At what was once the southern edge of the city of Miami, at the corner of Fifteenth Road and Brickell Avenue, stands a unique French chateau on an oolitic limestone ridge that is one of the highest points in Miami’s southside neighborhood. The residence captured the impetuous and artistic creativity of the couple who built it. The structure is more than a grandiose architectural marvel, it was home to the Murrell family for more than fifty years.
While the house they built in 1931 provides modern day Miami residents an artifact from the days of Brickell Avenue’s gold coast era, the couple who built it left a legacy of charity and a fighting spirit for the causes they deemed important. The building is more than a reminder of Brickell’s past and will soon be brimming with life once again when it opens as Chateau Miami, the newest restaurant concept by chef Clay Conley. This is the story of Petit Douy.
John Murrell Moves to Miami in 1920
After getting married to Harriet Clark, daughter of Florida Congressman Frank Clark, John Murrell moved to Miami to practice law in 1920. He attended the University of Florida for his undergraduate degree and then earned his law degree from Stetson University in 1919, at which time he passed Florida’s bar exam in preparation for his move to South Florida to begin practicing law.
In July of 1921, John formed a firm with his brother in-law, Frank Clark Junior, called Clark and Murrell, and they opened their office in the Townley Building in downtown Miami. The firm’s client list included the Brickell family and George Merrick. It was Frank Junior who was named co-executor, along with Maude Brickell, for the will of Mary Brickell, after her passing in 1922. However, the dispensation of the estate hit a snag when four of the Brickell siblings contested a provision of the will that bequeathed Alice a cash payment of five thousand dollars that the other siblings were not provided per the terms of Mary’s will. The negotiation between family members reached a stalemate when John Murrell intervened and resolved the dispute with a compromise agreement between the siblings.
While the settlement of Mary Brickell’s will was amicably resolved for the family, it led to the end of the Clark and Murrell law firm only a year after it was formed. John confirmed that differences between the partners over the settlement of the Brickell estate was the reason for dissolution of the practice. This dispute not only ended the partnership but led to a lawsuit over unpaid fees owed to John. The dispute got so contentious that, during one court appearance in July of 1923, Murrell and his brother in-law got into a fist fight in the courtroom.
Despite the quarrel with his brother-in-law, John and Harriet’s marriage proceeded blissfully as they assimilated into Miami’s social scene. They would often host events in their Coral Gables home and were frequent mentions in Miami’s society page. The pair also celebrated the birth of their son, John Murrell Jr., who was born on January 4, 1921. He was the couple’s only child.
The Murrell’s were living a prosperous lifestyle when tragedy struck on June 15, 1930. The family was traveling by automobile in Anderson, South Carolina, when they were hit by a drunk driver. John Sr. suffered a broken pelvis, but his wife, Harriet, was killed on impact. Their son did not suffer any injuries in the accident but was traumatized by the loss of his mother and injuries to his father. John Sr. spent four weeks recovering from his injuries in a South Carolina hospital and once released, was confronted with continuing life without his wife and the mother of his son.
John Meets Ethel (“Sheelah”)
Within a year of Harriet’s untimely death, John met his second wife while she was vacationing in Miami. Ethel Browning, known as Sheelah to her friends, took a cruise from San Francisco to Miami, through the Panama Canal, to explore a different part of the country. While she was enjoying the spoils of South Florida, she met the widower, and the chemistry was instant and undeniable.
Sheelah was the granddaughter of a pioneer family who had a large role in the early history of Laramie, Wyoming. Hailing from the first state to grant women the right to vote, and first to elect a woman governor, Sheelah’s rearing in Wyoming shaped her sensibility when it came to women’s rights. Her grandfather, John Connor, owned an inn called the Connor Hotel which was in downtown Laramie. One of the hotel’s visitors in the early 1900s was Teddy Roosevelt, who was photographed on a horse with four-year-old Sheelah during one of his hunting trips to Wyoming.
When she was ready to experience life outside of Wyoming, Sheelah traveled east to attend school at Chevy Chase in Washington, DC. It was in Washington DC where she was introduced to her roommate’s brother, Ken Browning, who was heir to the Browning rifle fortune. Ken’s father was John Moses Browning who designed the first semi-automatic shotgun that was used extensively during World War I. The Browning Arms Company was founded in Ogden, Utah by John Moses and his brother Matthew in 1878 and is still in business today.
After the two graduated from school, they moved to California and got married in October of 1924. Ken went into the automobile business as a salesman. However, the marriage became turbulent due to Ken’s penchant for drinking. When Sheelah filed for divorce, she declared that her husband became intoxicated so often he was unable to tend to his business as a car salesman. A judge granted her a divorce, something that was rare during the time, in November of 1929 on the grounds of ‘habitual intemperance’ by her husband. Less than two years after the divorce was finalized, Ken was killed when a keg of gun powder exploded in a cabin that he rented during a hunting trip.
After initially meeting in Miami, John and Sheelah spent a lot of time together. It had been a whirlwind romance when the couple decided to get married in a civil ceremony at her mother’s residence in Beverly Hills, California. Shortly after the first ceremony, the couple renewed their vows at the Church of Monserrate in Havana, Cuba on June 7, 1931. Having exchanged vows for the second time, the Murrells were ready to begin their life together in Miami. Prior to constructing their honeymoon home, the couple moved into the Granada Apartments in downtown Miami.
Petit Douy Built in 1931
When the Murrells embarked on building their residence, they selected a piece of property on the corner of Fifteenth Road and Brickell Avenue. The lot resides at the top of a bluff located where Brickell Avenue makes a slight bend to the west just south of Fifteenth Road. From the Miami River heading south, Brickell Avenue travels in a rather straight direction until it crosses over Fifteenth Road, an adjustment in the design to carefully fit between a changing direction of the bay’s shoreline to the east and an impenetrable oolitic limestone ridge to the west.
A month after the couple got married, they hired general contractor John W. Hunt and architect Martin L. Hampton to design their residence. Sheelah knew exactly what she wanted in her dream home and worked closely with Hampton on the architectural rendering. The design followed the lines of the Priory of Saint Julian in France, which was in the village of Douy, a place for which Sheelah held special memories.
While she was studying at the Sorbonne University in France, Sheelah met the Ernest Roume family, who hailed from the village of Douy, and developed a special relationship with the matriarch of the family. During her time in France, Sheelah visited the Roumes on several occasions and had fond remembrances of her time in the region. She also developed an appreciation for the architectural style of the buildings located in Douy and as an homage to the village, the Murrells not only patterned their residence based on the design of buildings in the region, but also named their home ‘Petit Douy’.
When it was completed in December of 1931, the abode was one of the most unique looking dwellings in the southside neighborhood, which is how the Brickell neighborhood was referred during the first half of the twentieth century. Some of the neighbors described the Murrells as “that family who lives in a church.”
The Chateau on the Corner
Petit Douy is a classic example of the Period Revival style of architecture that was common during the first half of the twentieth century. Whereas many of the residences in Brickell featured Spanish and Mediterranean styles, the Murrells were unique in showcasing a French Chateau approach.
As detailed in the historic designation report, some of the more prominent features of the residence are “the two octagonal towers with tent roofs, a parapet gabled roof and dormers, crenellated garage roof, and trefoil arch windows with leaded stain glass.” The structure is of concrete block construction, and its walls are coated with smooth stucco. The residence cost $365,000 to build, which, based on today’s dollar, would have been roughly $4.2 million dollars.
Muriel (Vivian) Murrell married John Murrell Jr. in June of 1945. She was raised at 1432 Brickell Avenue and wrote a book called ‘A Backward Glance’, chronicling her memories of growing up in Miami’s southside neighborhood. In the book Muriel described the interior of the Murrell’s residence as follows:
“Inside this Neo-Renaissance house with French pretensions, a cool, three-story hall looked straight up to the ceiling of a tower, from whose conical center hung an imposing, wrought-iron chandelier. Here and throughout the downstairs, the floor was tiled with large, imported, blue and gray square slabs of slate. A tall, antique pier glass graced one wall near a small fireplace. Tables from the Granada Crafts Workshop of the 1920s held handmade, iron candlesticks. A curved, wrought-iron stairway on the right, replete with marble steps, spanned a great height to the second story. On the left lay a long, sunny drawing room with its fireplace of white marble and pairs of French doors lining the walls on three sides of the room. Soffits concealed incandescent lighting behind classical plasterwork, lighting that washed the high ceilings with a warm glow.”
The dining room contains one of the seven fireplaces found within the house. Why were there so many fireplaces in a home located in South Florida? It was partially based on a misunderstanding. While the house was still under construction, Sheelah took a tour of the construction site with the architect and stopped before a fireplace being built, admired the craftmanship and what it added to the room, at which time she asked how much it cost. When she got the quote, she felt the amount was reasonable and requested a fireplace to be added to each bedroom, the den, and the library. When the home was finished and the Murrells got the final bill, Sheelah was shocked to see how much the expense of the fireplaces represented to the total cost of construction. She learned that what was quoted during her walkthrough was the price of each mantel, not an entire working fireplace.
Given that the home was constructed during the Great Depression, which provided a moratorium on acquiring furniture and finishes from Europe, the Murrells outfitted their home with Spanish tables and chairs from the Granada Furniture Workshop in Coral Gables, and antiques from Sheelah’s family home in Wyoming. Years later, as Sheelah prepared to move out of Petit Douy, the antiques were moved back to her home in Laramie, Wyoming where some pieces became part of a museum exhibit celebrating pioneer families.
Married Women’s Emancipation Act of 1943
Shortly after moving into their Brickell residence, John convinced Sheelah to attend law school at University of Miami. She graduated and passed the bar exam in 1934, at which time she joined her husband’s law firm. Sheelah was unique in that there were not many female attorneys practicing law in Miami during this time.
In the late 1930s, Sheelah represented a woman who was trying to collect a debt from her husband when her case was laughed off the docket, for at that time, married women had no property rights in the State of Florida. As she left the courtroom, Mrs. Murrell vowed to “change these laws.”
It was that vow which began a six-year fight to allow married women to have the same property and contractual rights as their husband’s. At the time, married women ranked with “idiots, lunatics and children” in the eyes of Florida state law. Sheelah partnered with Representative Mary Lou Baker of Pinellas county, who was the only woman member of congress at the time, to craft and steer the bill through legislature. After being defeated four times in the house of representatives, the duo built enough support to get the bill passed in both chambers of congress by the summer of 1943.
Sheelah Murrell and Mary Lou Baker’s persistence paid off on June 4, 1943, when Governor Spessard Holland signed into law the “Married Women’s Emancipation Act.” The law gave married women the same rights as their husbands when it came to making contracts, sue or be sued, and hold power of attorney. The law allowed married women to also become business partners of their husbands and receive their husband’s power of attorney, which was not possible prior to this law.
Historic Designation & Chateau Miami
Both John and Sheelah Murrell dedicated their lives to balancing work with charitable endeavors. The couple fought for the rezoning of the corner to the east of their property to allow for the Assumption Academy to open a convent and chapel in the Brickell neighborhood. The Bay Oaks Home for the Aged was organized in the Murrell’s home and the couple provided pro-bono legal services for the institution’s formation.
Sheelah remained active with women’s causes. The Soroptimists, which was an organization for women who owned their own businesses, was supported by, and met at the home of the Murrells. Sheelah was also an author, writing a book called “Law for the Ladies” which provided a law primer for women. She also was elected Vice President of the National Woman’s Party in 1945 where she fought for an equal rights amendment to the federal constitution. In her capacity as vice president, she frequently traveled around the country to lecture on women’s rights.
The couple was also active in the social scene of Miami as proprietary members of the Surf Club. John was a former commander of the Harvey W. Seeds American Legion Post, Vice President of the Florida Bar, as well as a member of the Mahi Shrine.
John and Sheelah had lived in their beloved Petit Douy for more than fifty years when he passed away on June 9, 1982, at the age of 84. Prior to his death, the family residence was being considered for historic designation under a new city law intending to preserve historic structures located within the municipality. On May 31, 1983, the city commissioners signed the application to officially designate Petit Douy as a historically protected building in the city of Miami. It was one of the first structures in the city to be given this designation.
Sheelah remained in her beloved home for a few more years, but eventually moved into an assisted living facility in Kendall. She died of heart failure on June 10, 1991, nine years and one day after her husband passed away.
The Murrells lived a married life of accomplishment during their fifty plus years of residency in their beloved neo-classical French-Revival home. After Sheelah moved out of Petit Douy, it was converted into a medical office for Surgical Oncology & Associates during the 1990s.
Within the last decade, the historically designated structure had been vacant when it was announced that a new restaurant called “Chateau Miami” would soon operate out of the building. While Brickell residents still await the opening of the upscale eatery, the former residence has undergone an extensive renovation and appears to be ready for the next chapter in its storied history.Click Here to Subscribe
- Book: “Miami – A Backward Glance”, Muriel V. Murrell
- Historic Designation Application, Sarah E. Eaton
- Miami Herald: “Daughter of Congressman & Mrs. Clark Weds”, April 30, 1920
- Miami Herald: “Clark and Murrell to Practice Law in Miami”, July 27, 1921
- Los Angeles Times: “Intoxication Charge Wins Wife Divorce”, November 19, 1929
- Los Angeles Times: “Inventor’s Son Blast Victim”, June 2, 1931
- Miami Herald: “Mrs. Kenneth Browning Bride of John Murrell”, June 10, 1931
- Miami Herald: “Contract is Let for Residence”, July 31, 1931
- Miami Herald: “Travelers Tie Up World Memories in Naming Miami Homes”, January 14, 1941
- Miami Herald: “Women’s Rights Bill is Signed”, June 5, 1943
- Miami News: “Miami Woman Named to Office”, December 4, 1945
- Miami Herald: “One-of-a-Kind Chateau Fights for its Existence”, March 17, 1982
- Miami News: “City Backs Historical Preservation”, April 23, 1982
- Cover: “Chateau Miami at 1500 Brickell Avenue”. Courtesy of Casey Piket.
- Figure 1: Profile of John Murrell in Miami Tribune on March 28, 1925. Courtesy of Miami Tribune.
- Figure 2: John & Sheelah Murrell, with friend, at Surf Club in 1950s. Courtesy of Murial Murrell.
- Figure 3: Petit Douy Progress on December 11, 1931. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 4: Petit Douy in 1970s. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.
- Figure 5: Woman’s Rights Headline in Miami Herald on June 5, 1943. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 6: Petit Douy on December 11, 1985. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.