Miami’s Master Suburb

Coral Gables started out as a family plantation with acres of grapefruit and avocado trees. By 1930, however, it had become a buzzing metropolis on the edge of Miami, with a flourish of Old World flair in its distinctive Mediterranean Revival architecture. Like most of the planned communities that emerged in Florida during the great boom of the 1920s, Coral Gables grew out of a vision–in this case one belonging to a young developer named George Merrick.

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Merrick arrived in Miami with his family in 1899. His father, Solomon Merrick, had been a minister in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but on the advice of a colleague in Coconut Grove he decided to move his family to Florida to try their hand at growing citrus on a 160-acre plot. Mrs. Merrick had wanted to name the plantation “Among the Pines,” but her husband preferred “Coral Gables,” a combined homage to both the local coral rock and the Massachusetts home of one of Solomon Merrick’s political idols, Grover Cleveland, which was called “Gray Gables.” The family decided to stick with the name Coral Gables Plantation, and soon it was being used in advertisements and signs.

The original Merrick homestead, named

The original Merrick homestead, named “Coral Gables” after “Gray Gables,” the Massachusetts home of Solomon Merrick’s political idol Grover Cleveland. The “coral” part of the name stems from the local coral rock used as a building material (1926).

Solomon Merrick died in 1911, leaving 25-year-old George as head of the family and manager of the Coral Gables property. Under the young man’s management the plantation grew to 1,200 acres and employed more than 40 workers, but George believed Coral Gables could be something more. Real estate in Miami and Coconut Grove was booming, with rapid new construction along Miami Beach and in suburbs along the outer edges of town. George was deeply interested in getting involved with the lucrative business of real estate development, and in 1912 he partnered with his brother-in-law to start a real estate firm. The following year the fledgling business combined with the Realty Securities Corporation, making Merrick president of the largest real estate and development company in Dade County.

An example of one of the many booklets being developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

An example of one of the many booklets developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

When George announced in 1918 that he planned to turn his family’s Coral Gables Plantation into a self-sufficient suburban village, many thought he had lost his mind. Even with Miami’s intense expansion, Coral Gables was still considered to be too far out of town, near if not in the Everglades. There were also other developments vying for the attention of home-seekers and real estate developers, namely Hollywood by the Sea, Hialeah and Biscayne Park. How would Coral Gables compete?

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

George Merrick remained confident that his idea would work if the quality of the product was exceptional and his advertising and marketing hit their marks. His aesthetic vision for Coral Gables drew heavily on his experiences traveling in the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as his affinity for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which had provided him with richly illustrated vistas of faraway Spain.  Of course, Merrick wasn’t the only developer smitten with the Old World at that time; Addison Mizner’s Spanish-style buildings in Palm Beach also influenced the young developer’s vision for Coral Gables.

“Amado,” the home of Charles Munn in Palm Beach. Designed by architect Addison Mizner, the house reflected the Mediterranean Revival style that influenced George Merrick’s plans for Coral Gables (photo circa 1919).

Merrick began hiring architects and engineers to work out the details for the new community, and the first concept drawings appeared in February 1920. To determine the names for the streets, he opened up his copy of Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra and selected Spanish place names like Asturia, Castille, Alcazar and Aragon. He bought the Mackinac Building at 158 E. Flagler Street in Miami from John Burdine to serve as the headquarters for the Coral Gables sales and development team.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Merrick and his associates began auctioning off lots in the new Coral Gables subdivision on November 28, 1921. Signs urging potential buyers to “follow the Golden Galleon” were posted all along Flagler Street in Miami to lead them toward the site, and costumed Spanish caballeros helped direct traffic to the original entrance to the development via Granada Boulevard.

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

The public response was overwhelmingly positive; over 5,000 people crowded into the unfinished subdivision to participate in the auction. Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers, who Merrick had hired to be the main auctioneer and consultant for the venture, addressed the crowd from the back of a mule-drawn wagon. As each lot was sold, Dammers sent his partner off with the buyer to finish up the paperwork while he and the wagon moved on to the next lot to repeat the process. The purchasing terms were fairly simple–buyers chose a lot and a building plan, with prices starting at $5,785. If the buyer put down $500, he could finance the rest at $60 per month. In six days’ time, Merrick’s team had sold 300 lots for more than half a million dollars. George was so delighted with the results that he decided to pledge $10,000 for a public library and $100,000 for a college. This, of course, ultimately became the University of Miami.

Dr. Edward E.

Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers auctioning off lots in Coral Gables from his mule-drawn wagon (1921).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick's uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick’s uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

Once it was properly launched, Coral Gables continued to grow at a rapid pace. George Merrick and his associates had to establish their own tile and concrete block factories to keep up the necessary supply of building materials. By 1924, the settlement had its own volunteer fire department, woman’s club, Boy Scout troop and grammar school. The next year, Coral Gables was incorporated as a town, and Doc Dammers became its first mayor. The year after that, on February 4, 1926, the cornerstone was laid for the first building of what would become the University of Miami.

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami's first building--the Merrick Building (1926).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami’s first building–the Merrick Building (1926).

The stage was set for a bright future. Even the collapse of the Florida Boom in the late 1920s failed to completely arrest the growth of Coral Gables. Today, the community continues as home to the University of Miami, as well as a center of international commerce. Numerous foreign consulates are located there, as are the corporate headquarters of Bacardi, Fresh Del Monte Produce and Capital Bank Financial.

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

The State Archives of Florida holds an extensive collection of photographs belonging to photographer William A. Fishbaugh, who George Merrick hired to help promote Coral Gables and other real estate developments in the Miami area. Browse the William Fishbaugh Collection on Florida Memory to find more historic images of the region during and after the Florida Boom.

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

For a more extensive treatment of George Merrick and the development of Coral Gables, we also recommend Arvah Parks’ recent book, George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables, published in 2015 by the University Press of Florida.

 

Let’s Have An Air Party

Of all the kinds of parties you can have – toga parties, foam parties, hurricane parties – an air party might seem the silliest. But that’s exactly the sort of celebration many of Florida’s major communities were throwing in the 1930s, when commercial aviation and air tourism were still in their infancy.

Program from Orlando's Second Annual "Air Party," January 1935 - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Program from Orlando’s Second Annual “Air Party,” January 1935 – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Officials in both the private and public sectors had recognized by this time that aviation offered Florida a marvelous opportunity. Distance, as one observer put it, just didn’t mean as much anymore when a trip that had once taken days could now be accomplished in a few hours. To encourage Florida’s growth as a destination for air tourism, state and local governments teamed up with private businesses to host air races, air parties, and other events. These efforts had two objectives: to sell Florida as a tourist destination by air to the rest of the country, and to convince Floridians of the worthiness of investing in better aviation infrastructure.

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Air cruises, usually sponsored by chambers of commerce, aeronautical clubs, and other civic groups, were some of the most unique events. These were typically open to any “sportsman pilots” or private aviators who wanted to attend. The pilots would fly their planes from airport to airport along a chain of host cities, enjoying receptions, races, and other activities along the way. Here’s an example itinerary from the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise:

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

The towns along the route would often extend privileges to the visiting pilots at their local country clubs, hotels, and restaurants. In some cities – Orlando we know for sure – the pilots received fuel and oil at wholesale prices as an incentive. The local chambers of commerce often arranged ground transportation as well, and local groups provided opportunities for hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, and other favorite Florida pastimes.

Pilot Harold Neumann with

Pilot Harold Neumann with “Miss Chevrolet” in Miami (1936).

These groups were typically quite intimate, but their activities were highly visible and helped introduce a large number of people to the possibilities of aviation. A little more time, plus some help from World War II, saw Florida criss-crossed with busy commercial air routes and a whole new sector to its thriving tourist industry.

Interested in aviation or a related Florida industry? The State Library & Archives has a wide variety of books, ephemera, photographs, and manuscript collections touching on these subjects. The program and itinerary from this blog post, for example, came from a collection of papers belonging to William C. Lazarus, who once directed the Aviation Division of the State Road Department and helped organize a number of “air parties.” Search our catalogs to find out what we have on your favorite topic in Florida history!

A Tribute to Lost Love

It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day, and thoughts of love are in the air here at the State Library and Archives. As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, we’ve searched our collections and found several stories from across Florida history that demonstrate the power of love and the special memories it creates. Today, we look at Coral Castle, an impressive but unusual structure in Miami-Dade County made entirely of enormous blocks of coral rock. The story of how one man single-handedly engineered this massive undertaking is perhaps one of saddest yet most remarkable tales of unrequited love in Florida’s history.

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

It all began in 1913 when a man named Edward Leedskalnin of the European country of Latvia was jilted by his betrothed, generally thought to be the beautiful 16-year-old Agnes Skuvst. The day before their wedding, Scuvst called off the engagement, saying the ten-year age difference between her and Leedskalnin made him too old for her.

Edward was heartbroken. He left Latvia, never to return, and sailed to Canada. He traveled around North America for several years before finally arriving in Florida around 1918. He purchased an acre of land in Florida City and began carving large pieces of stone furniture out of chunks of coral. He later explained to visitors that he hoped Agnes, who he referred to as “Sweet Sixteen,” would someday come to Florida to join him and make use of these pieces.

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

In 1936, as more people began moving to the Florida City area, Leedskalnin moved his creations to a 10-acre plot near Homestead. There, he arranged them within an enclosure of coral walls, creating themed “rooms” of solid stone furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a children’s play area, and even a “throne room” with large solid-stone rocking chairs for himself, “Sweet Sixteen,” and a small child.

The mystery in all of this is that Leedskalnin managed to do all of the labor involved with creating these masterpieces by himself. The furniture bears no discernible tool marks, and the elements of the castle intended to move do so with very little effort. The solid-stone rocking chairs Leedskalnin created could be rocked even by a small child, and the 9-foot front gate could be opened with the push of a finger. The design of the chairs and other furniture provided adequate comfort, save for one chair, located behind the coral “thrones” he had created for himself and his lost love. Leedskalnin liked to joke that this chair was reserved for the mother-in-law he never had.

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

Scientists and engineers have studied the designs closely, even using computers, but they cannot account for how Leedskalnin did it. Nothing in the designs is impossible, per se, just extremely precise. And let’s not forget that these pieces of furniture were made from blocks of solid rock, some of which weighed as much as half a ton apiece. When Leedskalnin was in the process of building or moving the pieces, he insisted on being completely alone. When asked about his methods, Leedskalnin would often crypitcally reply either that he understood the “secret of the Pyramids,” or that to move large stone was easy if one only knew how.

For years, Edward Leedskalnin personally managed his creation as a tourist attraction called Rock Gate Park, charging ten cents a head for admission. In 1951, he died without leaving a will, whereupon the property fell to a nephew from Michigan named Harry. The property changed hands several more times over the years, acquiring the catchy name “Coral Castle.” It was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle - part of the State Library's Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle – part of the State Library’s Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

In 1983, the manager of Coral Castle told a reporter he had learned that Leedskalnin’s “Sweet Sixteen” was alive and knew about the massive stone monument built in her honor. To his knowledge, however, she had never seen it. So far as we know, she and Leedskalnin never communicated. Clearly, however, the heartbroken Edward got his point across. His undying (if unrequited) love for his “Sweet Sixteen” is to this day still embodied in the massive stone magnificence of his creations.

Miami-Dade Folklife Survey Podcast


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Gynin playing conga drum during Jamaican Independence Day festival: Miami, Florida

Eddie Massena from Rasta Samba Gynin playing conga drum during Jamaican Independence Day festival: Miami, Florida (1985)

As part of their research, the Florida Folklife Program selects and surveys a particular region or tradition. The Dade Folk Arts Survey was conducted from 1985-1986 by folklorists Tina Bucuvalas, Nancy Nusz and Laurie Sommers with the goal of finding folk artists to bring to the 34th annual Florida Folk Festival. Many of the recordings found in the collection are the result of fieldwork conducted by folklorists. Their findings are extensively documented through field notes, sound recordings, photographs and video.

Manolo Franco playing Venezuelan harp during a rehearsal: Miami, Florida (1985)

Manolo Franco playing Venezuelan harp during a rehearsal: Miami, Florida (1985)

This podcast contains a sampling of recordings from the Miami-Dade region as found in the Dade Folk Arts Survey.  While Latin American, Haitian and Jewish cultures were most prominently represented, the survey also covered a wide range of traditions, including shoe rag popping, Middle Eastern music, Jamaican stories and dance, and Irish fiddling.

Klezmer musician Jaime Bronsztein performing at the Traditions Festival: Miami, Florida (1986)

Klezmer musician Jaime Bronsztein performing at the Traditions Festival: Miami, Florida (1986)

We hope you enjoy the variety of traditions captured in the Dade Folk Arts Survey, and look forward to sharing more fieldwork from the Florida Folklife Collection in the future.

More Info: Podcast with Transcript