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From riches to rags

Brownsville’s historic Georgette’s Tea House crumbling

Erick Johnson | , Carla St.Louis | 4/3/2014, 9 a.m.
Jazz singer Billie Holiday (standing far left) at Georgette’s Tea Room, a favorite gathering place for the black social elite in Miami. The Black Archives of South Florida

The once elegant rooms are now decorated with pigeon droppings. Termites infest the closets that held designer coats and shoes of the rich and famous. The kitchen, once a hub for sophisticated dinner parties is rotting away from a leaky roof. The porch, where legendary singer Billie Holiday once stood, is now the makeshift bed of a homeless person.

Georgette’s Tea House, a 66-year-old historic home, has been vacant for years and is deteriorating. The house, once the scene of many lavish parties, has become an eyesore to its Brownsville neighbors who complain the structure is a haven for vandals and the homeless who have set up camp on the west side of the building.

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Georgette’s Tea House, 2540 NW 51 Street

It was a different scene in the 1950s when the home’s owner, Georgette Scott Campbell, entertained music legends and celebrities with fancy parties in the thirteen room, 4,100 square-foot house located at 2540 NW 51 Street.

Here, Campbell, who built a similar tea house in Harlem, hosted parties for Nat King Cole, Bessie Smith, soprano singer Marian Anderson and other Black entertainers who performed on Miami Beach. They were prohibited from staying overnight in hotels there because of Miami’s segregationist laws during the Jim Crow era.

So the house served as an alternative boarding home along with another Brownsville landmark, The Hampton House Motel located just down the street on the NW corner of 27th Avenue and 41st Street. The 60-year-old building is undergoing a $6 million renovation project which is expected to be completed in 2015.

The tea room changed ownership in 2012 when Campbell’s niece, Georgette Sargent donated the house to Bethany Seventh Day Adventist Church across the street.

AN ‘EYESORE’ TO NEIGHBORS

Residents, many of whom were not alive during the building’s heyday, are waiting for the church to clean up or restore the building. Parts of the roof are falling apart, amid decaying paint and rickety, aging widows. Many of the awnings in the front and back of the house are broken and falling off.

The massive outdoor tiled-bar where socialites mingled on the patio is dirty and damaged from vandals.

During a visit by a Miami Times reporter, a homeless person slept on the front porch on a makeshift bed. Wet blankets were hung on the railings to dry as a red shopping cart filled with clothes and other belongings sat nearby, irritating neighbors.

“She has all those blankets and sheets and it looks terrible,” said Fannie Smalley, 81 who has lived across the street for 10 years. “I’ve been trying to find a book about that house so I can read about the stars and celebrities who came there.”

Another resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, referred to the decrepit structure as an “eyesore.” While another neighbor said the tea room attracts the homeless.

Inside the house, covers were placed over the windows, after pigeons flew inside and lived inside the bedroom where they deposited many droppings, said Barry K. Bonner, pastor of the church that owns the house. Bonner also said the plumbing and electrical power are still working, but the house’s interior was in too poor condition to give a tour. Bonner said church officials often visit the house to watch out for vandals.