“Sorry, we’re closed” the lady in charge of the gift shop mouthed through the glass door. But then she saw the despair on my face and gestured me to come in.
The monastery closes at 4 and it was 4:02. I explained that I’m from out of town and got lost trying to find the place. The lady took pity on me. “But I’ll have to charge you anyway” I was willing to pay (almost) anything to go in. I was frustrated enough by the long, convoluted drive and did not want to go back to the hotel with nothing to show for it. I ended up paying half price, $4. I picked up a guide and hurried to the monastery.
The cloisters of the ancient Spanish Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux have a very interesting history. The monastery was built in Segovia, Spain, between 1133 and 1144 and occupied by Cistercian monks for seven centuries. In the mid-1830s, social unrest caused the monastery to be sold and converted into a granary and stable. Cut to 1925. William Randolph Hearst purchased the cloisters and outbuildings, had them dismantled, packed in 11,000 wooden crates and shipped to the U.S. Hearst’s financial problems forced him to sell them at auction.
The stones remained in a warehouse in Brooklyn for twenty-six years. In 1952 Messrs. W. Edgemon and R. Moss bought them to use as a tourist attraction. It took nineteen months and one and a half million dollars to put the buildings back together in Miami. In 1964 Bishop Henry Loutit acquired the property for the Episcopal Diocese of South Florida. Years later the monastery was put up for sale due to financial difficulties. Robert Pentland, Jr., a multimillionaire philanthropist, purchased the Cloisters and presented them to the parish of Sr. Bernard de Clairvaux.
The contrast between the ancient buildings and their surrounding couldn’t be greater. The medieval carved stones, at home in some European town, are set among palm trees and lush tropical vegetation. The sticky heat hugs you like a glove. A three tier water fountain offers the illusion of relief from the oppressing South Florida heat. Lizards crisscross the rugged stone walls and paths.
There were three people planning an event in the cloister patio -which has a granite well dated sometime in the 2nd century AD. I hoped it was a wedding. What a wonderful backdrop for the reception!
The chapel was originally the refectory. I opened the doors, which did not creak, and went inside. The two round telescopic windows above the altar create the illusion of a face looking back at me in astonishment.
Miami is, understandably, the last place where one expects to find a genuine medieval building. While driving around, I saw one of those brown signs used to mark historic places that read Ancient Spanish Monastery. I couldn’t pass up on the chance to visit it. And I’m glad I did.
I guess the moral of the story is read street signs and follow the arrow. You never know what you’ll find!Touring hours of the monastery Monday to Saturday 10:00 to 4:00 Sunday 11:00 to 4:00 Admission: adults $8, seniors $4 (62 and older), children under 12: free 16711 West Dixie Highway North Miami Beach (305) 945-1461 www.spanishmonastery.com ******************************* Check this out for cheap airfares to Miami.