|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 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.”
|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.
|Coral Gables City Hall
Phineas Paist, architect & Denman Fink, artistic advisor, 1927-1928.
405 Biltmore Way
|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.|
|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.|
Denman Fink, designer.
|Desoto Fountain, c. 1925.|
Schultze & Weaver, architect. 1925-1926
1200 Anastasia Avenue
|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.|
|First impressions.||Lobby. When the hotel opened, single rooms were $6 per night.|
|Lobby, looking towards the front entrance.||Lobby.|
|The lobby features bird cages for guests to enjoy endless tweet and twitter.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.