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A History of Coral Gables

A Look Into The Past
By Stacey Steig

Coral Gables, the City Beautiful, stands out as a rare pearl in South Florida, a cohesive community built on a grand Mediterranean Revival architectural style to create an overall harmony with the environment. Early city planners and visionaries were influenced by the aesthetics of the City Beautiful Movement that swept across America in the early 1900's. Inspired by the works of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park, The City Beautiful Movement encouraged the use of wide tree-lined avenues, monumental buildings, winding roadways, green space, ornate plazas and fountains galore. All these elements of style have been and continue to be incorporated by Coral Gables city planners.

Villa Viscaya, built in 1914 by James Deering, set the pace for the Mediterranean Revival style that began to take hold in South Florida during the 1920's land boom. Visionaries like George Merrick of Coral Gables and Addison Mizner of Palm Beach carried this style through, planning and designing unparalleled communities to look as if they had been picked up and transported directly from the Mediterranean Coastline all their antiquity. For Merrick, Majorca, Sevilla, Cartagena, and Malaga were not just cities in Spain, but symbols of his American ideal; his dream was to develop his vast land holdings while building on Florida's rich Spanish history.

George Merrick (Founder of Coral Gables) came to Miami with his family from Duxbury, Massachusetts in 1899. His father, Reverend Solomon Merrick had purchased one hundred and sixty acres of undeveloped land which he operated as a family plantation, producing avocados, oranges and grapefruit on land near what is now the Granada Golf Course. By 1921, ten years after his father's death, George Merrick had amassed about 3,000 acres of land, enough to begin a massive real estate development project, unprecedented in Florida. Merrick set out to prove that he was not only a man of great imagination, but a man of action whose story is perhaps the greatest Miami has ever known.

Merrick's plan was to create a new city called "Coral Gables" named after the native rock home where he spent his childhood. He would do it in a cohesive, aesthetic style that would incorporate the visions of artists and poets, like himself, who were rapt in the fever of the Florida land boom and inspired by the simplest of beauties. It was an exciting time for these frontiersmen, awestruck by Miami's tropical climate and coastal magnificence. While they wanted to put their own stamp on the real estate market, they were anxious to share South Florida's beauty with the world, seeking fame more than fortune.

Together with a team of extraordinary designers, which included artist Denman Fink, architects H. George Fink and Phineas Paist, and landscape architect Frank Button, Merrick set out to create a unique suburb of the city of Miami. A project that would be an unrivaled beauty, constructed in the Mediterranean Revival style, featuring all the elements of the City Beautiful Movement right down to the finest details, like city lamp posts. The Merrick land holdings were subdivided with clear zoning and usage specifications. These original city planners set aside residential and country club areas, business, industrial and craft subdivisions and recreational areas including bridle paths, parks, tennis courts and golf courses.

Phineas Paist, the supervising architect or the city was largely responsible for ensuring the continuity of development of the city of Coral Gables and for creating the aesthetic codes that keep Coral Gables beautiful today. Paist established the Board of Architects Review Panel at the city's conception, an organization that remains in existence today. The Panel oversees architectural details including paint selection and roofing tiles in terra cotta, ocher and sienna colors, which deflect and neutralize the brilliance of the Florida sun. Paist was a known colorist and created a vibrant color scheme for the city that ranged from the pastels to the more intense, all true to the original Mediterranean style. Under this master architect's hand, even the newest buildings were made to look old. Architectural designs featured the rounded arches and loggias of ancient Rome, and the majority of homes were built of concrete block or oolitic limestone (coral rock) and finished with stucco. Artistic advisor Denman Fink who was largely responsible for conceptualizing Coral Gables Grand entryways and plazas, is credited for using exposed brick on these colossal arches to give them the look of antiquity.

By 1925, nearly the blink of an eye, the City of Coral Gables was incorporated. During the four years between its conception and incorporation seven million dollars of property was sold, more than six hundred homes were constructed, sixty-five miles roadway were built and over eighty miles of sidewalks were added. Hence, the City of Coral Gables was born.

The greatest miracle of this real estate boom in Coral Gables, and an event indicative of the building fever that swept over South Florida in the early 1920's was the rapid erection of the Biltmore Hotel which stands today as an enchanting example of Coral Gables trademark Mediterranean style architecture. The Biltmore tower, which ends in a three stage cupola, was inspired by the Giralda tower of the Cathedral of Seville, Spain. This 400-room premier resort designed by Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver went up in just 10 months, breaking ground in March of 1925 with a grand opening held in January 1926. Today, the Biltmore stands almost exactly as it did on opening day, right down to its rich terra cotta color scheme.

As interest in Coral Gables real estate began to taper off, George Merrick's creative wheels again began to turn and in 1926 he came up with a $75 million dollar plan to build what was then the largest home development project in history. Merrick's vision to build fourteen villages from different international regions marked a severe departure from the Mediterranean Revival style in Coral Gables. The goal of this joint venture between Merrick, The American Building Company and former Ohio Governor Myers Cooper was to attract home buying prospects from up North by offering them some variety in architecture. The Village Project which aimed to showcase the architectural styles of China, France, Italy, Mexico and Africa, among others was destined for failure, a dream blown away with the Hurricane of 1926 and the ensuing depression which put a screeching halt to land development.

Remnants of this dream stand today as vestiges of Merrick's dream. Fewer than 80 of the 1,000 planned residences were built, but many of them are still standing. The Florida Pioneer village (Southern Colonial) stands today on Santa Maria Street bordering the Riviera Country Club golf course, the French 18th Century Village is located in the 1000 block of Hardee Road, The French Normandy Village is on LeJeune and Viscaya, and the Dutch South African Village is on LeJeune at Maya Avenue. Also standing are the Italian Village, which is spread throughout an area located just south of Bird Road between Granada Boulevard and Riviera Drive, and an 8-unit Chinese Village that stands out colorfully from behind a gated wall on Riviera Drive, just South of U.S. 1. A modern day group called The Villagers currently has a project in the works to restore these historic home sites.

By 1928 it became evident that George Merrick's luck had run out. He fell heavily into debt and was removed from the Coral Gables Commission, retreating to Matecumbe Key where he operated a resort property left to his wife Eunice by her parents. While Merrick eventually returned to Coral Gables, becoming the postmaster for Dade County in 1940, he never fully recovered his losses and died in 1942.

World War II breathed new life into the city of Coral Gables as thousands of soldiers flooded the area, occupying many of the unused buildings, including the University of Miami and The Biltmore Hotel, which became an army hospital.

The emergence of Miracle Mile in the 1950's marked the beginning of a new era of development in Coral Gables, and paved the way for the commercial development in the 1960's. During this time height restrictions were waived and several high rises went up, drawing large American, Latin American and Caribbean companies to the area. Without the watchful eye of Phine as Paist and the City's other original architects and planners, many of these newer buildings stood out as anomalies, clashing stylistically with Mediterranean Revival structures as much as the Chinese Village of the early Merrick years. In 1986, the City adopted a Mediterranean Architectural Ordinance, which provides incentives to builders who conform to the Mediterranean Revival style, using terra cotta colors and barrel tile roofs. While there are a few glass sheathed modernistic buildings lingering out there, it appears that Coral Gables has come back to its Spanish architectural roots.

Courtesy of Metro Magazine, publisher of The City Beautiful Guide