The Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach
By Steve Winston
One of the oldest buildings in the Western Hemisphere, the cultural and spiritual landmark takes visitors back almost 900 years.
Miami’s known for many things. But 12th-century monasteries are not one of them.
Yet amid the urban bustle of North Miami Beach sits a piece of medieval Europe: the Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery.
Walk inside the gate to these beautiful green grounds, filled with gardens, walkways and statues, and the monastery doesn’t seem out of place at all; it’s in splendid harmony with its surroundings. Here, the 21st century seems a million miles away.
Everything about the monastery says “medieval.” Lanterns on the garden paths. Statues and fountains. Stained glass. Carved ceilings, columns and arches. Sacramental stone tables. A bell tower. Colorful coats of arms adorning the cloisters. Heavy wood strongboxes. The air of spirituality seeps from every crack in the stone and from every little alcove.
So, how did this piece of medieval Spain get to Miami?
Construction on the Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux began in Sacramenia, in the province of Segovia, in 1133. It took 11 years to build and was occupied by monks for the next 700 years. In the midst of social upheaval in the 1830s, the cloisters of the church -- covered passageways of arched-stone -- were sold and converted into a stable.
In 1925, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst visited the monastery. Hearst -- as anyone who’s been to his “castle” in California knows -- was a lover of European culture and history. He fell in love with the ornate cloisters and purchased them.
The 800-year-old structures were then dismantled stone by stone. Each was numbered, packed in hay and shipped to the United States in 11,000 boxes. At the time, however, there was a serious hoof-and-mouth outbreak in Spain. Fearing the hay carried the disease, the Department of Agriculture broke open the boxes and burned the hay upon the shipment’s arrival in New York.
It took 23 men and three months to open the boxes (which contained seven tons of nails) and remove the stones. After the hay was burned, they put the stones back in the boxes -- but not the matching ones.
Then the Great Depression hit, and Hearst fell into financial trouble and was forced to sell his collection. The stones sat in a Brooklyn warehouse for 26 years until 1952, when Miami businessmen William Edgemon and Raymond Moss decided to buy them and turn them into a tourist attraction in North Miami Beach.
It took 19 months to ship and reassemble the Cloisters at a cost of $1.5 million. But things didn’t work out as Edgemon and Moss had planned.
Because Dixie Highway was at the time the only way to get from Miami to the Keys, Edgemon and Moss figured the road would make the Cloisters a major draw, says Gregory Mansfield, who ministers to the congregation at the attached St. Bernard de Clairvaux Episcopal Church. But when U.S. 1 was built, “suddenly they were stuck with a tourist attraction on a road with no tourists.”
They lost their shirts on the deal and sold the Cloisters to the Episcopal Church for pennies on the dollar.
Now, the structures are studied by everyone from artists to historians to writers to architects. The latter, in particular, are fascinated to find two architectural styles.
Construction began in Romanesque style, but some monks who had traveled to France became enamored with the Gothic architecture in vogue there.
“When they returned, they asked the architects to use that style,“ Mansfield says. “But the architects weren’t familiar with Gothic, so the monks sent them to France to study it. And when they came back, they finished up the already Romanesque cloisters in a Gothic style!”
If the walls here could talk, they’d have nearly 900 years of stories. The tranquil property is popular with local artists and has become a sought-after wedding spot.
The congregation of St. Bernard de Clairvaux is reflective of Miami -- one-third black, one-half white and one-third Hispanic. And the nationalities represented here include Polish, Iranian, French and Haitian.
“We feel that these grounds don’t belong only to us,” Mansfield says. “We have a responsibility to share this special place and to preserve it for future generations.”
If You Go
The Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery, 16711 West Dixie Highway in North Miami Beach, is open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m - 4 p.m. Sunday. Regular admission is $8, $4 for seniors and military members, free for children under 4. The monastery sometimes closes for special events, so call ahead to confirm hours at 305-945-1461. Visit spanishmonastery.com for more information.
Steve Winston has written/contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.