Thursday, July 28, 2011

Coral Gables & Coconut Grove, Florida

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.

*The Desoto Fountain in Coral Gables

Fanciful Alhambra Entrance Arch

The first church to be built in town, Coral Gables Congregational Church was designed by architect Richard Kiehnel in 1923. Located opposite the Biltmore Hotel at 3010 DeSoto Boulevard, it was added to the U.S. National Register of historic Places in 1978.

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.

The area began to attract U.S. citizens from northern states, as well as Brits and Bahamians. Coconut Grove's first black settlement  was established in the 1880s by Bahamian laborers who worked at the Peacock Inn. This is celebrated each June, when the Goombay Festival (photo) transforms Grand Avenue into a Caribbean Carnival that honors Bahamian culture with Bahamian food and Caribbean Junkanoo music.

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.

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:


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