Cauley Square is a hidden gem in Miami

They say there’s magic here, that the towering tree canopy covered in twinkling lights is alive. That there’s a resilient spirit here, where the sweet sound of wind chimes travels through 10 lush acres of gardens and shops that rose again after being knocked down by hurricanes.

“This place, it’s like it has a soul. It refuses to die,” said Leni Borges, owner of a crochet shop at Cauley Square, a historic tree-lined railroad village in Goulds built in 1903 by pioneer farmer William H. Cauley.

Lights twinkle in the garden at the historic Cauley Square. Photo: Al Diaz

Cauley Square was not spared by the fury of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. This week marked 24 years since the devastation that caused more than $1 million in damages to the site — an apt time for the groundbreaking on what will be the first major makeover since the village was rebuilt post-Andrew.

Related Content: Where to eat and what to do in Cauley Square

Today the charming village sits on a charmless concrete corner of U.S. 1 in far South Miami-Dade. The whimsical center is nestled among mature trees and tropical foliage, home to an often-spotted family of friendly racoons.

“Hurricanes Andrew, Wilma and Katrina have nothing on Cauley Square,” said owner Frances Varela, 66.

Varela, a former construction company owner and native of Honduras, bought the property in 2001 from the family of the late preservationist Mary Ann Ballard. Ballard had purchased Cauley Square in 1949 after Miami-Dade County condemned the aging collection of buildings and slated them for demolition following a steady economic decline after weather-related destruction, the Great Depression, World War II, and population expansion pushing out agriculture.

Owner Francis Varela welcomes guests at the Village Chalet at Cauley Square. Photo: Al Diaz 

Ballard stepped in and gradually preserved the square, ultimately acquiring the title as a “historic site” from the county in 1994. She died in 1998. A few years later, her children sold it to Varela, who poured millions into refurbishing the grounds. After 2005’s hurricane Katrina, Varela managed with muscle, a crane and a team of 10 to prop up all the trees that had toppled —in less than 24 hours.

“Although many things have tried to bring this place down, it hasn’t fallen and will not succumb. It’s trials like those that have made this place so strong and resilient in spirit, ” Varela added.

The Village Chalet at Cauley Square. Photo: Al Diaz

Over time, Cauley Square has turned into a quaint collection of more than two dozen Old Florida cottages, shops, restaurants, gardens and galleries. They popped up around the main building — originally a two-story flatiron structure that Cauley built as a warehouse 113 years ago. In later years the Spanish-style stucco walls hid a speakeasy — an illicit liquor store. A spiral staircase, since removed, led to a bordello.

Today, the former warehouse houses an aviary on the first floor. Varela’s offices line the top floor. The $55,000 restoration of the main building, which sits at the site’s front entrance, will get hurricane-proof windows, a paint job, new signage and lights, and other accessories.

Hector Banos and Joel Alpizar install a new window at the Cauley Square main building, the first time the building has been renovated since Hurricane Andrew. Photo: Emily Michot

Many of the original cottages served as homes for workers for Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, which journeyed to Key West. Cauley would use this depot to ship his tomatoes north in the winter. One of the old red cabooses sits near the entrance today. Cauley Square is the last railroad village in Florida and one of the last in the country.

Cauley Square, once a rail depot, is home to dozens of small vintage shops. Photo: Emily Michot

“Cauley Square is really a collection of buildings and houses from the turn of the century era that are still intact and still retain their historic character,” said Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, the county’s historic preservation chief. “The fact that there is a group of them clustered together, still functioning as a small community, is very rare in South Florida today.”

Varela said it was when she witnessed the region “lose section after section of historical architecture, that I knew I had to purchase Cauley Square. I wanted to give back to my community so bad and protect this little island and gold mine.”

Edna Rivera, owner of O’Sew Crafty in Cauley Square, places some of her store’s items for sale on the porch. Photo: Emily Michot

She said that the complete restoration took almost a decade. Today, the beautifully re-landscaped grounds, the fountains, and wheelchair-accessible walkways are all parts of her plans that came to life. “This is a place where families come together, where the community comes together,” she said.

Sheri Friedman, owner of Cauley Square’s Blu Moon Studio of Art, was located in Coconut Grove for eight years. Friedman, like a number of other village vendors, said making the move was “an opportunity to get away from the everyday humdrum, hustle and bustle of the outside world.”

A student talks to Blu Moon Studio of Art owner and artist, Sheri Friedman, in the cottage studio at Cauley Square. Photo: Emily Michot

Over the years, more vendors have relocated to the village from greater Miami, Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and even Broward County.

“It’s like a little sanctuary, a little tranquil space,” Friedman said. “Being an artist and teaching art, you want to have an environment that’s inspiriting and beautiful. My students tell me they feel like it’s an escape from the crazy, hectic activity of Miami. They always feel like they’re in a different world out here. which is nice, because when you’re working creatively, that’s kinda the space you want to be in. You want to be able to open up your mind to more creative thoughts and energy.”

Next door is a modern crochet shop, where bikinis and bustiers are stitched by hand. Nearby is Nana’s Boutique and Spaw, where Lina, a 2-year-old Shih Tzu, gets a haircut. Her buddies wag their tails as they wait their turn.

Leni Borges, 64, owner of Leni Borges Designs, laces up one of her crochet bikini designs on a mannequin inside her cottage at Cauley Square. Photo: Emily Michot

Across the street is a French aromatherapy shop, a beauty salon, a coconut stand, a flower shop, a crystal boutique and several art, antique and stained-glass galleries. At the center is The Tea Room, which Ballard opened in 1979. The restaurant is a cluster of Victorian-era rooms, each with different decor, including lace curtains, delicate china, crystal, stained glass lamps, tea party hats, an ancient stove and, in one corner, a piano.

Courtney Graves, 30 of Homestead and Raquel Serig, 30 of Miami, have lunch and tea at the Tea Room at Cauley Square. Photo: Emily Michot

“It’s like stepping back in time,” one woman said, sipping on her cucumber mint tea. “Almost like Miami’s best-kept secret.”

But this enclave of charm and picturesque strolling trails isn’t just for daylight. When the sun sets, particularly Friday and Saturday evenings, music echoes through tall trees and glowing fountains as people wine and dine to live jazz or classic rock at The Village Chalet, a cottage-turned-restaurant.

Mandy Freyre performs for guests at the Village Chalet at Cauley Square. Photo: Al Diaz

“It’s the perfect place for a wedding, a spontaneous date, or maybe time for reflection,” Varela said. “A crowning touch among the 25 restored structures is a small chapel that I transformed with gratitude for having a very blessed life,” Varela said. “It’s a spot where, no matter what religion, you can stop in for some quiet time.”

It’s that very serenity that permeates the medley of stores and courtyards lined with vintage lightpoles and rustic benches.

Handmade stained glass graces the front window of Stained Glass Gallery at Cauley Square. Photo: Emily Michot

“We definitely want more people to come, but at the same time, part of the beauty and appeal of this oasis is that we don’t have too many people, which is what makes us relaxing and low-profile,” said Carlos Franco, artist and owner of The Children’s Gallery & Arts Center.

Added Borges, who had the grand opening for her crochet shop in May: “It’s not like a mall. Malls are boring. You go and ‘boom, boom, boom’ everything’s the same. Here, each shop has its own life. It’s all different; you won’t find two that are remotely similar.”

Monique O. Madan: 305-376-2108, @MoniqueOMadan

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