Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Civic Class in Coral Gables

Biltmore Hotel, south elevation overlooking the Donald Ross-designed golf course. Schultze & Weaver, architect, 1925-1926. As magnificent as the day it opened, the Biltmore Hotel is owned by the City of Coral Gables.
Civic Class in Coral Gables
By Augustus Mayhew

However much Palm Beach considers itself among the most beautiful places in the world, and Miami Beach an architectural tour de force, Coral Gables has scenic expanses that rival, if not eclipse, the eclectic aesthetic of both resorts.

Framed with elaborate gateways and streets embellished with plazas and fountains, much of today’s Coral Gables conveys the same Old World aura it evoked ninety years ago when its deluxe aristocratic subdivisions were inspired by Cordova, Salamanca, Toledo, and Seville.

The Coral Gables seal was designed by architect H. George Fink, Denman Fink’s nephew, who studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel Institute. He returned to Miami in 1917, working for Carl Fisher and August Geiger before joining the family in Coral Gables.
First-rate public buildings and picturesque houses, sited and scaled with the perspective of de' Medici artisans, can still be appreciated relatively free from monotonous rows of ficus hedges that wall much of Palm Beach and the anarchic pleasures that are South Beach’s prime attraction.

The city’s concentrated vision realized a rarely-achieved magnitude due to the convergence of several uncompromising creative individuals: lawyer, developer and poet, George E. Merrick; his artistic advisor and uncle, Denman Fink, who was an accomplished New York painter and illustrator; architect Phineas Paist; and, Fink’s nephew, architect George Fink.

Add to the ensemble, one of Schultze and Weaver’s most exhilarating designs for the Biltmore Hotel and the imagination of eminent landscape architect Frank M. Button, planner for Chicago’s Lincoln Park, and you have the makings of a Florida city as much about Quattrocento principals as 21st-century lifestyles.

Today’s Coral Gables prevails as South Florida’s most enduring paradigm from the City Beautiful Movement.

Here are a few views of what was described during the 1920s as “a bit of old Madrid, a touch of Mexico City and much of the new Havana.”
New York artist Denman Fink created the eyewash for George Merrick’s Coral Gables.
What remains of the city’s historic country club is located on the scenic Greenway overlooking the golf course.
A view of the city’s Granada entrance, c. 1925, at Southwest 8th Street, looking south.
The Granada entrance today.
Built from rock excavated at a local quarry, the Granada entrance pedestrian walkway looks as it did 85 years ago.
A lifeguard stands ready at the Venetian Pool. Designed at one of the town’s rock quarries by Denman Fink, the Venetian Pool remains one of the city’s attractions.
In 1925, Merrick hired orator William Jennings Bryan to deliver compelling 40-minute sales talks.
Historic Coral Way is only one of the city’s many scenic streets.
George E. Merrick & the Merrick House
907 Coral Way

Although George Edgar Merrick (1886-1942) studied at Rollins College and law in New York, Mr. Merrick went into the real estate business shortly after he returned to Florida in 1911 to operate his family’s fruit-and-vegetable farm west of Miami. By the time he began plans for Coral Gables he had developed ten subdivisions. In November 1921, he sold the first lot in Coral Gables, what he modestly called “America’s Greatest Suburb.” While Coral Gables is thought of as his most profound legacy, Merrick donated $5 million and 150 acres in 1925 to establish the University of Miami. After the bust, Merrick revived his development career during the 1930s, planning and developing Sunny Isles and North Miami Beach.
George Merrick, left, and his entourage photographed on the grounds of the Biltmore’s golf course.
George Merrick, second from left, and associates strategizing their sales pitch.
The Merrick House is one of the several hundred original Boom era houses still remaining in historic Coral Gables.
George Merrick’s statue stands in front of City Hall facing Miracle Mile.
Coral Gables City Hall
Phineas Paist, architect & Denman Fink, artistic advisor, 1927-1928.
405 Biltmore Way
Coral Gables City Hall is among Florida’s finest public buildings.
Built after the land boom collapse and the devastating 1926 hurricane, Coral Gables City Hall was sited on a triangulated parcel at the junction of two boulevards facing Miracle Mile. Built for $200,000, designed primarily by architect Phineas Paist and artist Denman Fink, the three-story quarry key stone construction was composed with tinted stucco and coral rock. It features an arcaded loggia, a semi-circular rotunda with twenty-foot columns, and is capped by a tower and bronze belfry. Modeled on Seville’s town hall, City Hall was completed in February 1928.
Along the west elevation, a loggia opens into a courtyard.
The elaborate stone stairs were modeled after a staircase in Cordova. On the piano nobile, the mayor’s office is to the right. Designed by Denman Fink, the bell tower’s gilt and multi-colored mural depicts the four seasons.
A 1920s marine mural by Denman Fink highlights the staircase.
Desoto Fountain
Denman Fink, designer.
Desoto Fountain, c. 1925. Desoto Fountain, today.
Desoto Fountain was installed at the intersection of six boulevards. The Biltmore Hotel’s tower can be seen in the background.
Biltmore Hotel
Schultze & Weaver, architect. 1925-1926
1200 Anastasia Avenue
The Biltmore Hotel’s 280 rooms and conference facilities have been operated and managed by the Seaway Corporation since 1991 when they paid $24 million and assumed a 50-year lease from the City of Coral Gables. A ten-story central pavilion features a looming copper-clad tower patterned after the Giralda bell tower in Seville and two flanking seven-story wings.
After early plans for a 300-room hotel drafted by architect Martin L. Hampton were not accepted, in November 1924 Merrick, in partnership with John McEntee Bowman’s Biltmore Hotel chain, announced Schultze and Weaver would design a $10 million hotel-country club that would “surpass the Los Angeles Biltmore.”

After thirteen months of construction, the Miami Biltmore formally opened in January 1926 with more than 1500 guests attending a “Fashion Revue.” For Merrick’s crown jewel set on more than one hundred acres and two 18-hole golf courses, Schultze and Weaver designed what was then the tallest building in Florida. During construction of the Biltmore, Schultze and Weaver designed The Breakers in Palm Beach in March 1925. For its 140-acre oceanfront location, the New York firm adapted the Villa Medici’s more restrained twin-tower Italian Renaissance façade.
John McEntee Bowman, left, and George E. Merrick, the Biltmore Hotel’s impresarios.
The Biltmore’s formal front entrance.
First impressions. Lobby. When the hotel opened, single rooms were $6 per night.
Front entrance, grille work, detail.
Lobby, looking towards the front entrance. Lobby.
The lobby features bird cages for guests to enjoy endless tweet and twitter.
Lobby, c. 1926. During WW II, the Biltmore became an army hospital; following the war, it was converted into a VA Hospital.
In the lobby, the hotel keeps archival milestones. At the hotel’s first Wig Ball celebrating Washington’s Birthday, guests were charged “$5 per plate.”
Recessed stairs at the east and west end of the lobby.
Lobby, east fireplace, detail.
A theatrical balcony adds a touch of drama on the west end of the lobby.
The upper-level courtyard loggias surround the lower level La Fontana patio restaurant. Unlike The Breakers courtyard, at the Biltmore, the courtyard loggias add an air authenticity to the ambience.
Looking south across the courtyard towards the golf course beyond.
Looking north towards the lobby across the La Fontana patio restaurant.
The loggia’s scale and detail are part of the hotel’s Cinquecento ambience.
Built as the nation’s largest, the 23,000 square-foot swimming pool contains 700,000 gallons of water. The 85-foot high dive platform was converted into a waterfall.
The pool was resurfaced with polished marble and trimmed with this distinctive tile pattern.
During the 1930s, thousands attended water ballets and aquacades at the Biltmore.
A view from the diving tower waterfall across the pool to the hotel’s Conference Center of the Americas. To the left, cabanas are secluded in the landscape.
A still life at the pool bar.
A view of the south elevation from the golf course.
Babe Ruth and New York governor and presidential candidate Al Smith were among the duffers on the hotel’s Donald Ross-designed golf course.
The Biltmore Country Club building as sketched by Schultze and Weaver and as built in 1926.
Seen with a future golf champ awaiting his tee time, the Country Club building was artfully restored and converted into the Conference Center of the Americas.
The Conference Center’s upper level terrace opens into the ballroom and overlooks the golf course.
A view from the Conference Center’s courtyard of the hotel’s tower, making for the tallest building in Florida when it was built in 1925. The Biltmore was higher than the Miami News building (Freedom Tower) that Schultze and Weaver had designed in a similar fashion on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami.
The top of the tower at the Biltmore Hotel, the architectural centerpiece of Coral Gables.
An encore for George Edgar Merrick! Bravo!

Historic photographs courtesy of the State Archives of Florida and the Library of Congress.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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