Above: The tea house of Villa Vizcaya (1914), the winter home of James Deering in Coconut Grove.
Coconut Grove, which dates from the late 19th century, is the oldest developed part of the greater Miami area, situated along the shores of Biscayne Bay just south of the city's financial district. Coral Gables, which dates back to 1921, is one of the nation's first planned communities. It lies just to the west of Coconut Grove, and most of the border between the two cities is S. Dixie Highway, Rt. 1. The two communities have disparate histories. The fate of Coconut Grove, which is today home to Miami's City Hall, was largely linked to the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Pan American World Airways, while Coral Gables was developed as an elite leisure community surrounding a landmark luxury hotel and the University of Miami. I'll describe both places in one blog post.
The city of Coral Gables was developed in Mediterranean Revival architectural style by real estate developer George Merrick, who had inherited 3,000 acres of citrus and pine groves six miles southwest of Miami. He conceived a luxury business, residential and leisure community on this tract. After building roads to connect his property to the city of Miami and Biscayne Bay, he hired master craftsmen, landscape artists and city planners to bring Coral Gables to life in 1922, featuring wide, tree-lined boulevards, waterways, decorative bridges, fountain squares* and golf courses. Entrances to his planned city were marked by arched gateways, which still stand today.
Merrick's passionate devotion to aesthetics resulted in one of the most beautiful towns in the country, promoted as the “Miami Riviera” in advertisements during the mid 1920s. Merrick designed themed villages within the community; his original plan included 14 distinct villages, such as French Normandy, Chinese, Dutch South African, Italian and Florida Pioneer. Unfortunately, only seven villages were built, due to setbacks caused by a severe hurricane in 1926 and the ensuing depression.
Merrick planned a series of elaborate entry gates to the city. The Douglas Entrance (1924), known as La Puerta del Sol, is a historic structure located at the junction of Douglas Road and SW 8th Street. The architect was Phineas Paist, and it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
The affluent city (pop. 42,000 in 2010) began efforts to protect its heritage with effective historic preservation and restoration programs dating back to 1973. The stucco structures with red tiled roofs, loggias, arched windows and other Mediterranean Revival architectural details continue to lend their distinct character to fortunate residents. Many streets boast mature banyan and oak trees that form a complete over-arching canopy of natural shade.
George Merrick's former home is maintained today as a museum known as Coral Gables Merrick House (907 Coral Way, photo at right). His father had bought the acreage in 1899 sight unseen, and his mother designed a house built from a type of native limestone known as coral stone. Completed in 1906, it was called "Coral Gables" for the coral stone construction and gabled roof.
The Merricks operated the largest grapefruit export business in south Florida and were the first to ship carloads of grapefruit up north by train. Unfortunately, several devastating hurricanes and the economic woes of the 1930s took their toll on Merrick’s fortunes. He was still heavily in debt upon his death in 1942.
Perhaps the greatest monument to the Mediterranean Revival style is the landmark 1926 Biltmore Hotel. Its 300-ft. tall bell tower stands guard over the largest hotel swimming pool in the continental U.S. The hotel was erected in ten months at a cost of $10 million and has not changed even its exterior color to this day. As a world-class hotel, it brings visitors from the world over, while locals flock to the Biltmore to host weddings, enjoy its spa offerings and beautiful pool (Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller was once a swimming instructor). The lobby, with its coral stone columns, exotic birdcages and stenciled ceilings, remains truly impressive.
The Biltmore was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996, after a $55 million restoration was completed in 1987. The hotel is surrounded by an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Donald Ross. Unfortunately the hotel is on shaky financial footing these days, so visit sooner rather than later.
Coral Gables’ City Hall (1927) was based on Philadelphia’s historic Exchange Building. It is built of coral stone and adorned by twelve columns and topped by a three-tiered clock and bell tower rising above a distinctive semi-circular portico. The bronze statue in front (click on photo to enlarge) is of developer George Merrick.
The interior boasts historic ceiling murals depicting the four seasons. They have recently been restored to their original appearance and brilliance (click on photo to enlarge).
Fed by underground artesian wells, the magnificent 1920s-era Venetian Pool (2701 DeSoto Blvd). holds 820,000 gallons of water. The only swimming pool to be included in the National Register of Historic Places, it boasts vine-covered loggias, hand painted tiles, pergolas, bridges, porticos, a Spanish fountain, observation towers and cascading waterfalls that spill into a free-form lagoon embellished by coral rock caves and a palm-fringed island. Developer George Merrick had somehow converted a disused limestone pit into a stunning, lushly landscaped aquatic fantasy.
During its heyday gondolas plied its waters. Esther Williams and Johnny Weismuller swam its length. Orchestras serenaded pool-side dancers gliding over outdoor terrazzo floors. Bathing beauties by the hundreds promenaded across specially constructed walkways, while visiting dignitaries passed through the circular aquarium room to tour the facilities. The Miami Grand Opera once performed there.
More than one hundred thousand visitors a year come to the Venetian Pool, drained nightly in summer months and replenished each day from the subterranean aquifer that flows beneath it. A major $3.5 million historical restoration was completed in 1989, and today’s visitors can enjoy a poolside café.
This Mediterranean revival building, with its baroque belfry and elaborate sculpted molding over the main entrance, was designed as a replica of a church in Costa Rica. The exposed roof trusses and hemispherical chancel are noteworthy. In summer the church hosts a popular concert series that includes well-known names in jazz, classical and folk music – and even barbershop quartets. The liberal minded church encourages artistic and musical pursuits for youths. In particular, the Coral Gables Congregational Church Composition Prize carries prestige.
Fairchild Tropical Garden (10901 Old Cutler Road) is spread over 83 acres on the southeast edge of Coral Gables on Biscayne Bay. The garden boasts a famed collection of tropical plants and flowers, palms (500 varieties), ferns and flowering vines. There are trails around lakes and through groves, as well as mangrove forests, and rainforest and orchid displays.
The garden was designed by landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, a member of the Frederick Law Olmsted partnership and a leading landscape designer in South Florida during the 1930s. The first 15 years saw the construction of its primary buildings and landscape features, including a palmetum*, pergolas, an amphitheatre, gate house, a library and museum, 14 lakes, stone terracing walls, sunken gardens and an auditorium. A visitor center was newly constructed in 2002, and a tour includes a narrated tram ride through the property.
*Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is a leading center of palm tree research, horticulture, and conservation.
Surrounding the gardens is Matheson Hammock Park and the popular Red Fish Grill restaurant (photo), where scenes from the movie “There’s Something About Mary” were filmed. The restaurant's patio affords views of Key Biscayne and an adjacent atoll pool that is flushed by the tidal action of Biscayne Bay.
Encompassing 37 square miles, Coral Gables has set aside thirty percent of its land area as dedicated green space. There are two public golf courses, numerous pocket parks tucked into residential areas and several canals that can accommodate large yachts along the 40 miles of waterfront-lot frontage. When these canals were first built in the 1920s, residents were ferried across them in Venetian style gondolas. The Coral Gables Waterway leads to the ocean at Biscayne Bay and is a major manatee protection zone.
Known today as the “Fine Dining Capital of South Florida,” Coral Gables as well has the highest concentration of live theater in Miami-Dade County and is home to dozens of fine art galleries. Also located in the heart of Coral Gables is the University of Miami (photo at left), a private research university that educates nearly 15,000 students a year. The university was founded and built on land donated by George Merrick, the developer of Coral Gables, who felt that every great city deserved a good university.
Police & Fire Station: Coral Gables Museum
Designed by Phineas Paist in 1939, the old Police and Fire Station was built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide a public safety headquarters for the city and employment for local construction workers and artisans. Paist used the simple lines of Depression architecture combined with Mediterranean Revival details. The recently restored building is now home to the Coral Gables Museum, which celebrates the history of the community, as well as the civic arts of architecture, urban design, green planning and historic and environmental preservation.
Coconut Grove on Biscayne Bay
Coconut Grove, due east of Coral Gables, is south Miami's bayfront nautical playground. It has undergone a transformation from the countercultural hippie conclave of the 1960s and 70s into a yuppie haven of bars, upscale restaurants and yachts. Perhaps the prime example of this cultural change is the hugely successful Ritz Carlton Hotel, which reflects the enormous uptick in property values.
Among the first permanent settlers in South Florida were English grocers Charles and Isabella Peacock, who arrived as immigrants in Coconut Grove to establish a hotel. They built Bay View House in 1883, the first hotel to be constructed on mainland Florida south of Palm Beach. Later renamed the Peacock Inn (vintage photo below), the first community gatherings in Miami were held at Peacock’s property. The establishment of a Florida East Coast Railway station (near present-day Douglas Road Metrorail station) in the late 1890s made the once difficult-to-access lodge into a popular refuge. Today the site of the former hotel is maintained by the city of Miami as Peacock Park.
Coconut Grove was an independent city until it was annexed by the city of Miami in 1925. Previously a United States Naval Air Station was established in Coconut Grove along Biscayne Bay in 1917, during WW I. In 1931 Pan American World Airways took over the Naval air station property as a base for its sea plane “clipper” flights to Cuba, which cost $35 at the time.
In the vintage photo of the terminal interior (above), note the 10-ft. diameter globe and the winged clock. The globe now resides in the nearby Miami Museum of Science, but the former terminal room now serves as chambers for Miami's City Hall (notice the winged clock and other original decorative details in the photo below).
The Pan American Airways facility was once the largest seaplane terminal in the world and the main hub for air traffic between North and South America. In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from here on a flight to Casablanca, Morocco. Designed by Delano and Aldrich, the Streamline Moderne building has been the Miami City Hall since 1954 and retains many of its original features. Today the building houses the Mayor, Commissioners and the City Clerk in a spectacular bayfront setting. Pan Am had been founded in 1927 as a mail and passenger carrier for flights between Florida and Cuba. After WWII PanAm sold its hangers and terminal to the City of Miami in 1946. This 1930s vintage photo shows some of Pan Am's seaplanes in front of the airplane terminal.
The Grove, as it is known by locals, is known today for its ethnic restaurants and open air cafés. A vibrant youth culture becomes a center of nightlife patronized by young professionals and students from the nearby University of Miami and Florida International University. The western border of Coconut Grove is Coral Gables, home to the University of Miami.
Plymouth Congregational Church (1916) is a prized example of Spanish Mission style architecture. Organized in 1897, the church was founded by influential pioneer citizens of Coconut Grove. Solomon G. Merrick, father of Coral Gables developer George Merrick, became pastor in 1901. The church expanded rapidly and outgrew two chapels before the building of this structure in 1916; the architect was Clinton McKenzie of New York. The building’s twin bell towers, curvilinear gable roof, and elaborate front entrance are important architectural elements. The building’s oolitic limestone (coral rock) stonework was laid by a single stonemason, a Spaniard named Felix Rebom. The main entrance features an enriched classical door surround. The door itself is approximately 400 years old and came from a monastery in the Pyrenees Mountains. Made of hand carved walnut backed with oak, it still retains its original hand wrought iron fittings.
The eastern border of Coconut Grove is Biscayne Bay, which caters to the boating community, featuring sailing and yacht clubs and a marina. The Villa Vizcaya and gardens (photo below), built in 1914 by International Harvester magnate James Deering, borders Biscayne Bay at the northeast edge of Coconut Grove. It is a popular area tourist attraction (closed Tuesdays).
At the time of Vizcaya’s construction in 1914, Miami’s population was around 10,000. More than 1,000 workers were employed in building the Vizcaya house and elaborate gardens, including laborers and craftsmen from the Caribbean and Europe.
Mr. Deering's elaborate bathroom with tented ceiling:
Vizcaya's grand reception room, walls upholstered in silk with tropical designs: