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Conserving the conservationist

Published Aug. 21, 2006

I was in South Florida the other day. I stopped at 3744 Stewart Ave. and peeked in the window of a little cottage.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived there for seven decades until her death in 1998. Blind and virtually deaf at the time of her passing, she was 108.

In 1992, I spent a long and wonderful afternoon with her in her cottage. In old age she was notoriously cranky, but I caught her on a good day. Mostly we talked about the Everglades and her famous Everglades book, River of Grass. We discussed Miami, politics, books and, gulp, even sex.

It was hard chatting about sex with a 102-year-old icon who was a hero to me. But by cocktail hour, we were drinking Scotch and I had the courage to blunder through. She hadn't had sex since her divorce. In 1915. She didn't miss it. "I wasn't a wild woman,'' she said.

It was much easier talking about her house. It was a wonder, especially given the modern city Miami had become. It had no air conditioning because she disliked conditioned air. Her kitchen lacked a stove because, as a working woman, she preferred going out for dinner. In a pinch, she used a hot plate.

The house was unpleasantly warm and mildewed. The inside wall near the fireplace was stained. Mrs. Douglas periodically had the bees removed, but they inevitably returned and constructed another hive behind the plaster.

She let me look through her impressive library of classic books, which included first editions from the previous century. A cat - Mrs. Douglas owned dozens over the years - slumbered above a cracked volume of Dickens.

When the Everglades was considered a useless swamp, Mrs. Douglas declared it a river. Because a river of grass seemed more romantic than a swamp in 1947, people took notice. Many Floridians give Mrs. Douglas credit for midwifing the state's environmental movement.

In 1967, she was horrified to learn about plans to build an international airport in the Big Cypress, which is part of the Everglades system. She founded an organization, Friends of the Everglades, to fight the proposal, which was defeated.

Today, the Everglades is considered sacred ground, not only in Washington but in Tallahassee, where the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is housed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas building.

The real Marjory Stoneman Douglas building - the one where she lived for 72 years - has been sorely neglected and is one good hurricane away from blowing away.

I looked through the dirty window. All her furniture was gone, though I saw a straw hat perched on a counter. Mrs. Douglas favored straw hats. I saw spider webs and a dusty hot plate in the bare kitchen.

As Mrs. Douglas approached the century mark, she ran low on money. With no other assets to sell, she offered her home to the state in exchange for $140,000 and permission to live out her life there. She hoped the state would manage her house as an education center after her death.

Mrs. Douglas, who kept her ex-husband's name, had moved to Miami from Massachusetts after their divorce. She worked for her father, Frank Stoneman, the founder of the Miami Herald. She was well into her 30s when she felt independent enough to move out of his house and get a place of her own.

She paid for the house brick by brick, board by board, a little at a time, by freelancing for magazines that included the pulp Black Mask and the mainstream Saturday Evening Post.

She told a designer, George Hyde, that she wanted a house "as stout and as sparse as a factory."

A Wellesley College graduate, she wanted a cottage that looked like it had been plucked from the English countryside. Inside it had few frills: just a tiny bedroom, a minimal kitchen and a single bathroom. The large living room with a vaulted ceiling served as an office. She bought furniture a piece at a time: her desk, a couple of chairs, shelves for her beloved books.

She knew how to type but wrote much of Everglades: River of Grass in longhand at her desk and on the patio in the garden.

At the time of my visit in 1992, she had few other possessions. A corner in the living room contained not a tape deck or a CD player, but Thomas Edison's dependable invention, a record player. She could no longer read because of her fading eyesight. She listened to "books on record'' at ear-piercing volume.

She had been awarded so many plaques and testimonials over the century that she stored many on the floor. She perched on a couch, tiny and fragile, dressed in her nightgown and her trademark pearls. She spoke in perfect paragraphs, enunciating every word like Queen Elizabeth. I was unnerved.

I told her I planned a story on a state program to track panthers by radio.

"My cats hate flea collars,'' she declared. "I'm sure the panthers must hate the radio collars. It sounds like the utmost cruelty.''

Like a reprimanded schoolboy, I tried to explain the importance of the program.

"Lord have mercy,'' she sniffed, throwing her hands up in disgust.

I changed the subject.

In the early 1990s, the state put the house into the care of Sallye Jude, who runs the Land Trust of Dade County. Jude is among the state's best-known restoration experts. After Mrs. Douglas died, she spent $25,000 shoring up the house and buying the lot next door. Opening an education center was going to take some room.

When Mrs. Douglas built her house, her neighborhood was a quiet, reserved place, with lush, tropical vegetation. It is different now. Her spartan cottage is dwarfed by trophy homes. Homeowners have removed trees or never replaced them after hurricanes. A jungle, out of control, threatens to engulf Mrs. Douglas' house, however. The spiders like it.

When word got out about the proposed education center, neighbors staged a rebellion. Where would visitors park? Would there be school buses? Shouting children? At a public hearing, they jeered and threatened legal action. Plans were withdrawn.

Nothing much has happened over the last few years except mildew. Her screens are torn, her wood worm-eaten. The wicker on which she sat while admiring her garden is turning to dust. Patio bricks are broken or missing. Walking, I had to fight my way through the webs of spiders.

In the next month, the state expects to take back the house from the Land Trust and start from scratch.

Mrs. Douglas' old house is going to be moved, Eva Armstrong, director of Florida's Division of Lands, told me last week. It will become part of a complex that will include an education center focusing on the environment.

Where is the house going?

The most likely place is Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden a few miles away. Mrs. Douglas was one of its founders and loved the place.

Like most people who were fond of Mrs. Douglas and her home, I too have mixed emotions about such a move. In a perfect world, it would stay put. But I can see the wisdom of moving it to a place where it will be loved and cared for and enjoyed by the public.

What would Mrs. Douglas say?

Hard to know. She was unpredictable. She had a tongue like a switchblade and the moral authority to embarrass bureaucrats and politicians and make things happen.

Perhaps she would pitch a fit. Or maybe she'd say, "The house is more important to me than the neighborhood. Move it.''

The state is going to take Mrs. Douglas' belongings out of storage and return them to her house after the move.

I look forward to seeing her books and remembering our conversation about them. She loved Dickens and Shakespeare. She disliked Hemingway. His staccato prose struck her ears like a slap in the face.

The hairy, beastly man actually enjoyed hunting lions.

Fortunately for him, he was never a guest at her cottage. She'd have given him the chewing out of his life.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com. Special thanks to Jack Davis, a University of Florida historian who is writing an upcoming biography of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

FURTHER READING

Everglades: River of Grass, by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Pineapple Press.

Voice of the River, by Marjory Stoneman Douglas with John Rothchild, Pineapple Press.