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. The Florida Park Service acquired the remaining five acres of Munroe’s original 40 acre home site from his descendants in 1973. Ralph Munroe first visited South Florida in 1877 while on vacation from New York. His next visit to the area was not as pleasant. In 1881, doctors told Munroe that his wife, Eva, had contracted tuberculosis and indicated a radical change of climate was the best and only hope.
Munroe immediately remembered the beautiful Biscayne Bay and at once prepared to take her there. Despite his efforts, illness took its toll. Eva passed away at their camp on the Miami River. Munroe was then faced with the news of their infant daughter’s death upon his arrival back in New York. He returned to South Florida in 1882 to visit his wife’s grave and help open a hotel on Biscayne Bay.
First known as the Bay View Villa, the hotel became the Peacock Inn and went on to have a long and profitable history. Ralph Munroe purchased 40 acres of bayfront land in 1886 for $400 in addition to one of his sailboats, Kingfish, valued at an additional $400. His boat house was built in 1887 and he lived on its upper floor until his main house was completed in 1891. The house, a one-story structure, was raised off the ground on wood pilings.
Its central room was octagonal in shape and Munroe came to call his home “The Barnacle,” presumably because it resembled one. It remained a bungalow until more space was needed in 1908. At that time the whole structure, as it stood, was lifted and a new first-floor inserted below. The Barnacle survived the disastrous 1926 hurricane and Hurricane Andrew in 1992 with only minimal damage.
Ralph Munroe’s principal passion in life was designing yachts. Boats were the major form of transportation in the early days and yachting was a popular sport. Many South Floridians commissioned Munroe to design their yachts. In 1887, a group of residents formed the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, electing Munroe as Commodore, the title he held for 22 years. In hislifetime, the Commodore drew plans for 56 different boats. Micco, the last of Munroe’s boats in existence, was displayed at the park until Hurricane Andrew reduced the 101-year-old vessel to fragments. Egret, a replica of Munroe’s 28-foot modified sharpie, is now moored offshore.
The autumn of 1894 marked a new beginning for Ralph Munroe. He met Miss Jessie Wirth while on a cruise with friends. They were married that next summer, and began a long and happy home life at The Barnacle. In 1900, Jesse gave birth to a daughter, Patty, who was followed two years later by her brother, Wirth. The family took frequent cruises on the bay, and the children learned to sail at a very early age.
The road into this historic site from busy Main Highway passes through a forest of tropical hardwood hammock. In the 1920’s it was an example of the original landscape within the limits of Miami. Today, it is one of the last remnants of the once vast “Miami Hammock.”
Commodore Munroe preserved the original hammock between the road and The Barnacle, cutting out only a winding buggy trail barely wide enough for one vehicle. As a result, the forest contains many old trees, and left in its natural state, The Barnacle appears much as it did in Munroe’s day.
As a seaman, naturalist, and photographer, Commodore Munroe was a man who cherished the natural world around him. It is a fitting legacy that we too can share at The Barnacle Historic State Park. Enjoy sitting in the rocking chairs on the spacious porch used as a gathering place or on a bench under a tree for solitude. Better yet, become a volunteer and/or join The Barnacle Society to help preserve this historic treasure.
History and Culture
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 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.
The Barnacle circa 1891
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 allowed air to circulate below the house, thereby 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. This stair hall was once the Barnacle’s dining room, before the one-story bungalow was raised to two to make room for Munroe’s growing family.
Second Floor Central Hall
This photo highlights the second floor octagonal hall. 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 are 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.
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.