South Campus site formerly home to spies, surveillance

This story is the second part in a series of stories about the history of the university’s South Campus land.

Soon to house faculty, shops and other elements of suburban community, the University of Miami’s South Campus was not always intended for such occupants.

Prior to 1981, UM’s three parcels of land served as a base for World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War.

The U.S. Navy purchased about 2,000 acres of land from S.W. 152 St. to 184 St. and from S.W. 122 Ave. to 137 Ave., commissioning it as the Richmond Naval Air Station in 1942.

Until a hurricane passed over the station in 1945, three 17-story hangars, each one occupying about seven acres of land, housed “K-class” blimps used to search for German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. The Category 4 storm destroyed most of the infrastructure and military equipment leaving behind one wall that the Gold Coast Railroad Museum today preserves, said David Birch, a Gold Coast Railroad Museum staff member.

“It was never rebuilt,” Birch said. “It was so close to the end of [World War II that the Navy] didn’t want to invest in the base.”

During the early 1950s, the Department of Defense divided the property among the Coast Guard, Army, Air Force and Navy, and allotted 1,000 acres of the land to Miami-Dade County. Most of that land later became the Miami Metro Zoo in the 1970s.

During this time the U.S. General Services Administration, an organization that helps manage functions such as land acquisition for federal agencies, leased part of the base to UM so it could establish the South Campus. At the same time, a UM business administration major approached then university president, Jay F.W. Pearson, about putting the idle railroad tracks located on the campus to use.

The railroad tracks, a primary attraction back then, led to the opening of the Gold Coast Railroad Museum, overseen by the Miami Railroad Historical Society, which was established by UM, according to the museum’s website.

From 1962 to 1968, in what airfield aficionado Paul Freeman called a “curious role,” UM leased some of its buildings to the CIA under the name of Zenith Technological Services. More than 400 operatives worked in the CIA’s Cuban data headquarters, also known as the “Wave Station,” gathering information on the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s.

Despite the South Campus being in UM’s possession for 61 years, it was not until 1981 that UM became the property’s sole overseer.

Prior to then, the U.S. government had contractual power to occupy the land as well as the power of eminent domain, which permits the government to obtain a property without the owner’s consent under the U.S. Constitution.

In a 1981 quitclaim deed between the General Services Administration and UM, the university was given the right to buy out of restrictions that limited the use of the South Campus property to educational purposes.

The university complied with the educational limitation. Some of the first activities on the campus entailed botanical research and courses for returning GI’s from World War II.

Kyle Paige, UM’s assistant general counsel, said that the deed prohibited the university from constructing on 525 feet of the western portion of the land, but the prohibition was annulled when UM paid to be released from the restriction.

However, the university is currently working with Miami-Dade County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management to preserve about 40 acres of land in its natural state while the rest is developed into a residential and commercial village.

Walyce Almeida may be contacted at