Situated on the shore of Biscayne Bay, The Barnacle was the 19th century home of Ralph Middleton Munroe, one of Coconut Grove’s most interesting and influential pioneers. As a sailor, naturalist, and photographer with ties through his grandfather, William, to the New England Transcendentalists (including Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott), Munroe cherished nature and promoted what he called "the simple and genuine life."
Munroe first visited South Florida in 1877 while on vacation from Staten Island, New York. He enjoyed his visit, leaving with fond memories, but his next trip to the area was much less pleasant. In 1881, doctors told Munroe that his wife, Eva, had contracted tuberculosis and indicated that a radical change of climate was needed at once. Munroe remembered beautiful Biscayne Bay and brought Eva there in hopes of her recovery. Despite his efforts and the nursing of Isabella Peacock, she passed away at their camp on the Miami River. Upon arriving back in New York, Munroe discovered that his only child had also died.
Munroe returned to South Florida in 1882 to visit his wife’s grave and to help Charles and Isabella Peacock open a hotel. First known as the Bay View Villa, the hotel became the Peacock Inn and went on to have a long and profitable history. In thanks for his help, the Peacocks gave Munroe four acres of land. He moved his wife’s grave to the new site and then donated the property to the community for the construction of its first church. An accomplished amateur photographer, Munroe took many iconic photos of life on Biscayne Bay during this time.
Boats were the major form of transportation in the early days and yachting was a popular sport. Ralph Munroe's principal passion in life was designing yachts, and he received many commissions from his friends in South Florida. In his lifetime, he drew plans for 56 different boats.
Munroe purchased 40 acres of bayfront land in 1886 for $400.00 and one of his sailboats, Kingfish, valued at an additional $400.00. The Boathouse was built the following year. It served as his home, his workshop, and the clubhouse for the newly-formed Biscayne Bay Yacht Club. Munroe was elected the Yacht Club’s first Commodore and held the title for 22 years. (When the Boathouse was destroyed during the disastrous hurricane of 1926, Munroe quickly rebuilt in the same location. The new structure had a concrete foundation, guywires strapping the framework to the ground, and walls in front and back that were designed to break away during a storm. It survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992.)
While living in the original Boathouse, Commodore Munroe designed the one-story bungalow that would become his next residence. Completed in 1891, the new house was named The Barnacle because the lines of its high-pitched roof were thought to mimic the shape of the conical crustacean.
The autumn of 1894 marked a new beginning for the Commodore. He met Miss Jessie Wirth while on a cruise with friends. They were married the next summer and began a long and happy life together. When Jessie gave birth to a daughter, Patty, in 1900, she asked her sister, Josephine, to come help with the house and the baby. Miss Jo (aka Aunt Dodie) became a permanent resident of The Barnacle and served as a librarian at the Coconut Grove Library for 55 years.
Ralph and Jessie’s second child, a boy named Wirth, arrived in 1902, and the family needed more space. They began enclosing the porches on two sides of the house to expand the interior. In 1908, they raised the entire structure using railroad jacks and completed a new first floor below it. Electricity, city water, and a library wing all followed. The last major structural changes occurred in 1928.
After Ralph and Jessie passed away, a grown-up Wirth moved back into the main house with his wife, Mary, and sons, Bill and Charlie. Mary Munroe went to live in a retirement community after her husband’s death in 1968, and after turning down lucrative offers from developers, the Munroe family sold The Barnacle to the State of Florida. It became a park in 1973 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, The Barnacle is the oldest house in Miami-Dade County still standing in its original location and is a tangible reminder of Miami's nautical roots in a simpler time.
Books and videos about the Munroe Family and pioneer life in Miami include
The Commodore's Story: The Early Days on Biscayne Bay by Ralph Middleton Munroe and Vincent Gilpin
The Forgotten Frontier: Florida through the Lens of Ralph Middleton Munroe by Arva Moore Parks
Season of Innocence: The Munroes at the Barnacle in Early Coconut Grove by Deborah A. Coulombe and Herbert L. Hiller
"Ralph Munroe's Barnacle: Centerpiece of a Legacy." A Production of WLRN