The Warner House
This impressive 1911 Neo-Classical building was designed for J.W. Warner, founder of South Florida's first floral company. The home's fine craftsmanship is especially evident in its massive columns, Palladian window and porte-cochère. Wide porches and verandas adapt the J.W. Warner House to the Florida climate with a graciousness that evokes the elegance of Florida's early years. This house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and has been restored to its original splendor by the MHCAC. The house, art gallery and gardens are a perfect setting for events and receptions.
When the Warner family arrived in Miami in 1906, the city’s population was a little more than two thousand people. Over the next five decades, the city earned its nickname by expanding so fast that its growth could only be explained as a magical illusion. Miami was one of the fastest growing cities in America in three of the first five decades of the twentieth century.
While the Warner family may not have expected such rapid growth, they did see what a lot of other early pioneers saw in the Magic City. Miami presented tremendous opportunity to anyone with passion and perseverance.
The Warner’s passion was flowers. The family persevered for sixty-six years in the floral business. Although the Miami Floral Company closed in 1972, the location of the business, which was also served as the family’s home, still stands to remind us of the pioneer spirit that helped build early Miami.
Like so many other Miami pioneers, James Warner came to Miami employed by Henry Flagler. He was born in Marietta, Georgia on February 3, 1871 and was educated in the Atlanta area. After graduating from business college, he got married to Susan Clarke and began a family. He also began a promising career as an accountant for the Florida East Coast Railway in Saint Augustine, Florida.
When James moved his family to West Palm Beach, he acquired land that was located just west of Riviera, Florida. He planted on orange grove on his land and maintained it long after leaving West Palm Beach for Miami. The Warners moved to Miami when James was hired to help in the accounting department for Flagler’s Oversea Railroad project.
Shortly after moving to Miami, Susan wondered why there were no florists in their new city. She felt that if a floral shop could work in West Palm Beach, why couldn’t it work in Miami? She began to grow flowers a couple blocks south of the Miami River near today’s SW Fifth Avenue. Susan created floral arrangements for friends and neighbors as a hobby, but got enough good feedback that she decided that her hobby could become a profitable business.
The Warners started the Miami Floral Company in 1906. The company was the first florist in the area. Susan had to educate locals on the idea of buying flowers. Prior to the arrival of the Warners, Miami residents would grow and pick their own flowers. The employees of the Miami Floral Company demonstrated the value of presenting flowers in the form of an arrangement. In the early years of the business, the Warner family became personally acquainted with nearly every other family in town.
The Miami Floral Company got a lot of business from guests staying at the Royal Palm Hotel, as well as, wealthy part-time residents who spent their winters in Miami. Susan experimented with different types of flowers to see which ones could grow in South Florida.
James employment with the FEC Railway ended when he accepted a job with the Miami Electric and Light Company in 1909. As he started a new job, he kept very busy helping Susan run the family business as well. A little more than a year after changing jobs, the floral shop required the full-time attention of both James and Susan. There was enough income to support the family, so James left Miami Electric and went to work for the Miami Floral Company full-time.
The same year when James quit his full-time job, Miami Floral had become the first florist south of Jacksonville to become a member of the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD), network in 1910. Membership in FTD helped the company prosper.
James was also very active politics and civic organizations. He ran for City Clerk and Collector in 1911. His dedication to the Southside Civic Association was recognized when he was elected president of the organization in 1915. Warner believed community involvement was good for business and the family name.
While James was transitioning from the electric company to the floral business, he was beginning to prepare for the construction of a more permanent home for both his family and business. Warner purchased two large lots south of the Miami River on Avenue J. His plan was to build a grand southern colonial-style home like the mansions he admired while growing up in Georgia.
James hired German-born architect George L. Pfeiffer to design their home in southern neoclassical style. He was a very prominent architect in early Miami. He was also instrumental in establishing the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
The Warners experienced the 1906 hurricane and decided that the home should be built with reinforced concrete to protect the family from future storms. Most homes were built with wood during the early years in Miami.
The columns were made of poured concrete. Workers used mules to pull buckets of concrete to the top of the wooden laths to complete each column. The home featured six three-story Ionic columns along the front of the home.
Because the Warners had a big family and liked to entertain out of town guests, the home consisted of three stories and twenty-two bedrooms. Each of their six children had a spacious bedroom of their own.
The residence included electricity and indoor plumbing, which were not common in Miami when the home was completed in 1912. Elmina, the Warner’s oldest daughter, recalled that they had to cut down pine trees to run a powerline from Flagler Street to their home to get electricity. While the Warners enjoyed the luxury of having two indoor bathrooms, most of their neighbors relied on outhouses.
The home was built on an elevation and was reinforced with sixteen-inch thick walls, so it was prepared for flooding and other weather events commonly experienced in Miami. The two lots were 100 by 150 feet in size. There was enough room to accommodate the home and a couple of green houses to the east of the residence.
Part of the spacious downstairs was used as the floral shop. Clients would enter from the west side of the home to conduct their business. As the children got older, everyone worked in the floral shop. It became a multi-generation family operated business.
At the completion of the home in 1912, the total construction cost was twenty-five thousand dollars. It was at a time when the most direct route for the Warners to get to downtown Miami was to cross the Avenue J bridge over the Miami River. The turn-style overpass was manually opened and closed by a bridge tender using a wooden-crank. The structure was built in 1906 by the Tatum Brothers and was originally a toll-bridge.
It was a time when the Miami River was crystal clear and the Warners had an unobstructed view of the entire city from their third-floor perch. It was a much quieter and simpler time.
Within ten years of shutting down the family business, William and George had passed away and Elmina had left Miami to retire in Burnsville, North Carolina. George’s widow, Autumn, was the last Warner living in the house. Rather than live along in such a big house, Autumn and her daughter put the home up for sale.
In addition to the home being too large for Autumn to maintain, the area had also had become run down and dangerous. A task force for the Miami Police Department labeled this part of East Little Havana as “Little Vietnam”. By the early 1980s, there were several sting operations that raided drug dens in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, there were a group of preservationists that were hell bent on saving the home. It had been a part of Miami’s history too long to be replaced with new development. Sally Jude, Dolly MacIntyre, Maggie Wood and Tim Blake formed a partnership called the Magic City Restoration Company. The partners raised and borrowed money to purchase the property from the Warner descendants for $160,000 in the Fall of 1981.
The partnership leveraged tax incentives and went to work to restore the home. The group invested another $325,000 into the property to modernize the amenities, update the wiring, and repair immediate concerns.
Once the renovation was complete, the building was listed as commercial office space under the name of “Warner Place”. The management company marketed the space as conveniently located to downtown Miami and within walking distance to Government Center and the Court House. It also touted the building’s unique architecture and history. The most important selling point was that the rent was very affordable.
Although the neighborhood was still considered dangerous, Warner Place did attract commercial tenants. One of the first to sign a lease was Metro Dade’s Historic Preservation Division. Within a few years, the building’s tenants included architectural firms, law offices, a real estate broker and the county archaeologist.
There was optimism that the restoration of Warner Place would lead to improvements in the neighborhood. While it took time, the area has turned around considerably since the home was restored and designated. The building proved economically feasible enough for the partners to maintain it for more than two decades before selling it to the Miami Hispanic Ballet in 2009.
The Miami Hispanic Ballet was founded in 1993 as a non-profit dedicated to identifying and supporting local dance talent of Hispanic-descent in Miami-Dade County. The organization originally leased space in the Warner House, but decided to purchase the building in 2009 when they received a grant of one million dollars from the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. The purpose of the grant was to allow the non-profit to purchase a permanent home.
In 2012, the Miami Hispanics Cultural Arts Center moved in, and the Miami Hispanic Ballet was given a second grant to remodel the building. Today, the Warner House is a landmark for culture as well as history.
The residence is more than one hundred and five years old at the time of this article. This building is more than a historic home, it is a story of passion and perseverance. Thanks to the passion of the Warner family and four avid preservationists, the Warner house remains today as a symbol of the perseverance of a Miami pioneer family.