry Flagler, and he extended his railroad to a stop at his grand Royal Palm Hotel, which heralded backwater Miami’s new identity as a tourist destination. Guests could purchase Tequesta Indian skulls uncovered during construction as souvenirs.

The hurricane-damaged hotel was demolished in 1930, the city grew and three eras of Miami history sat like an entombed layer cake beneath asphalt parking lots until a developer decided to build condos, offices, restaurants, a hotel, a bank, a movie theatre and a grocery store on the four-block property. But, after archaeologists unearthed the treasures below, the developer, MDM, struck a deal in 2014 to preserve a fraction of what was excavated, and display it adjacent to the towers where Miami’s 21st-century dwellers would live.

The Met Miami development has blossomed, as developments tend to do in Miami, yet the two Tequesta Indian Circles that were saved have not been turned into historic showcases. Artifacts from the village, the fort and the hotel have either been covered by dirt or are collecting dust in a storage area.

It’s as if Miami’s buried past has been forgotten all over again.

Historic preservationists, city leaders and stewards of the six-year-old agreement have lost patience and are pushing MDM to comply with requirements to properly conserve, display and interpret the discoveries.

The Dade Heritage Trust is demanding that MDM show progress and a good faith commitment to the terms of the plan within the next two months or the city said it will withhold building occupancy permits.

“They built the buildings and now that they are almost finished it’s clear that certain stipulations have been ignored,” said Scott Silver, an attorney who was a member of the Heritage Trust board when the binding agreement with MDM was negotiated. “We have no choice at this point. They want to move forward and we want to work with them but we are still in dispute on several items.”

The birthplace of Miami is at stake, say preservationists and city activists who hammered out the plan with MDM during contentious mediation sessions. They fear more broken promises. They point to the Miami Circle that was discovered on the south side of the river in 1998 to much international fanfare. The developer of that property was paid $27 million in public funds to shelve his condo project, but the design for the 2.2-acre Tequesta site that was designated a National Historic Landmark has never been realized. The 38-foot-wide circle, probably part of a council house or ceremonial structure for the tribe of hunters and fishermen, was covered with soil to protect it from the elements, and residents’ dogs relieve themselves on top of it.

“The first Miami Circle has been treated terribly and disrespectfully,” said archaeologist Bob Carr, who excavated both sites and wrote a book called “Digging Miami.” “The public should be able to see this unparalleled piece of North American history, learn about it and enjoy it. I am optimistic the same thing won’t happen on the other side of the river, but it’s a shame it’s taking so long.”

What is special about the north side discovery is that it provides a window into Miami’s past going back at least 2,000 years.

“It was like peeling away the skin of an onion,” said Carr, who found 11 circles and hundreds of carved postholes that represent the foundations of the Tequesta village and its linear walkways. “We see where the Tequestas settled this wild place and created one of the first urban plans in eastern North America. Where Whole Foods is now we found a Tequesta cemetery with 500 graves. Where the hotel pool is now we found a Tequesta midden, or refuse heap. We see where the U.S. Army built its barracks, officers’ quarters and blacksmith shop over Indian remains. We see where Henry Flagler turned Miami into a city.”

Among the thousands of artifacts unearthed by Carr and his team were conch shells collected by the Tequestas, bone tools, a brass Spanish trading bell from the 1600s, musket balls and buttons from the fort, and a room key with a leather fob from the hotel.

Met Square, bounded by Southeast Fourth Street, Southeast Third Street, Southeast Third Avenue and Biscayne Boulevard is the perfect place for what should be a public exhibit and tourist attraction, Silver said.

“Most people who travel make a list of the historic places they want to visit — in Athens, in Paris, in Peru,” Silver said. “Everyone thinks Miami started in 1920. I have relatives in Boston with sweaters that old.

“Yes, we have history — ancient history — visible in downtown Miami. And you could not find a richer site, one that tells three different stories. MDM should embrace being part of a very cool attraction that puts it on the map.”

But the project is still stalled two years after stakeholders of the agreement sent a warning letter to the city and MDM expressing “deep concern” about “breaches of both the letter and spirit” of the agreement.

“Many people wanted a recreation of the entire village as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and fewer new buildings by MDM,” said Brian Alonso, a downtown businessman who participated in the mediation sessions along with historians, preservationists and representatives from the city, county and state. The city’s historic preservation board was expected to reject MDM’s Met Square until the developer agreed to build around two of the circles and fund the preservation project, as required by law. “We worked really hard to reach a compromise and write a beautiful, innovative plan combining the old and new that the developer is required to pay for. It’s demoralizing that it is not happening.”

Then as now, MDM director Ian Swanson said the company is committed to a first-class exhibit of the circles and artifacts on the property. He said construction delays during the four phases of the massive $1 billion mixed-use project have put them behind schedule.

“We are trying to push it along. We understand that people are frustrated,” said Swanson, who said MDM has spent upwards of $5 million so far on excavation and preservation. “We’ve been working with Bob Carr since 2004 so we have a lot of time and money invested in this and we want it to be done by the end of the year. There’s no walking away from anything.”

Swanson, a native of England, said he is a preservationist at heart, having worked on historic projects as an engineer in London and Scotland.

“We found a Roman market by the Thames while digging foundations. We found mosaics in an office building on Cannon Street and incorporated them into the lobby floor. We preserved castle facades, did structural surveys at the Tower of London and Big Ben,” he said. “Hadrian’s Wall, plague pits, Henry VIII’s house — my job was focused on ancient monuments and historic buildings.”

MDM’s attorney, Eugene Stearns, initially ridiculed archaeologists’ drawing of the Tequesta village as “hokum” — because of inconsistencies in their conclusions about the circular structures and postholes and the lack of any descriptions of the village by Spanish missionaries or explorers — and he argued during negotiations that little of the site was worth saving. Swanson was also skeptical about “ambiguities” in the research. But he said MDM’s perspective hasn’t wavered: “We are very sensitive to the value of heritage sites,” he said.

The main point of contention involves the circle on the southwest corner of Met Square, which is supposed to be enclosed in glass two stories tall, allowing views from the street and an as yet uncompleted restaurant within the commercial complex that would overlook it.

But MDM has balked at building the air-conditioned enclosure, saying that water seeping into the circle’s solution holes at high tide would cause condensation and mould. For now, it’s simply surrounded by a railing, on a busy corner, with no signage explaining what it is and quizzical looks from passersby who even notice it.

“We have left it open, anticipating issues with climate control,” said Swanson, who showed a drawing of an alternative concept — a steel ring suspended above the circle, hung with fluted LED lights.

Silver criticized Swanson’s Plan B.

“They have tried to talk around it but that feature is non-negotiable,” Silver said. “If you’re telling us it’s impossible, prove it with an engineer’s report. But if you’re telling us it’s expensive, do it. Of course they can do it. There are enclosed ruins in humid environments all around the world.”

Most of the other two dozen elements stipulated in the agreement have not been started and look nothing like the architectural renderings in the agreement.

The circle on the northeast corner is inside an unfinished glassed-in room, but the doors are locked and the floor-to-ceiling windows are covered with panels or condo advertisements. It’s dark and dank inside and ladders lean against the concrete walls. When it’s done, Swanson said a glass floor will cover the circle. Interpretive signs, drawings, photos and video screens will line the walls. MDM will lease the space to HistoryMiami, which plans to operate a mini-museum on site.

The Met Square plaza is to hold an accessible outdoor gallery of artifacts, some of which are sitting locked inside what is to be a future cafe or shop. Carr has stored brick piers from the Royal Palm’s veranda colonnade and steps from its original entrance as well as boxes of Tequesta shells there. You can see them only if you press your forehead against the glass doors but, again, no signage.

A brick-lined well from Fort Dallas, located next to the southwest Tequesta circle, where the restaurant will go, is supposed to be covered with a glass floor, but it’s currently buried and covered with steel plates, Swanson said.

One feature that has been finished is a stainless steel pathway on the ground of the plaza and on the floor of the Met Muze lobby that traces the original shoreline where the river met Biscayne Bay before it was occluded by fill.

But another requirement — renaming Met Square to reflect its original inhabitants — hasn’t been broached yet, Swanson said.

MDM’s initial rendering of interior design for the 43-story condo was trumpeted as “tribal chic,” but the dream-catcher and silver jewelry-inspired wall coverings were mocked for resembling Navajo culture of the American Southwest rather than Tequesta culture and was redone to avoid the embarrassment of what happened next to the Miami Circle, where the Related Group built six tall columns at Icon Brickell and decorated them with large, oblong metal heads meant to recall the stone figures on Easter Island, which also have nothing to do with Tequesta history. They were nicknamed the “giant potato men” by Florida’s chief archaeologist, Ryan Wheeler.

Miami’s indigenous people were driven away in the 1760s when the British ruled Florida and employed a rival tribe to capture and enslave the Tequestas on southern plantations. Other Tequestas petitioned the governor of Cuba to immigrate to the island and work as agricultural labourers, said Carr, who recently returned from an excavation in Cuba.

“This is a legacy that should be highlighted, accessible, tangible,” Carr said. “This site has the opportunity just like a site in Rome or Paris where you can actually walk off the street and look down into the ground and see parts of the site preserved. To have this location and this rare opportunity is something no one should ignore.

“This city has a sense of place that predates Americans, but it’s been overshadowed by its history of real estate development. I think people would love to learn more about the fascinating stuff that’s been happening along the banks of the Miami River for more than 2,500 years.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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