Most visitors to Coconut Grove, a south Florida destination for both tourists and sailors, take home shoreside memories of shopping, bright lights, and dinners on a fancy patio. But for less than the price of a drink on one of those patios, we can all be transported back to a time when sailing was much more than just a sport: it was the primary form of transportation.
In 1886, Ralph Middleton Munroe purchased 40 acres of frontage property on Biscayne Bay for $400 cash and Kingfish, the sharpie pictured above. He first built a boathouse right along the shore, and lived upstairs until he married his second wife, Jessie Wirth. In 1891 he built the Barnacle, naming it after that tenacious crustacean both for its holding power and for its hole in the top.
The "Commodore," as he was known, was an original founder of the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and its commodore for twenty-two years. He began welcoming sailors to the first clubhouse, which also happened to be his boathouse and home, in 1887. And thanks to a group of his descendants, visitors can still experience that warm welcome today.
An unobtrusive driveway off Coconut Grove's Main Highway leads away from the hustle and bustle through a tropical hardwood hammock, eventually exposing the timeless beauty of Biscayne Bay. The Barnacle turns its back on the current center of town, reminding us of a time when visitors arrived either by the footpath running along the shoreline, or by boat. Built by the Commodore in 1891, the home was designed to withstand hurricanes and also to be naturally cooled by letting heat escape through a venting cupola. It is the oldest house still standing on its original location in all of Miami’s Dade County, and the wide porch is a fabulous place to savor a view of the water.
The Commodore designed 56 different vessels during his 83 years, most of them fast, shoal draft sharpie-style sailboats that would stand up to a rough passage outside the Bay and still be able to cut across the reefs to access shallow harbors. Nathanael Herreshoff was a close friend, and Cap’n Nat came to Coconut Grove for winter escapes later in life, to share ideas with the Commodore. A replica of the famous Munroe design Egret, a 28 footer, is still sailed today by his grandson. You can even perch on the leeward rail via a YouTube short.
In addition to yacht design and boat building, the Commodore was also a photographer and conservationist. By standing up to Mr. Flagler (who brought the railroad to Miami and then to Key West), the Commodore was able to negotiate a bend inland for the rail line. Coconut Grove was spared strip-mall anonymity, preserving its rare tropical greenery for generations to come.
Hour-long tours run by dedicated Florida State Park rangers offer a glimpse into the homey atmosphere of the Barnacle—a house so well designed and built that it withstood both the 1926 Hurricane and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The boat house was sadly reduced to matchsticks by the Hurricane of ‘26, and eventually rebuilt to the careful specification of the Commodore. He died in 1933 before he could see the completed building, but it’s still standing today: almost sixty years later, it withstood Hurricane Andrew by sacrificing its front and rear walls to the storm’s fury.
On your next trip to South Florida, stop in at the Barnacle for a glimpse into the past. Hopefully this tenacious structure will continue to cling to the shores of Biscayne Bay for a long time to come, transporting us back to a time when sailing was the best way to get from one town to the next.
For more information, visit the Barnacle website. A reprinted edition of The Commodore’s Story by Ralph Munroe and Vincent Gilpin is also available. And the Commodore's excellent photographs offer a glimpse into the past online, via these archives:
- Historical Museum of South Florida
- HistoryMiami Archives and Research Center
- University of Miami Libraries