The Bubble In The Sun

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The impulse which carried Theyre Hamilton Weigall into the Miami madness of 1925 was about as logical as that which carried anybody else into it. An unemployed English newspaperman wandering the streets of New York in the summer of that year, he was suddenly stopped by a sign in a window announcing that there were fortunes to be made in Florida real estate. “One Good Investment Beats a Lifetime of Toil. Say! YOU can do what George Cusack, Jr., did!” Cusack, Weigall judged from the accompanying photo, was a little half-witted anyway. If he could make $500,ooo in four weeks in Florida real estate, anybody could.

When, a couple of days later, Weigall stepped off a train into the blazing August sunlight of a Miami afternoon, he felt as though he had stepped into a tropical bedlam. Amid the din of automobile horns, drills, hammers, and winches, he later wrote, “Hatless, coatless men rushed about the blazing streets, their arms full of papers, perspiration pouring from their foreheads. Every shop seemed to be combined with a real-estate office; at every doorway crowds of young men were shouting and speech-making, thrusting forward papers and proclaiming to heaven the unsurpassed chances which they were offering to make a fortune. One had been prepared for real-estate madness; and here it was, in excelsis .” Miami, Weigall was informed, was “one hell of a place” … “The finest city, sir, in the U.S.A., and I don’t mean mebbe.”

The mob scene that Weigall was swept into was without question one of the supreme spectacles of the palmy years of the Twenties, a full dress rehearsal for the great bull market of 1929. The ebullience of Weigall’s account merely reflects the excitement it inspired in almost every witness. The journalists and publicists who wrote of it nearly exhausted their stock of superlatives. The New York Times reported that more “pioneers de luxe” had settled in Florida within two years than in California in the ten years after the fortyniners. “All of America’s gold rushes,” Mark Sullivan wrote, looking back at the spectacle from the vantage joint of the thirties, “all her oil booms, and all her free-land stampedes dwindled by comparison … with the torrent of migration pouring into Florida.”

Amid that torrent of ambitious humanity, young Weigall soon realized that success was not automatic. He answered a newspaper advertisement and became a glorified salesman representing the “membership committee” of an exclusive but nonexistent “International Yacht Club,” and eventually found his role turning out promotion copy for the Miami subdivision of Coral Gables. He was here at last in the vortex of the boom.

Coral Gables, unlike many of the fraudulent and jerry-built promotions that imitated it, was the embodiment of an aesthetic vision. It had gestated for years in the mind of George E. Merrick, one of the towering geniuses of the Miami boom. He had come to Miami in the late nineties with his father, the Reverend Solomon Merrick, a New England Congregational minister who hoped the Florida climate would improve his wife’s health. On a 160-acre tract south of town, the elder Merrick built a home which he called Coral Gables after the local coral limestone and after Grey Gables, Grover Cleveland’s house on Cape Cod. He established a business selling fruit and vegetables in the village of Miami, and young George, on his daily trips to town with produce, trusted directions to his horse and spent the time reading, composing poetry, and building castles in Spain, castles that would eventually become the city of Coral Gables.

The family orchards prospered enough to begin shipping carloads to the North, and George went away to college and, later, to law school. When his father died in 1911, he was forced to return home and manage the family estate. Merrick built up one of the most prosperous fruit and vegetable plantations in the area and in 1914 moved into the real-estate business, developing some of the earliest subdivisions around Miami. His ultimate dream, though, was of a new model city, “wherein nothing would be unlovely,” an American Venice planned not only for comfort and convenience but for aesthetic quality. “For ten years,” he later told a reporter, “I worked night and day to build up a nucleus for the Coral Gables which consistently grew in my dreams. I never told anyone my plans, but as my profits in real estate grew, I bought adjoining land. The 160 acres the family originally owned increased to goo, then to 500, a thousand, and finally to 1,600.”

Meanwhile, the situation slowly ripened for the realization of young Merrick’s dream. For despite the impression it gave, the Florida boom did not spring to life full blown, like Aphrodite from the waves. It stemmed from a long line of promoters like Henry M. Flagler. The Florida historians A. J. and Kathryn Hanna have suggested that the Gold Coast from H’f6be Sound, north of Palm Beach, to Miami could look back to Flagler “much as the human race recollects Noah.” Before Flagler, Miami was but a lonely outpost on one of the last American frontiers. It had begun during the Scminole War of 1835-42 with the establishment of Fort Dallas at the point where the Miami River empties into Biscayne Bay. Until the nineties the little settlements that grew around the fort were populated by fishermen, traders, small farmers, and a few refugees from northern winters.