Just off Main Highway in downtown Coconut Grove awaits a jewel from a quieter time. The Barnacle, the 19th century home of Ralph Middleton Munroe, one of Coconut Grove's most influential and charming residents, is one of the oldest houses in Miami-Dade County. Munroe purchased 40 acres of bayfront land in 1886 for $400 plus one of his sailboats, Kingfish, valued at an additional $400. His boathouse was built in 1887. The family lived at The Barnacle until 1973 when it became a state park. As a seaman, naturalist and photographer, Commodore Munroe cherished the natural world around him; it is a fitting legacy that we, too, can share at The Barnacle Historic State Park.
Ralph Middleton Munroe, born in 1851 in New York, first visited Florida while vacationing in 1877. He immediately fell in love with the isolated tropical paradise. After business responsibilities drew him home, he married and began a family. Tragically, he lost his wife to tuberculosis and his daughter to influenza in 1882, when he was only 31 years old. Munroe later returned to Florida, permanently moving to Coconut Grove in 1886. He purchased a 40-acre parcel of bayfront land for $400 cash and the price of one of his sailboats, also worth $400. The original boathouse built in 1887 soon became his home, workshop and a favorite gathering place for the local sailing community. It also became the initial home of the newly-founded Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, where Munroe served as Commodore for 22 years. Frequent visitors made the boathouse impractical as a residence, so Munroe designed a bungalow for himself on the ridge above and began living there in 1891. On a return trip from visiting family in New York, Ralph met lovely, young Miss Jessie Wirth and they married in 1895. A daughter Patty was born in 1900, and a son Wirth in 1902. To support his family, Munroe worked as a salvager/wrecker but his true passion was designing sailboats. A man with diverse interests, he was also a photographer, author and environmental activist. Ralph lived in Coconut Grove until his death at the age of 82.
In building The Barnacle, Commodore Munroe drew on the principles of boat design and his observations of traditional Caribbean home construction to make his house as comfortable and stable as possible. The hipped-roof on The Barnacle is more stable and less likely to blow off in a hurricane than gabled roofs. The Barnacle's location, at 18 feet above sea level, placed it out of reach of dangerous storm surges and accompanying debris. Setting the home on pilings, or pillars, allowed air to circulate below the house, completely surrounding the building and preventing wood rot. Two-story porches shielded the home's walls from the sun's direct rays and windows that opened strategically made use of ever-present winds to help cool the house. All of these features helped keep The Barnacle very comfortable, even in the hot South Florida summers.
Taken from the attic of Munroe's two-story home, this photo highlights the octagonal room below. It was built with Dade County pine and salvaged lumber from the Bay's many shipwrecks. A cupola, complete with transom windows operated by ropes and pulleys, was built atop the roof. This cupola, a ventilation system, created a chimney effect drawing warm air up and out while the cooler sea breezes rushed in to take its place. When the Munroe family lived here, the attic always functioned as storage for furnishings, fixtures and family heirlooms, as well as an indoor playground for the children. The second story served as a quiet family area. The second floor balcony and adjoining rooms offer breathtaking views of beautiful, ever-changing Biscayne Bay. The upstairs contained four bedrooms, a sitting room, linen closet and two bathrooms. Like most homes of the era, The Barnacle also boasted a sewing room. The house is decorated with photographs taken by the Commodore, various tools of his trade and family butterfly collections. The bedrooms are decorated with Munroe family belongings. In keeping with the Commodore's motto of "a place for everything and everything in its place," common features found throughout the house include built-in furniture pieces like the buffet in the stair hall and the wall-sized medicine cabinet in the hallway to Aunt Josephine's room.
Keeping a boat in tip-top shape was a necessity in the early days of Miami, before roads and railroads replaced sea transportation. The marine railway featured in the photo made it possible to repair and maintain inaccessible areas of a boat while keeping the boat dry. The marine railway, located at The Barnacle, along with the fully-equipped boathouse workshop, on-site blacksmith shop and nearby sawmill, offered state-of-the-art facilities unlike any others in the region. The Commodore himself provided the community with a wealth of expertise in boat design, construction and repair. In addition to tools, the original boathouse contained his collection of 56 boat designs, photography equipment and dark room. Sadly, the Commodore witnessed the destruction of his beloved boathouse as it collapsed in the hurricane of 1926. Nevertheless, he was determined to rebuild this treasure, a landmark on the shore of Biscayne Bay, to better withstand any future hurricanes or natural disasters. The Commodore anchored four cables deep into the limestone, securing them to iron beams inside the boathouse. These cables were designed to anchor the boathouse to the ground during gale force winds and giving the structure stability. Similarly, he created a system in which the bay front and back walls would break away with a rushing storm surge, but the remaining structure would stand strong. Though the Commodore never lived to see his plan in action, the boathouse was put to the test and survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In the past, as is still the case today, The Barnacle grounds served as a gathering point for events and parties. This particular tea party at the boathouse was attended by local Bahamian settlers. Bahamians were some of the first settlers in Coconut Grove and newcomers benefited from their knowledge and expertise. They taught other settlers how to adapt to the heat and mosquitoes of the jungle wilderness. Along with the Seminoles, they influenced the character of Miami's architecture through their great skill and the addition of African and American Indian design elements. The old Bahamian sector of Coconut Grove, commonly referred to as Kebo, features many of these Bahamian-style homes and is located just blocks from The Barnacle.