Kenwood's 75th Anniversary: 1929-2004

The Dice House

DICE HOUSE LUCKS OUT

Albert Harum-Alvarez, secretary of The Dice House Coalition

[originally published by Dade Heritage Trust, and no longer current: the Dice House is planned to be moved to Continental Park]

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Just how endangered can a designated historic site be? Try this: Two
neighbors notice workers pulling the siding off Kendall's historic Dice
House, in preparation for demolition. They call Rick Ferrer of the county's
Historic Preservation office, who speeds from downtown with a
cease-and-desist order.

Plucked from the brink, the Dice House is in the midst of a stunning
comeback. Thanks to a sensitive and enthusiastic new owner, the Dade County
pine cottage is now set to become the Dice House Café, a neighborhood spot
featuring outdoor dining and live music on its soon-to-be-rebuilt porch.

The café will also feature its place in local history as the oldest house in
Kendall. It was built in 1917 by feed store owner and unofficial mayor
David Brantly Dice, but it seems to have been built using a much older house
as the starting point. Under the generous hipped roof was a second cedar
shake roof, which may have belonged to a structure dating from before the
turn of the 20th Century.

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"Kendall HAS a history?" you ask. But of course! As one of the highest
points along the limestone spine of South Florida, the Kendall area was a
natural spot for native peoples, panthers, rattlesnakes and other settlers
with an interest in staying high and dry. In summer, Kendall was a veritable
island, surrounded by sawgrass sloughs and the meanderings of Snapper Creek.

Kendall was named for a London merchant who came to South Dade in the early
1900s to manage the groves he co-owned. Henry Flagler's railroad naturally
passed through Kendall as it followed the limerock ridge southward, and
Flagler set up a model orange grove at Kendall. Most of that grove is now
part of Pinecrest, on the east side of US 1. You'll now find the Metrorail
and the South Dade Busway following the same route as the old railroad.

Kendall's train station was located along SW 77th Avenue, which is still
called "Kendal Avenue" (using an early spelling with one 'L') between 98th
Street and 100th Street. And that's where the Dice House can be found, on
the corner of 99th Street and Kendal Avenue.

Mr. Dice's store, Kendall Feed and Supply, was located a block north, to the
east of the railroad track located about where the Metrorail tracks now end.
It was a two story adobe-styled building that sold saddles and other farm
supplies. When US 1 was built, Dice made the back door into the new front
door, so the store would face onto the new highway.

The bolita he ran upstairs, along with a perpetual card game, made the store
a local attraction for decades. If you didn't come to gamble, you might come
for the telephone: the Dice store was where Kendall residents received phone
calls. If you weren't within shouting distance when a call came through, Mr.
Dice would go fetch you.

An Old Front Porch

What sights would have been seen from the Dice House front porch? As evening
fell on the pinelands, two-wheeled mule carts would pass by on their way to
deliver their harvest of coontie to the mill, located near today's Kmart on
US 1 south of 104th Street. Coontie root, which is the starchy tuber of the
cycad <italic>Zamia pumila</italic>, was a staple food of native peoples.
Carrier pigeons were used to let the mill know that a mule cart should be
sent out as far as Cutler or Homestead to fetch another load of coontie.

During World War I, it was discovered that a gruel made from coontie flour
was one of the first foods that a gassed soldier could keep down. Among the
customers for Kendall's flour: National Biscuit Company, also known as
"Nabisco."

"Arrowroot flour," as it was called, was a boom-and-bust business in
Kendall. The ancient plant, which dates from the age of dinosaurs, is very
slow-growing. Overharvesting led to depletion of the plant, first in the
pine rocklands of Little River, then in the Miami area, and finally in
Kendall.

From the Dice House porch on a Sunday afternoon, you might have seen the
Smoak children--Clarence, Lula & Fred--boarding the train for Homestead.
Kendall had no school before 1929, so the young Smoaks were sent to the
bustling metropolis of Homestead. They would return on the Friday train for
weekends in the country--in Kendall.

In those early years, another kind of train would have passed through as
well. The windows in the passenger coaches were blacked out and locked so as
to open no more than a few inches for ventilation. Through the gap you would
have spied Chinese indentured servants, travelling the rails through Kendall
on their way to Cuba via Key West.

The boom years of the 1920s brought the train station across the street from
the Dice House. Dan Killian, politically powerful county commissioner and
owner of one of two stores in Kendall, had street lights installed in front
of his store. Not that the traffic on Kendal Avenue warranted it! There was
still only a handful of houses in the tiny hamlet of Kendall.

No homesteading lands were available in Kendall, and Seminoles still lived
in a village west of where Baptist Hospital now stands. Another Seminole
village was on the present site of Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, west of
107th Avenue between Kendall Drive and Sunset Drive.

Kendall itself was bordered by North Kendall Drive on the north, and South
Kendall Drive on the south. Only the North Kendall Drive name has survived.
The former South Kendall Drive is now known simply as 104th Street.

The Dice House front porch was a good vantage point to watch farmers bring
their winter vegetables in, and to see grove owners bring in their late
summer mangoes and avocadoes. A packinghouse one block south of the Dice
House, on the site of today's A-1 Fargo Moving & Storage, shipped winter
tomatoes to the north, and the Blue Ribbon Jersey Dairy on the present-day
Pinecrest side delivered milk to Coconut Grove.

Winds of Change

From the porch on a certain blustery morning in September 1926, you would
have seen the rescue train heading down to the Keys to evacuate residents in
the face of the great Labor Day hurricane. The doomed train never returned.
It was swept into Florida Bay, along with thousands of human victims.

Kendall was hard hit as well. The coontie mill was destroyed and never
rebuilt. Many other homes and buildings also fell to the winds. While the
rest of the country waited until 1929 for the Great Depression, Kendall and
the rest of South Florida got a three-year head start.

With the coontie mill gone and the Depression on, Kendall was quiet. The
closest you could get to a crowd was at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp
across from what is now Dadeland. Stonemasons from Wisconsin lived at the
camp while they built the limestone structures at Matheson Hammock and along
Old Cutler Road. In the Forties, the same camp held Nazi prisoners of war
captured in North Africa.

The Fifties saw a lot of changes from that front porch. The old heart pine
packinghouse burned down, and the heat could be felt a half mile away. The
arrival of the new US 1 roadbed turned "Old Dixie Highway" into a back
alley. New houses were built by the dozen. The Smoaks sold off their
farmland to be platted into lots for modern ranch houses. It was the
beginning of Kendall's boom years, which haven't stopped yet.

The Palmetto Expressway arrived in the early Sixties, terminating just to
the east of that same front porch. The Dice House almost fell in the
Eighties to make way for a maintenance yard for the brand new Metrorail
system. A change in plans put the train yards in Hialeah instead.

In 1992 the pine cottage lost only a few shingles to Hurricane Andrew,
despite the fact that Wayside Baptist Church, one block to the north, lost
an entire side of its sanctuary. Twisted steel, concrete rubble and soaked
hymnals covered the plush theater seating, leaving a two-story-high hole in
the eastern face of the church. Dade County pine, it seemed, still had its
advantages. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the Dice House became the
office of an electrical contractor displaced from South Dade.

The Dice Curse

The Dice home has fared better in many ways than its namesake family. Luck
ran out on the Dice bolita game in a 1964 raid on the store. But by that
time, bad luck was already on a roll in the Dice family.

David Brantly Dice died in 1948, leaving the store and its bolita game to
his eldest son Frank, who died a decade later in 1958. The store then passed
to the middle son June, who lasted another ten years before dying in 1968.
The last son Jim Bob could see the writing on the wall, and prepared to meet
his maker in 1978. In January 1979, he threw a party to celebrate the end of
the Dice Curse. He died two months later.

Decline and Fall

By the Eighties, the house was unoccupied and falling into disrepair. One of
its last residents, Viola Burns, left behind a set of wooden boards used by
her son who was a Trappist monk. The boards listed the seven subject areas
of the ancient Trivium and Quadrivium of classical times. It seemed the Dice
House was destined to become another historical footnote.

The house was declared historic by the county in 1989, but little was done
to maintain the structure. By 1997, then-owner Randy Boynton successfully
petitioned for the right to move or demolish the house as an economic
hardship. This led to the sale of the house, with a window of 6 months for
its removal.

An effort led by neighbor Trish Ramsay to move the Dice House to the grounds
of Kenwood School failed due to the bureaucratic requirements of the school
board. Preservation efforts stalled. The new owners didn't respond to phone
calls from neighbors. It seemed the owner never realized that he had only
six months to remove the house. The neighbors missed this 'detail' as well.

Weeds encroached around the house, and virginia creeper vines ranged across
the old front porch, now collapsing of wood rot. The owners left the door
open, despite reminders to lock it. Squatters moved in.

A mysterious fire in the late nineties claimed the house next door to the
Dice House, an old blacksmith's cottage that some called "the second oldest
house in Kendall," though this was unconfirmed. Evidence pointed to arson.
Neighbors were sure that the intended target was the Dice House itself,
which by that time was the focus of a contentious lawsuit over its historic
status. The owners were fighting once again for the right to level the
building. Their plans featured a gated compound of condos intended for sale
to South Americans drawn to shop at Dadeland.

That lawsuit was defeated, thanks to the efforts of the County Attorney's
office, served ably by Tom Logue, counsel to the county's Historic
Preservation Board. The owners finally decided to sell the house.

Lucking Out

And the story's not over. Thanks to new owner Bernardo Junco, the Dice House
is preening for a new role in Kendall. As Downtown Kendall rises a few
blocks to the north, the old crossroads of historic Kendall is still a
special place. Pretty it ain't, not quite quaint, but it's a place that
still seems to have a ghost of a chance to become a true neighborhood center
once again.

From the first, there have always been two 'general stores' at these
crossroads. Dan Killian put up those streetlights in front of his store as
part of his competitive battle against Mr. England's store. For most of the
1970s, there were actually two 7-Elevens, back to back: one facing 77th
Avenue and the other fronting US 1. Incredibly, it was the one on US 1 that
folded first.

The special magnetism of the old Kendall crossroads continues today. Two
Quick Stop convenience stores are doing quite well, thank you, right across
the street from one another. Convenience stores usually occur on four-lane
streets in Kendall, spaced a mile or two apart, but this two-lane street is
somehow supporting two such stores. Your dining choices at this corner
include pizza, subs, Cuban sandwiches, garlic crabs, Iranian cuisine, Dutch
cheeses, potluck suppers at Wayside Baptist Church, and now a hometown café
in a storied cracker cottage.

The Dice House Café is scheduled to open in the fall of this year.
Why not stop by at the newest restaurant in the oldest house in Kendall? No
matter what's on the menu, the flavor of historic Kendall will be on
special.

Sources:
A Little Red Schoolhouse Grows Up, a history of Kenwood School, Kenwood PTA
Villages of South Dade, Jean Taylor
Looking Back, Miami Memorabilia Club, March 1999, article by Mary Ann
Talmadge

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