The house stood amid the pine and oak, far removed and away from what might pass for civilization in middle Georgia. It sat battered by time, the hot Georgia summer sun, and the harsh winter wind. The porch was falling down, and sagged at the front door.
Nearly 700 miles from the red Georgia clay, this became my parents’ house on Southwest 47th Court, just off Sunset Drive. It was in this house where my mother Keeker raised three boys, hung contemporary art, played the piano, rehearsed neighborhood children’s Christmas choirs, blasted her stereo and generally held court to her dying day.
To understand my mother, you had to understand her house. The house was built around 1850 near Dames Ferry in Monroe County, nearly 15 miles from the courthouse in Forsyth. When the Civil War came to Monroe County, it was in the form of a great army of Sherman’s soldiers, who camped on the hills northwest of Forsyth. When they passed into town the next day, the soldiers burned any structure of military potential. Thus the great antebellum homes of the town, save three, were destroyed.
Of those three houses, Agnes, Keeker’s mother, came to own one. Miss Alice, my mother’s maiden aunt, owned another. The third, the home of a judge, was too far removed from the town and too far separated from the main Northern force to justify its destruction. It is this house that made its way to Miami.
The truth is that the house did not look like much. If one were serious about moving an antebellum home to South Florida, there were undoubtedly better and grander candidates. But what Keeker saw was not its state of repair, but its dimensions — its scale, lines, and possibilities. The house consisted of four large square main rooms, paired on either side of a great hallway which ran front to back. The rooms were large with 12-foot ceilings. The house was heated by two fireplaces, which opened to each paired room.
My father George Cornell moved from Georgia with his family to Miami in 1926 just in time for the great hurricane. He attended the “new” Miami High where his classmates and friends included U.S. Sen. George Smathers and Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, the Key Biscayne confidant of President Richard Nixon.
In 1929 my father returned to Atlanta to attend Georgia Tech. When his father’s shoe store on Flagler failed, he ordered Dad to come home. Dad instead put himself through Tech drawing ladies shoes for newspaper advertisements. After college he worked in North Carolina until World War II. His first marriage having not survived the war, he joined his brother Elder in the roofing and sheet metal business in Miami. He met my mother Keeker at a party in Macon, Georgia, and they were married in 1947.
They moved the house from Georgia to 47th Court in 1952. My parents lived in the house until their deaths, and then my brother, Howell, lived there for a number of years. Growing up there seemed ordinary to me. It was neither the biggest nor smallest house on 47th Court. My father went to work every day just like all the fathers on the street. My mother did charity work at the Red Cross and taught herself enough about contemporary art to land a position on the Art in Public Places Trust in the 1970s and ’80s.
Our antebellum home was filled with Warhol cows and Lowell Nesbitt flowers. My father’s protest about the incongruity of Greek Revival design and the art was dismissed by my mother. “If it’s good,” she told him, “it looks good anywhere.” Southwest 47th Court in the 1950s was a land of kids. Between Sunset Drive and Southwest 74th St, there were eight houses. By the end of the decade those houses held 22 children.
We spent our weekends and after school playing football on our lawn, engaged in pine cone battles that would last for days or driving go-carts up and down 47th Court. Kids from nearby neighborhoods would often join us. Johnny Wolin, who became a legendary Miami Herald editor, played football with us. He was fierce and a good player in spite of his small stature.
We had neighborhood traditions. Every Christmas, Dr. Jim Lancester, our neighbor and pediatrician, and my mother, would try to whip us into musical shape so we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves when we caroled up and down the street. This tradition went on for years until the kids became teenagers who were way too cool to go door to door singing songs off key. With so many kids, birthday parties were common. Bobby Matheson probably had the best of them. We would go to his family’s coconut plantation on Key Biscayne, where the Ritz Carlton is today, and picnic and play baseball on what amounted to a private beach.
We had a few famous people on 47th Court. Phillip Wylie was a prolific author in the 1940s and 1950s whose attacks on ‘mom-ism’ probably did little to endear him to our own mothers. Another father, Boots Norgaard, was the AP bureau chief in Miami. Boots had been one of the most famous correspondents of World War II. Aside from his own kids, not one of us knew that for many years. Out of that bunch of kids came six lawyers, an Episcopal priest, a photo editor at the New York Times, an architectural historian, a painter, a home builder and a tree surgeon.
Few remain in South Florida, but our street remains a part of each of us.
G. Ware Cornell Jr. is an attorney who now makes his home in Weston.