By Nick Moncy
Secluded within the groves surrounding West Dixie Highway lies a Florida Heritage site you may not have heard of – the Ancient Spanish Monastery.
A North Miami Beach relic, it boasts historic structures containing Romanesque and pre-Gothic architecture. Stretching from as far back as the 12th century, conserved artifacts take visitors into the life of medieval monks in northern Spain.
It is now considered by many historians to be the oldest building in the whole of the Western Hemisphere.
But how this wonder ended up in Miami is a long story
Here’s the condensed version:
From 1133 to 1141 AD, the monastery and cloisters were constructed in Sacramenia, a city in the province of Segovia, Spain. Originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it was renamed to recognize its renowned abbot Bernard of Clairvaux after his canonization.
The Cloisters housed Cisterian monks for seven centuries following, after which a social shift in the 1830s had the buildings converted into a simple granary and stable.
In 1925, famous publisher William Randolph Hearst acquired the Cloisters and the Refectory (the original Monastery section still stands overseas). Both were disassembled, numbered by part, packed into about 11,000 wooden boxes and shipped to the United States. After they lay in a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York for almost a decade, most parts were sold at an auction after the Great Depression ruined Hearst financially; the remainders were sent back to storage.
In 1952, Ohio businessmen William Edgemon and Raymond Moss bought the remainder of the stones looking to create a tourist hotspot in Miami.
It proved to be a challenge because the workmen involved in the grand move thirty years ago did not replace the stones in their original numbered boxes. Reconstructing the Cloisters took 19 months and almost $1.5 million (surpassing $13 million in today’s currency). TIME magazine called the effort “the biggest jigsaw puzzle in history”.
After financial struggles in 1964, the Cloisters were once again up for sale. Wealthy banker and Episcopal donor Col. Robert Pentland, Jr. swept in and purchased them for the Episcopal Bishop of Florida. The monastery now houses the Episcopal Church of St. Bernard de Clairveux.
Largely in thanks to Edgemon and Moss’ contribution, this story physically unravels across the space in several parts.
At the front of the property is a moderately-sized lobby area full of ancient artifacts. Though they are protected by glass cases and velvet rope, one can whiff a hint of rust. There are corbels used to support the weight of wall fixtures, a hearse that carried dead bodies, even a hymnarium propped on a refectory table that monks read from while gathered for meals. There are cabinets covered with fresco paintings by a student of Raphael’s done alla prima, a rapid style that required oil paintings to be completely finished before the first layer of paint dried. At the back of the room there is even a full suit of armor from the 1600s.
Double doors open to an outdoor path toward the monastery, an escape from the onslaught of outdated vocabulary. An iron gate introduces the spacious, elegantly-pruned garden, a nursery before the Monastery’s arrival. It resembles a maze: narrow, crunchy gravel paths lead visitors all over.
The Ram’s Head Pillar, Baptismal Font and donated statues of Jesus and Mary stand scattered throughout the garden. One shaded path at the back right goes to the refectory section of the Monastery, which holds the chapel in which North Miami Beach Anglicans congregate.
Getting back on the central path leads to the Cloisters’ foreboding wooden doors. Above them is a detailed relief of Mary’s crowning by angels; lions representing Leon and Castille are visible in the scene. A metal bell up above once clanged boisterously to summon monks for meals long ago, but these days there is only tranquil silence.
The atmosphere inside the Cloisters is still, accompanied only by echoed footsteps and occasional chanting. Its main area is composed of hallways and chambers bordering a roofless, central courtyard. The contrast between the illuminated patio and the dark columned hallways is an aesthetic phenomenon that illustrates the Cloisters’ harmony with Miami tropics. In the halls on opposite corners are life-size statues of both Alfonso VII, king of Leon and Castille during the Monastery’s construction, and his grandson Alfonso VIII. In all, this is certainly hallowed ground.
Though the Monastery is a masterpiece from the past, its history continues to grow today. The twenty-acre attraction alone contains about one thousand unique plant and tree species. Fifty-thousand people visit annually, with sixty-five percent of that crowd being tourists. It also draws in members of the northern Miami community: last year, nine hundred public, private and homeschooled students received educational programming that met Florida’s curricular standards. The Ancient Spanish Monastery Foundation non-profit recognizes local leaders and outstanding figures each year at its Legacy Gala and pours all its proceeds back toward the preservation efforts for the site.
If you stop by for a tour, one figure you’re sure to meet is Tania Witten. An employee at the Monastery since 1999, she organizes bridal events. “It gets crazy here sometimes,” Witten said in an interview. “This place is used for weddings, quinceñeras, and even yoga four times a week.” She also noted the intriguing fact that despite its prominence, the Monastery and Cloisters are hidden gems to most North Miami Beach natives. “No one knows about us, really, even people who’ve lived here for fifty years. They’d say, ‘I never knew this was here.’”
Photo Credits: Nick Moncy/ RISE NEWS.
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