THE GEORGE MERRICK CONTROVERSY
In 2020, a public discourse about the legacy of George Merrick began. The core of the controversy arose from Merrick’s proposal to forcefully relocate Black families from Miami. The fact that Merrick advocated for this displacement is just that-a fact.
“…it is visioned and proposed that during the next twenty years, a complete slum clearance be made, effectively removing every negro family from the present city limits.” Planning the GREATER MIAMI — for the Tomorrows By George E. Merrick, 17 May 1937.
Read Merrick’s full 1937 speech here
CORAL GABLES WALKING TOUR
“Remember that what you are selling here is not just land. It is not just a piece of ground on which to put a house. What you are really selling is romance, the stars, the moon, the tropics, the wind off the blue water and the perfume of flowers that never grew in northern climes.” George Merrick to his salesmen
In 1899, George E. Merrick came to Miami from Duxbury, MA. Merrick amassed 3,000 acres of land that he developed as a city in the Mediterranean Revival style. Merrick began his project in 1921, and the City of Coral Gables was incorporated on 29 April, 1925. The Coral Gables Congregational Church is dedicated and the University of Miami is chartered in that same year.
Incredibly, George Merrick never traveled to Spain. Rather he drew his inspiration from trips to Mexico and Cuba and the private tutoring he received from a retired Yale professor. He went on to study at Rollins College and New York Law School, part of Columbia University.
In a 1925 interview Merrick described what influenced him in designing Coral Gables. “Just how I came to utilize the Spanish type of architecture in Coral Gables, I can hardly say, except that it always seemed to me to be the only way houses should be built down there in those tropical surroundings,” said Mr. Merrick. “I made a trip to Mexico and Central America and was more convinced than ever of the possibilities offered by the adaptations of the Spanish and Moorish type of architecture. The gleaming white coral rock, the palm trees, tropical flowers and verdure seemed to me to provide a natural setting with which Spanish architecture alone would harmonize.”
The construction of James Deering’s Vizcaya in 1916 and Charles Deering’s Stone House in 1922 both greatly influenced Merrick, In fact Paul Chalfin, the curator of Vizcaya, and Phineas P. Paist, the architect of the Stone House, both were central in the design of Coral Gables.
The story of Merrick gaining inspiration from reading Washington Irving’s romance texts while riding in a chariot with a mule is anecdotal and plays into the great American myth of anglo pioneers.
Coral Gables was influenced by the City Beautiful Movement in its design. It’s urban planning, mix of commercial and residential zoning, and green spaces make it a lasting model of real estate development in Miami.
“The buildings contain such elements of the Mediterranean Revival style as stucco finishing, clay tile roofing, decorative ornamentation around doorways and windows, loggias and such classically derived elements as round arches and columns often with composite capitols.” US Department of the Interior
It must also be emphasized that Coral Gables was built by Bahamians at a time of violent segregation.
This walking tour is designed for the students of JW Bailly’s FIU Honors College classes. It is not comprehensive, nor does it cover tourist destinations. It is limited to sites near Miracle Mile. The texts below are source materials more than original writing.
CORAL GABLES MUSEUM
“Designed by Phineas Paist and Harold Steward 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, and jobs for local construction workers and artisans. Paist and Steward used the simple lines and mass of Depression architecture combined with Mediterranean details. The three-arched bays on the west side originally housed the fire trucks. Above these bays are sculptures by a female artist professionally known as Jon Keller, depicting two Coral Gables firemen and a typical family they protect.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Burea
Learn more about the 1939 Municipal Building on the Coral Gables Museum webpage “An Archeological Expedition: The Journey from Municipal Building to Museum”
Above the entrance are four pelicans that are meant to symbolize sacrifice. A popular myth states that pelicans bled them themselves in order to feed their young.
The west facade of the building has three garage entrances. These are the old doors for the firetrucks. Above and around these are iconic sculptures by Joan Keller. It is noteworthy that Keller, as a woman in 1938, secured this commission. The two firemen are accompanied by those they serve to protect-a family, pets, a child, and…a clown! Notice that the corner guards below are in the shape of firemen boots.
The lobby of the museum was the reception are of the fire and police station Immediately to the east is the old courtroom. Notice how small it is. As Coral Gables grew, a larger courtroom was added to the building; this is now the auditorium. Also of note are the old jail doors. There were four cells – white men, black men, white women, and black women.
JOHN M. STABILE BUILDING
Look across the street at the corner John M. Stabile Building at 296 Aragon Avenue. It was built in 1924 and is one earliest commercial structures in Coral Gables. Pay special attention to the elaborate doorway and try to find the fish and birds.
Walk east on Aragon Ave
WEILAND CLINIC/BOOKS & BOOKS
“This building, now a bookstore, was built as the Coral Gables Medical Center in 1927 and housed the offices of local physicians. Designed by Lee Wade, with a 1936 addition by Phineas Paist and Harold Steward, it consists of two wings connected by an arcade supported by four simplified columns.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
East on Aragon to north on Ponce de Leon.
HOTEL SEVILLE/PLACE ST. MICHEL
“Originally constructed in 1926 as an office building, it was soon converted into the Hotel Seville. The first floor included retail space. Now called the Hotel St. Michel, the interiors have interesting 1920s-style broken tile on the floor and on the vaulted ceilings. The St. Michel is the last of four beautiful small hotels that once characterized tourist facilities in the Downtown Coral Gables area.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
CORAL GABLES ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
“In July 1923, George Merrick sold this site to the Miami-Dade County School Board for $10,000. Designed by Kiehnel and Elliott, this Mediterranean-style elementary school has classrooms with wide doors rimmed by arcaded loggias, two impressive central courtyards and a large auditorium.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
“The Coral Gables Elementary School employs the Mediterranean Revival style of architecture for its compatibility with the semi-tropical environment of South Florida. Because this style enabled the structure to take advantage of toe cross brazes, it became the most prevalent of the style for schools during this period, cue of toe distinguishing features of the Mediterranean Revival style, the arcaded loggias, developed into the covered walkway in schools. This became a distinguishing feature of all styles of schools in Florida until recent times with the advent of efficient,- commercial air conditioning, school designs abandoned the arcaded open walkways for the economical interior hallway design. This style, reminiscent of penitentiary construction, further reduces the effects of the hot Florida sun.” US Department of the Interior
East on Minorca Avenue then loop around to southwest on Alhambra Circle
CLA REINA HOTEL/LA PALMA
“Now called La Palma, and converted into offices and a restaurant, it was one of the earliest hotels in the city. Designed in 1924 by H. George Fink, George Merrick’s first cousin, it has a large interior courtyard and interesting decorative ironwork.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
Southeast on Merrick Way
South on Ponce de Leon
“The original Colonnade Building, designed by architects Phineas Paist, Walter De Garmo and Paul Chalfin, is located at 133-169 Miracle Mile on the northeast corner of Ponce de Leon Boulevard. It was built in 1926-1927 and was initially constructed for use as George Merrick’s Coral Gables Corporation sales office. When the real estate market collapsed in 1927, the building was substantially complete and consequently tenants continued to occupy the space. In 1987, the historic portion of the building was rehabilitated and a high-rise addition was added to encompass the block to Aragon Avenue. The stately columned arcade gave the building its original name. It is now known as the Colonnade Hotel and Office Building.” Coral Gables Memory – FIU
“Designed by Phineas Paist in collaboration with Walter DeGarmo and Paul Chalfin, James Deering’s interior designer for Vizcaya, George Merrick built it in 1926 to house his growing sales operation. The structure is a mixture of Spanish Colonial and Baroque. Since the 1920s, the Colonnade has had many tenants including the Colonnade Movie Studios and a World War II parachute factory. Today, a hotel and office building designed by Spillis & Candela adjoins the original structure.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
West on Miracle Mile
MIRACLE THEATER/ACTORS’ PLAYHOUSE
“Designed by William H. Lee and built between 1947 and 1948, the Miracle Theater is a pre-eminent example of the Art Moderne style. Once a neighborhood movie house, the building reflects the streamlined design born of an industrial age. The interior detail is in the grand tradition of historic movie palaces. It has been the home of Actors’ Playhouse since 1995 and houses a 600-seat mainstage auditorium with a 300-seat second stage. It is a cultural and performing arts center for the community.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
CORAL GABLES CITY HALL
“The Coral Gables City Hall is a three-story, apsidal shaped structure of stucco and Florida quarry keystone rock. It is an outstanding example of Spanish Renaissance style architecture. City Hall is particularly significant in that it represents one part of George Merrick’s dream for a completely planned Mediterranean style city. Arcade loggias, patios, fountains, old Spanish barrel tile roofs combined with native coral rock and tinted stucco give Coral Gables a distinctive flavor and style. Equally as important was the care taken in planning for all the social, cultural, recreational, commercial and personal needs of its residents. He planned an ideal city. An early promotional brochure describes Coral Gables as ‘America’s Finest Suburb.'” Library of Congress
“Phineas Paist and Denman Fink designed Coral Gables City Hall in 1927 and 1928. The cornerstone was laid on November 10, 1927. It is constructed of oolitic limestone, commonly called “coral rock.” Inside, in the bell tower, the multicolored mural painted by Denman Fink can be viewed. It depicts the four seasons. The faces of young women represent spring, summer and autumn while winter is recreated as an old man.” Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau
CORAL GABLES CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH
Completed in 1923 on land donated by George Merrick, the Coral Gables Congregational Church was the first to be built in Coral Gables. George’s father, Rev. Solomon Merrick, was a Congregational minister in Massachusetts before moving to Florida. The architectural design is attributed to the design firm of Kiehnel & Elliott. The church has a bell tower and an elaborated decorative entrance facing the Biltmore Hotel. Details of the interior include Spanish-style circular wrought iron chandeliers and arcades flanking rows of wooden pews. The church is located at 3010 De Soto Boulevard. The Coral Gables Congregational Church is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Coral Gables Register of Historic Landmarks
“Recognizing the importance of having a luxury resort hotel in the city, George Merrick turned to John McEntee Bowman, President of the Biltmore Hotel chain. The New York firm of Leonard Schultz and S. Fullerton Weaver was selected by Bowman to design the hotel and ground was broken in 1925. At cost of $10 million, The Miami-Biltmore Hotel and Country Club, boasting a golf course and 350 rooms, officially opened on January 15, 1926. At the time, the hotel’s pool was the largest hotel pool in the United States. The magnificent tower is modeled after the Giralda Tower from the Cathedral of Seville in Spain. In November of 1942, The Miami-Biltmore Hotel and Country Club was turned over to the United States of America for use as a hospital that opened in March of 1943. In 1946 the hotel became an Army general hospital and the Veterans Administration (VA) took over in July of 1947. The VA Hospital was closed in 1968 with ownership eventually being transferred to the City of Coral Gables in 1973. A grand re-opening of The Biltmore took place in December 31, 1987, 61 years after it first opened.” Coral Gables Memory – FIU
We Honor the Tequesta, Seminole, & Miccosukee
“We recognize that our country was built on Indigenous land and we pay tribute to the Indigenous nations who have stewarded these lands these waters and animals for centuries and who have made great sacrifices in the building of our country.” Deb Haaland, 2021
We Recognize the Bahamian & African-American Communities
It is incumbent upon us, as well as historically important, to remember that early Miami-Dade was built at a time of intense racial segregation. Many of the workers that built our county were Bahamian or African-American. The working conditions were abysmal. We honor their contributions and memory.
EDITORS AND LAST UPDATE
John William Bailly 04 February 2022
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