Walkabouts: Coral Gables


 PHOTO GALLERY: Walkabout in Coral Gables
Florida's real estate crash of the 2000s was a calamity, but it falls short of the soaring successes and unmitigated failures wrought by the 1920s Florida Land Boom.

The 1920s boom created subdivisions, suburbs and even cities out of wilderness. It took a backward state and made it into America's paradise.

The recent crash left millions upside-down on their mortgages and many thousands jobless and homeless, but the 1926 bust sent paper millionaires and tens of thousands of knickerbocker-wearing salesmen scurrying back north with little more than gas money.

 PHOTO GALLERY: Walkabout in Coral Gables

The Great Depression hit Florida three years ahead of the rest of the country. The devastation to the state's economy was total.

And it all started in Coral Gables, with the best of intentions.

Real estate developer George Merrick — son of a minister who housed his family on a grapefruit plantation he carved from the pine flatwoods west of Miami — dreamed of creating a suburb that would take the best attributes of the City Beautiful movement and put them to work on his "Miami Riviera."

In 1921, Merrick, at age 35, sold his first lots. Four frenzied years later, he advertised "40 miles of waterfront" (including Key Biscayne), pushed for the construction of the University of Miami and hired famed orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a resident of neighboring Coconut Grove, to hype Coral Gables real estate to northerners for $100,000 a year. They saw either a chance to own a piece of paradise or, more likely, a way to get rich quick.

When the boom went bust in 1926, what those fortune-seekers left behind was an iconic American city, one of its first planned communities, with a grandiose architectural flavor, tree-lined streets and 100-foot-wide boulevards, parks, towers, entrance gates, classically inspired office buildings, magnificent churches, one of the South's most iconic hotels and, yes, the University of Miami.

And homes, plenty of stately, well-proportioned homes, styled by such architects as George Fink and Phineas Paist, using the "Mediterranean" blend of Spanish and Italian architecture also employed to great effect in Palm Beach by Addison Mizner.

"It has a sense of place," said Arva Moore Parks, author of "George Merrick's Coral Gables" and a forthcoming biography of the developer tentatively titled "Son of the South Wind." "The landscaping is extraordinary — the entrances and plazas that have been preserved. The theme that it had is still there. And of course, the Biltmore is a beacon to the past and the future. It is a wonderful community."

Ninety years later, Coral Gables is one of the richest cities in the South. It has the 15th and 34th most expensive ZIP codes in the country by home price, at $3.48 million and $2.67 million.

The average sale price for a small house in the north part of the city, which is far from the water, is $500,000, and the market is "on fire," said Riley Smith, a local real estate broker.

"Prices are practically back to where they were" during the 2000s boom, said Smith. "You can easily find a million-dollar house and it probably won't be the most expensive house on the block."

Finding a blighted or rundown property in Coral Gables is a difficult search. Smith said its "consistency" is what appeals to buyers.

"Everything is very organized and regimented, so property values stay more steady," he said. "There are not a lot of radical changes in the community. Everything is neater and cleaner. Other parts of Miami don't look like Coral Gables."


Merrick's story is not a rags-to-riches one. It is more unusual than that. He was born into the middle class, made himself fabulously wealthy and then ended up broke, but unbowed.

His father, a minister named Solomon Merrick, and his artistic mother brought their family to Miami in 1899 from Massachusetts. George, 13, was 10 years older than Miami itself.

The 160 acres Solomon Merrick bought had a grove of guava trees, a couple of shacks and not much else. The pine flatwoods had rocky soil, with oolitic limestone close to the surface. This made for difficult farming, but it was a good building material. Locals called it "coral rock."

Solomon's dream was to grow grapefruit, and after years of effort, the crop came in and the family's fortunes rose. Solomon bought more property, and in 1907, he started building a large, coral-rock house that was completed in 1910 and survives as an historic site.

George went off to Rollins College in Winter Park, where he was exposed to the development of Florida's first planned community in the style of the era's City Beautiful movement.

George wanted to be a writer, and he had a talent for it. But he had to move back home when his father fell ill. The family home was complete now; they called it Coral Gables.

A year later, 25-year-old George took over Coral Gables Plantation after Solomon's death. The young man was a risk-taker, and he made the plantation into Dade County's biggest fruit producer. By 1913, he dreamed of building a village on family land, and opened a real estate office, which he soon merged with an established firm in Miami. Merrick gained valuable experience helping develop several important Miami subdivisions. Three years later, he left the real estate company to concentrate on managing the plantation and planning a model subdivision that he would call Coral Gables, which sounds more poetic than "Oolitic Limestone Gables."

In 1921, as a newly mobile America prospered after victory in World War I, Merrick put his Coral Gables plan in motion. He hired his cousin, H. George Fink, as lead architect and Frank Button (Chicago's Lincoln Park) as landscape architect. Artist Denman Fink, his uncle, was another key player, drawing posters that illustrated Merrick's vision of a fanciful paradise with monumental buildings. Later, architect Phineas Paist and legendary salesman "Doc" Dammers would join the team.

When Merrick, in total control of the effort, opened Coral Gables for sales in November 1921, 5,000 people showed up, an eighth of the county's population. As snowbirds came south in Henry Ford's cars or on Henry Flagler's trains, Miami was growing, and Merrick was in the right place at the right time.

So began the epic Florida Land Boom of 1921-26. All over the state, subdivisions and new towns sprang up, most of them featuring the Mediterranean architecture that was being used to sell Venice, Sarasota, Boca Raton and other boomtime communities as established places of "old money." Real estate speculation was rampant. Properties were bought on 10 percent down, 30-day binders, and the goal was to buy binders on the cheap and sell them at a profit before the note came due. A lot of fortunes were made this way.

Not a land scam

But Coral Gables was not a land scam. Merrick really did want to build a complete city, with commercial and government buildings; churches, pools, plazas, parks and golf courses; and housing of all kinds for all classes. He was inspired by the City Beautiful movement displayed by Daniel Burnham at the 1893 Chicago world's fair, which emphasized grand infrastructure and monumental design.

"George's vision was for a middle-class community," said Parks. "He believed the middle class deserved beauty as much as the rich, and he always spelled beauty with a capital B."

Coral Gables was the biggest real estate venture of the 1920s, with $100 million invested and $3 million a year spent on a national advertising campaign.

Ad copy that read more like poetry was written by none other than George Merrick. A lot of it appeared in the Miami Herald, which had a Sunday edition of 500 pages at the height of the boom, 1925. Much of it was filled with real estate advertisements.

Landmarks went up, from the Biltmore Hotel to the Venetian Pool to the Congregational Church.

Doc Dammers eventually had a sales force of 300. Merrick had sales offices in several northern cities, and a fleet of buses brought potential buyers south for tours.

Merrick was making a fortune, but he wasn't keeping it. Most of the profits were reinvested into ever more grand development projects. The Biltmore Hotel was the most prominent landmark, and the University of Miami the most ambitious venture. He built golf courses, a commercial center, hotels, traffic circles with fountains and monuments and grand entrance gates.

In October 1925, when demand for housing outpaced supply, Merrick built a tent city that he promoted as "Cool Canvas Cottages."

Maybe too cool. As the winter season progressed, buyer demand began to wane. A rail embargo cut off the supply of building supplies. A ship capsized in Miami's harbor, nearly closing the port for several months. Pessimism replaced the unbridled mania for Florida real estate.

Promoters said the slowdown was nothing more than a breather for the market, and actually was beneficial, as 1925 had been such a frenetic year for construction. But then came September 1926, when one of the worst hurricanes in the state's history roared up the mouth of the Miami River. Hundreds died. Coral Gables, with its strong masonry buildings, fared better than most areas, but the fantasy was over. This boom was not coming back.

Merrick continued on, investing his own money. The University of Miami opened a month after the storm, and construction started on Coral Gables City Hall. After years of it being entirely his show, Merrick formed the Coral Gables Corp. to raise money from the sale of stocks. But as the depression worsened, Merrick was forced from the city commission, and his Coral Gables.

Some historians, including Raymond B. Vickers in his 1994 book "Panic in Paradise," are critical of Merrick.

"Merrick ... was a captive of his own publicity," wrote Vickers. "He continued to expand and improve his 'Miami Riviera' until the magnitude of the project doomed it. ... Access to liberal financing enabled Merrick to expand Coral Gables into insolvency."

"His dream of completing the perfect community got the better of him," countered Parks. "He never lived high on the hog. He never was in it to make a profit. Everything he made went back into Coral Gables."

By 1930, broke, Merrick and his wife were running a fishing resort in the Florida Keys. When it was wiped out by the deadly 1935 hurricane, they moved back to Miami, and Merrick became chairman of the Dade County Planning Council. He was back in favor. In 1937, his plan was used as the basis for the city's first zoning code.

"He had very strict rules for Coral Gables," said Parks. "The hardest thing for him was to convince people that they couldn't do what they wanted. For the early years, he approved everything. He created architectural review, and the city still has an architectural review board today."

Not one to walk away from his debts, Merrick took a job as Miami postmaster in 1940 so he could continue to make payments on his debts. But he died in 1942, at age 56, when Coral Gables was just two decades old. His dream was unfulfilled, but enough of the city was built to provide a promising future. If he saw it today, perhaps the tree canopy would provide the biggest difference from the early days.

"That would be a shocker," said Riley Smith, the real estate broker. "I think he would be totally surprised how consistent the neighborhood still is. They strive for that.

"Because they are their own entity, the tax base is very strong," said Smith. "They spend a lot of money on public works. The roads are in beautiful shape and the trees line every street. It has been a well-planned city from the very beginning."

But the story of boom and devastating bust has become the backstory of Coral Gables. Its beauty is a tribute to his vision, and that is what matters to residents now. Indeed, Merrick has become a heroic figure. A few years ago, a statue of him was placed in front of Coral Gables City Hall, the last building to be built while he was in control.


Coral Gables is 230 miles from Sarasota. Take I-75 across the Everglades and stay on it until 1 mile from its terminus. Exit south on S.R. 826, the Palmetto Expressway, to Coral Way. Go east two miles. Downtown walking tours are offered at 11 a.m. Saturdays at the Coral Gables Museum, 258 Aragon Ave., one block north of the Miracle Mile shopping district.


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: July 14, 2013
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