MIAMI SPRINGS, Fla. —Poor Glenn Curtiss. The aviation pioneer rivaled, perhaps exceeded, the Wright Brothers in accomplishment. He held the first U.S. pilot's license and the world land-speed record, 136 mph, set on the sands of Ormond Beach on a motorcycle of his design and manufacture. He practically invented and built U.S. naval aviation.
Along the way, Curtiss also found time to develop Hialeah, Opa-locka and Miami Springs.
But he had the misfortune of dying young, at 52 in 1930, and his once-electrifying fame faded.
So did one of the brightest, most singular bits of Curtiss's legacy: his Miami Springs mansion, a picturesque Pueblo-style sprawl built in 1925 on the edge of the town's golf course. Abandoned after long use as a hotel, the Curtiss house burned to a roofless husk in a series of fires a decade ago.
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Now the house is rising again, Phoenix-like, rebuilt by the town and a nonprofit foundation whose officers hope its resurrection will also help restore Glenn Hammond Curtiss to his rightful place in history. Plans call for museum and exhibition galleries, a conference center and a full professional kitchen to cater events like weddings.
"It's an amazing comeback," said historian Paul George, who leads periodic tours of Miami Springs and has made it a point to take visitors to view the mansion's charred shell. "This is the quintessential grass-roots effort, and it will put Curtiss in a select group with Tuttle and Flagler and others who built Miami. He's one of the great unsung heroes, not just for Miami but the country."
The painstaking reconstruction, which is proceeding in phases, at the very least promises to re-establish a South Florida icon.
The dreamlike mansion at 500 Deer Run, attributed to prominent 1920s Miami architect Martin Luther Hampton, has long been regarded as the most distinguished of several quirky, Pueblo-inspired buildings Curtiss erected in what is now Miami Springs.
Curtiss and a business partner, James Bright, had purchased a 12,000-acre ranch in 1916 where they established an airfield. But they built Hialeah on the land to cash in on the 1920s real estate boom.
Appalled by Hialeah's monotonous sprawl, however, Curtiss undertook careful planning for his next two developments, Opa-locka and the Springs, which he envisioned as a country-club residential paradise. For Miami Springs he fancifully chose the architectural style of southwestern adobe houses; for Opa-locka the theme was Arabian Nights.
His vision, interrupted by the subsequent land crash, never panned out beyond a clutch of surviving signature buildings in each.
But the Curtiss mansion was, by all accounts, a gem. Curtiss' wife, Lena, named it Dar-Err-Aha, which she said meant "house of happiness."
The house reproduced the irregular look of hand-made adobe in stucco layered over hollow clay bricks. Set amid lush gardens and an artificial lake, with a swimming pool at the rear, the 10,000 square-foot house was shaped in a 'V' around an expansive courtyard.
The soaring main room was a center of social life, though the unpretentious Curtiss liked to slip out of such occasions via a hidden back stairway to a private study upstairs.
"It was certainly a nice house, but considering the money he had, it was understated," said Antolin Carbonell, a preservationist and member of the board of Curtiss Mansion, Inc., the nonprofit guiding its reconstruction. "He was a very unassuming person."
Curtiss lived in the house just five years. He died of complications from surgery in Buffalo, N.Y., near his native Hammondsport, today home of an aviation museum dedicated to him.
His widow married a man who worked for Curtiss and lived in the house until the late 1940s. It was subsequently sold and made the centerpiece of the famed Miami Springs Villas hotel.
The house was designated as a protected historic site by the Springs in 1987, and made the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. By 2002, however, the house had suffered several fires set by vandals and homeless people. Little aside from the walls remained.
"The house just collapsed," Carbonell said. A small grant paid to stabilize what was left while supporters struggled to raise reconstruction money.
Miami Springs residents, in a straw ballot, approved restoration of the house, now owned by the town, which was not flush with cash. The ruins sat for years, fenced off but plainly visible to neighbors and golfers.
"As time went on, it was very difficult," town manager Jim Borgmann said. "Miami Springs is not a big town with a lot of money. The neighbors have certainly had to endure almost a slum for many years. They've been very patient."
What the town and foundation finally cobbled together — $1 million from the state of Florida and $1 million from a taxpayer-approved Miami-Dade County bond issue — was enough to put on a roof and rebuild the mansion's shell, including plumbing and electrical systems and a full panoply of exterior details. Full interior build-out will require another $2 million or so, yet to be raised, Borgmann said.
Because original plans have not been found, preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle used historic photographs and careful measurements to replicate original details and proportions.
"The exterior, whenever possible, we're trying to keep exactly as it was," Carbonell said.
Not so the interior. Modern fire codes, handicapped accessibility and the need for flexibility of use dictated open spaces, meaning the home's original rooms won't be reproduced.
Work on the shell is now almost complete. Supporters hope completion of the exterior will make raising the rest of the money a lot easier this time.
And once the interior is done, Borgmann pledged, the name of Glenn Curtiss will shine again in the town he made his home, and beyond.
"Really, he's a forgotten man and it's our goal to do something about that," he said.
"We want to reestablish the importance of Glenn Curtiss to the country, and the world," Borgmann.