One Big House, Many Different Lives [Biscayne Times]

Published in the May, 2010 issue of the Biscayne Times newspaper:

It was a water-pumping station, a house of music, a private residence, maybe a church, a chop shop, flop house, meeting place for mystics, and finally a beauty salon. There may even be a body buried in the backyard.

For decades, the grotto-like structure at 5808 NE 4th Ct. in Miami’s Upper Eastside was known simply as the Lemon City Pump House. Named for the citrus-rich agricultural community that once flourished nearby, the coral-rock building looked, to most locals, like a stone chapel. But beyond its sweeping entryway arches and heavy wooden doors sprung a once-rich supply of pure drinking water.

Built in 1923 by developer James H. Nunnally, the pump house originally concealed a 38-horsepower engine and pump that drew water from two wells sunk deep into the Biscayne Aquifer. An 8000-gallon storage tank created enough pressure to pipe the water across Biscayne Boulevard to residents of the newly constructed development of Bay Shore (later renamed Morningside).

The Water Plant at Bay Shore, as it was called in a 1920s sales brochure, provided fresh tap water at a time when many U.S. homes still had none. Yet despite its functionality and modern trappings, the pump house soon grew idle.

A very large backyard is dominated by water features. (Photo courtesy of Sabrina D’eca)

Two years after its construction, the area of Bay Shore was annexed by the City of Miami and, according to Miami-Dade College history professor Paul George, the house became redundant: “When Bay Shore was a development outside of city limits, the developer had to assure people he could provide water. But once it joined the City of Miami, the city picked up the task.”

Defunct and seemingly forgotten, the pump house’s historical record grows dark for the next half a century. Hobos are said to have used the place as a crash pad during the 1930s. Local pianist Marvin Maher converted the building into a private home at some point and gave music lessons there for many years. But other than vague recollections and old title deeds, information on the period from 1925 to 1975 is hard to come by. Historical photos, too, seem to have been lost to time.

In the spring of 1976, the story picks up on a much darker note when accused murderer Robert Brent Bowman moved from Ohio to Miami and mortgaged the place for $50,000. The charismatic, 40-year-old handbag manufacturer brought with him his wife, young daughter, and a terrible secret.

According to published reports, Bowman allegedly had abducted a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Toledo nine years earlier. He shackled her to a wall in his basement, raped her, and bludgeoned her to death. Police found her body in a field several days later.

J.B. Kilpatrick spent three years chiseling out the lagoon.

It would take 40 years and new DNA technology to link Bowman to the killing and finally make an arrest. He’s currently awaiting trial in an Ohio jail. His days at the pump house, however, have left some unanswered questions.

Shortly after moving into the home, Bowman began to go through profound spiritual changes. He used LSD, slept inside a glass pyramid, and talked about being spiritually connected to John the Baptist. Around the same time, ads began to appear in local newspapers announcing meetings at the pump house, hosted by an outfit called Cornucopia Centers. The meetings explored things like “multi-sense awakening” and “cosmic rites.”

Veteran South Florida journalist Dan Christensen, writing for the Miami News in 1988, reported that police finally questioned Bowman in 1982 about the Toledo killing. Bowman didn’t admit to the murder, but hinted that another girl’s body was buried somewhere on the pump house grounds. Skepticism, money, and departmental restructuring, according to Christensen’s article, kept Miami police from conducting a search.

Whatever the case, ownership of the pump house passed to the Veterans’ Administration in 1978 after Bowman, who was a military vet, defaulted on his VA-backed mortgage. A doctor snapped up the place for just $10,000 in 1980 and partitioned the interior into 11 separate rooms, creating cheap residential rental units exclusively for women. Three years later he sold it to retired art teacher Everett Gum — at a $75,000 profit.

Owners Sabrina D’eca and J.B. Kilpatrick: When they bought the property in 1999, the neighborhood “was like the Wild Wild West.”

With the neighborhood newly awash in drugs, violence, and prostitution during the 1980s, however, Gum had trouble maintaining the place. According to his daughter, he bought the house as an investment, and it’s unclear whether he ever lived there. Court records show he evicted tenants twice during that period, and a news report from 1988 described the home as dilapidated and vacant.

By 1994 the pump house had become an encampment for vagrants. Hundreds of used tires accumulated on the property — possibly dumped there by the proprietors of an automobile service station across the street in the present-day Andiamo Pizza building. Cars, stripped to their frames, and mounds of debris also littered the large backyard.

A near death blow was struck that same year when a destructive fire tore through the place, collapsing the second floor and tall cathedral ceiling. Initial speculation was that homeless squatters had accidentally sparked the blaze. But according to the Sun Sentinel (which described the place as an abandoned church), investigators found flammable liquid on the premises and concluded there was “no doubt the building was burned intentionally.” The perpetrator and motive remain a mystery.

Exposed, charred, and in ruins, the house drew the attention of Miami code inspectors, who gave Gum 90 days to clean and secure his property. But with $100,000 in liens against it for accumulated code violations, Gum opted to have the pump house demolished instead.

The backyard was once littered with discarded tires, stripped cars, and piles of garbage.

Miami Herald reporter Geoffrey Tomb documented the pump house’s plight in an April 1995 article that sparked an immediate public outcry. His story prompted Miami Mayor Steve Clark to order the demolition halted. Volunteers descended on the place to help with a clean-up effort. And most significantly, Gum agreed to donate his property to the preservation group Dade Heritage Trust, which persuaded the city to remove the hefty liens by promising to restore the pump house.

Habitual building-savior Sal Patronaggio paid just $16,500 for the property a year later and tried to fulfill that promise. He hired a machete-wielding homeless man, still living amid the ruins, to help him clean the grounds; used a pressure-washer to drive snakes out of the rock walls; and eventually installed a new roof. “It was junkyard back then,” he says, “but I fell in love with it.”

The pump house had another admirer as well. Former actor J.B. Kilpatrick had been eyeing the place for years. A decade earlier, despite facing ridicule from buddies, he had taken his sister’s advice to attend beauty school while pursuing his movie career. Now, scouting a new location for his South Beach hair salon, he and his wife Sabrina D’eca decided to make Patronaggio an offer.

Shortly thereafter, in 1999, they bought the pump house for $208,000. “It was like the Wild, Wild West back then,” Kilpatrick recalls. “There was no fence in the back, so people were all over the property. They were even in the damn trees. One guy tried to hit me with a hammer. Another time, five guys kicked the door down when I was inside. I picked up my bow and arrow and fired a few shots. They ran out so fast you wouldn’t believe it.”

Such mayhem wouldn’t last long. With developer Mark Soyka’s burgeoning commercial complex next door, the growing focus of historic preservationists on nearby Biscayne Boulevard, and Kilpatrick’s D.I.Y. talents, things finally started to turn around for the embattled pump house.

“Every day I would cut hair on the Beach until maybe 2:00 in the afternoon, then come here and work on the place until 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning,” Kilpatrick recalls. “My vision kept getting bigger and bigger — until I ran out of money. And this is what I ended up with.”

What he ended up with is a fully restored stone sanctuary with a cathedral ceiling, glazed concrete floors, dark interior woodwork, and lush tropical landscaping. The crowning jewel: an elaborate, coral-rock water feature that took three years to chisel out of the ground. Spread halfway across the back garden, its water cascades from an upper pool into a larger lagoon, where hand-carved stone steps descend like a Roman bath beneath the glimmering surface.

There was, however, one problem with his little Eden. The property carried a decades-old residential zoning restriction, which barred him from establishing his salon business. Kilpatrick grimaces as he describes the unexpectedly long process of having the property rezoned commercial (seven years by his count): “I almost lost everything waiting for the zoning change. Everyone at the city was onboard except Sarah Eaton [the city’s former historic preservation officer]. I put so much money into this property and spent so many years not making any money back from it.”

He credits historian Paul George, who spoke on his behalf at a Historic and Environmental Preservation Board meeting, with finally persuading Eaton to approve the change. And if not for a generous investment by his late father-in-law, Alfonso D’eca, and mother-in-law Joyce, he insists the pump house project would have died long ago. He and wife Sabrina finally hung a sign outside in 2006, christening their building and business with a new name: The Beauty Temple.

Standing in front of their coral-rock masterpiece on a recent workday, Kilpatrick acknowledges a spiritual connection to the place after his protracted struggle: “This is where my heart is. This is my soul. If I sold this property now, my life journey would change completely. There’s definitely some powerful energy in this place.”

Read this article on the Biscayne Times website.

Read the 2017 follow-up: Morningside Pump House Might Unlock the Secrets of Murderer Robert Bowman

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