Under the Florida palms William Jennings Bryan orated and Gilda Gray shimmied while real-estate promoters hawked lots. It was the greatest land boom in our history
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.
Flagler, an early partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, had first seen Florida on a vacation trip in 1878. He returned to St. Augustine for his honeymoon in 1883 and soon embarked upon a career of developing a string of resorts along Florida’s east coast. Starting with two hotels at St. Augustine, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, and with the improvement of railroad connections from Jacksonville, he pushed his Florida East Coast Railway on south to Ormond and Daytona, and eventually, in 1894, into Palm Beach. That year, Flagler added to his hotel chain by building the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach, and, two years later, the Breakers. These hotels, supplemented by a railroad parking lot for private palace cars, were for decades among the favorite resorts of the rich and the famous. When in April, 1896, the railroad reached Miami, Flagler launched the city by constructing still another Flagler hotel, the Royal Palm; an electric light plant; and a water and sewage system. By 1900, Miami could claim a grand total of 1,681 persons.
On June 13, 1913, a few weeks after Flagler’s death, a landmark was dedicated in Miami. It was the first bridge to Miami Beach, the narrow strip of land that separates Biscayne Bay from the Atlantic. The bridge was the brain child of another great Florida pioneer, John S. Collins, a successful New Jersey horticulturist who, in the eighties, had invested $5,000 in a scheme to grow coconut palms in the area. Disappointed in that venture, Collins came to Miami himself in 1896, acquired land on Miami Beach with an eye to its future resort possibilities, and, for the time being, began raising avocados, potatoes, and bananas.
But in order to assure the development of the area, Collins realized that there had to be a bridge from Miami to the Beach. In 1912, with the backing of his three sons and his son-in-law, Thomas I. Pancoast, he began his bridge across Biscayne Bay. Halfway across, the contracting company failed, and with his Jordan nearly crossed, Collins’ money ran out. The plight of the venture was brought to the attention of Carl Graham Fisher, an Indianian who had founded the Indianapolis Speedway and the Prestolite Company and who, by good luck, was just then vacationing in Miami. Fisher met Collins, was impressed with his plan, and took $50,000 worth of bonds in the bridge, enough to complete it.
Fisher also inaugurated some of the more bizarre phases of Florida promotion. He dredged up the bottom of Biscayne Bay in order to fill a mangrove swamp, then dredged up more mud to make artificial islands in the bay. He incorporated the town of Miami Beach in 1915, and after World War I opened a campaign of hotel building and high-pressure advertising unlike anything seen before in the country. Among his gimmicks were Carl and Rosie, two elephants who hauled cartloads of children around the island. One even served as a caddy for President Harding. Finally, Fisher conceived the idea of the Miami Beach bathing beauty. According to Will Rogers, he was the “midwife” of Florida, who “rehearsed the mosquitoes till they wouldn’t bite you until after you’d bought.”
Thanks to the spadework of men like Flagler, Collins, and Fisher, Miami on the eve of the boom was already a playground for the rich. South Bay Shore Drive on Biscayne Bay, south of the city, had emerged as a millionaire’s row in 1916 with the completion of the palatial Villa Vizcaya, home of the harvester magnate James Deering. In 1923 William H. Luden, the coughdrop king, arrived for the season at his home on the Drive, and William K. Vanderbilt came in his $3,000,000 yacht, Alva . Senator T. Coleman Du Pont of Delaware was staying at Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel, and Harvey S. Firestone came to visit and then to buy a great Georgian-style showplace. Other visitors of note that year included Labor Secretary James J. Davis, chain-store genius J. C. Penney, auto mogul William C. Durant, and the 1920 Democratic presidential candidate, James M. Cox, who purchased control of a Miami newspaper and transformed it into the Miami Daily News . A new resident was sometimepolitician, sometime-evangelist William Jennings Bryan, who taught a Bible class for tourists every Sunday morning in the Royal Palm Park. But, naturally, the climax of the 1923 season was the arrival at the Flamingo Hotel of President and Mrs. Warren Harding.
Thus all was in readiness for the boom when, in 1924, the combination of Coolidge prosperity and the proliferation of Henry Ford’s tin lizzies gave Americans extra money to spend and made Florida an accessible place in which to spend it. A number of factors contributed to the Florida boom. First of all, there was money to be made in land speculation. The value of Florida real estate had been climbing since the turn of the century, and the state was particularly attractive to investors after 1924, when it outlawed both income and inheritance taxes.
But there was another more subtle and complex factor—a paradoxical revolt against the very urbanization and industrialization which were producing the new prosperity. The businessman made his money in the heart of the city, Frederick Lewis Allen suggested in Only Yesterday , but he wanted to spend it in exotic surroundings, in “a Venice equipped with bathtubs and electric ice-boxes, a Seville provided with three eighteen-hole golf courses.” Florida promoters lost no opportunity to make it abundantly clear that Florida was the exotic place. “Florida is bathed in passionate caresses of the southern sun,” one advertisement read. “It is laved by the limpid waves of the embracing seas, wooed by the glorious Gulf Stream, whose waters, warmed by the tropical sun, speed northeast to temper the climate of Europe. Florida is an emerald kingdom by southern seas, fanned by zephyrs laden with ozone from stately pines, watered by Lethe’s copious libation, decked with palm and pine, flower and tern, clothed in perpetual verdure and lapt in the gorgeous folds of the semi-tropical zone.” How could a smalltown banker looking out his window at the frozen wastes of North Dakota resist that ?
Every winter after the Armistice more and more “snowbirds” appeared. They were very different from the Vanderbilts and Du Ponts who had frequented Flagler’s elegant hostelries. The arrivals of the Twenties were a part of what might be termed a “subdivision civilization,” one which allowed the middle class to enjoy a comparatively inexpensive season in the sun and, if they were lucky, to turn a pretty penny in land speculation besides.
The prototype of the Florida subdivision was Coral Gables. By 1921, George Merrick had 1,600 acres just southwest of Miami, $500,000, and a sound experience in real-estate development. Now, with a highly organized sales force and a stable of architects, he took the first tentative steps toward making his dream city a reality, cautiously building a road or two, putting in lighting and water connections. The first sales of lots were made in November, 1921. Within two years the sudden inflation of land values was under way, and Coral Gables was one of the first areas to be caught up in the rapid expansion. Almost overnight Merrick found himself dealing in millions. He expanded his holdings to 10,000 acres, formed the Coral Gables Corporation under his sole control, and amid the speculative frenzy saw his dream begin to materialize.
Throughout the boom Merrick remained an enigma to the host of extroverts that swarmed into Miami. A large, squarely built, pensive man in his late thirties, he avoided personal publicity and consistently refused to attend public functions. Even his dress—ill-fitting tweed trousers, Norfolk jacket, and old broguesseemed strangely un-Miami. T. H. Weigall still regarded him worshipfully years later as “a very great man,” “passionately in love with Florida,” not for the sake of its exploitation but as “the last outpost of the United States, a fresh and unspoiled territory which it would be criminal to let develop along haphazard, ugly, or unscientific lines.”
A the boom advanced, development of Coral Gables accelerated: the area was landscaped; lakes and waterways connected to Biscayne Bay were blasted out; and winding avenues and plazas were built through the pine woods. The quarry from which the coral rock had been dug for construction was converted into the colorful Venetian Pool. Carefully planned residential and business sections began to emerge, as well as the University of Miami, which was expected to rival the great academic centers of the East. There were golf courses, a country club, and a twenty-six-story hotel, the Miami-Biltmore. Everything was to be in a blend of Spanish-Italian architecture that Merrick called “Mediterranean.”
As Weigall described Coral Gables later, “Its main boulevards were all 100 feet wide, and at their intersections there were fountains surrounded by tropical trees and wide plazas paved with coral rock. Everywhere there was brilliantly-colored foliage and running water. Its houses stood well back in their gardens, and even the offices, with their brightly-colored sunblinds, gave an impression of being almost countrified. Everywhere there were dazzling colors—white walls, striped awnings, red roofs, brilliant greenery, and the intense blue of the Florida sky.” By the spring of 1925 it included five hundred homes.
Northward from Coral Gables the boom spirit spread up the coast and across the Florida peninsula into a hundred subdivisions of a hundred towns, each elaborating its own variations on Merrick’s theme of a perfect city. There was Hollywood, “The Golden Gate of the South”; Fort Lauderdale, “The Tropical Wonderland”; Orlando, “The City Beautiful”; Winter Park, “The City of Homes”; Haines City, “The Gateway to the Scenic Highlands”; Sebring, “The Orange Blossom City”; Fort Myers, “The City of Palms”; and St. Petersburg, “The Sunshine City,” where the Independent gave away its edition on any day the sun failed to shine.
Even staid old Palm Beach, at first inclined to look down its aristocratic nose upon the scrambling nouveaux riches , was caught up in the hurricane of expansion. Palm Beach was to be wooed and won into the heart of the boom by one of the great charlatangeniuses of the Twenties, Addison Mizner—painter, woodcarver, miner, interior decorator, prize fighter, writer, architect. Born in California in 1872, Mimer had gone to Guatemala with his father in his teens, and there had fallen in love with Spanish art and architecture. This love had later grown during a brief stay at the University of Salamanca in Spain. Over the years he had pursued his off-beat career as an exotic and romantic dilettante on lour continents.
Mizner’s first brush with fame had been as co-author of The Cynic’s Calendar: “Where there’s a will, there’s a lawsuit”; “Many are called but few get up”; “The wages of gin is breath”; “Be held truthful that your lies may count.” He was working in New York as a society architect and designer of Japanese landscapes when ill health carried him to Palm Beach in 1918.
There he fell in with a kindred spirit, Paris Singer, whose inheritance from his father’s sewing machines gave him the time and the money to pursue both the arts and Isadora Duncan. Soon the combination of the Florida sun and Singer’s generosity had helped Mizner recover to the point where he was busily designing a hospital—financed by Singer—for convalescent World War I soldiers. But the war was completed before the hospital was, and it was transformed into the Everglades Club, displacing Flagler’s Breakers as the ne plus ultra of Palm Beach. The Everglades was the first of many architectural triumphs that established Mizner as the supreme master of the Florida Spanish motif. It led to a commission to build a villa for banker Edward T. Stotesbury, the first of dozens of rich patrons—including G. Rodman Wanamaker II, Drexel Biddle, Jr., and a pride of Vanderbilts—who were eager to pay for the privilege of being insulted by a great architect and of living in the gigantic pleasure domes he created for them.
The architecture of these latter-day Xanadus has been summarized by Alva Johnston in his book, The Legendary Mizners , as the Bastard-Spanish-Moorish-Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance-Bull-Market-Damn-the-Expense Style. Their central theme was inevitably Spanish, but Mizner, a versatile antiquarian, sometimes threw ten centuries into one structure. “Most modern architects,” he said, “have spent their lives in carrying out a period to the last letter and producing a characterless copybook effect. My ambition has been to take the reverse stand—to make a building look traditional and as though it had fought its way from a small unimportant structure to a great rambling house that took centuries of different needs and tips and downs ol wealth to accomplish. I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner has added a very rich Renaissance addition.”
To get the all-important appearance of antiquity Mimer inflicted the wildest vandalism on his masterpieces. He deliberately smudged up new rooms with burning pots of tarpaper, took penknife and sledgehammer to woodwork and statuary, used ice picks and air rifles on furniture, hired inexperienced help to lay roof tiles awry, and once had men in hobnailed boots walk up and down a stairway before the cement set to get the effect of centuries of wear. One of his original contributions to architecture was the discovery that worm-eaten cypress gave the desired effect of age; thus pecky cypress, formerly considered almost worthless, suddenly became the mahogany of Palm Beach.
The one talent Mizner lacked was that of making conventional plans and specifications. Everything was done off-the-cuff. Plans for one house were drawn in the sand on the beach, a window in another was copied from a photograph of a house on Minorca. When one client asked for a blueprint, Mizner replied in amazement, “Why, the house isn’t built yet.” Occasionally, this resulted in oversights, such as the failure to include a staircase in one mansion; a staircase was eventually added—but outside, so that it would not spoil the perfection of the interior.
His landscaping experience gave him a distinct feeling lor the setting ot a house. To an admirer, the Journalist Ida Tarbeil, he seemed “to have a veritable passion for utilizing all the natural beauties of the place,” an ability “to make a typical Florida thing.” Vistas of the ocean, the blue skies, the tall palms, all figured in his craft. Large windows and cross drafts let the balmy air into his rooms. He noticed that the prevailing winds were from the southwest, so his kitchens were invariably in the northeast corner of the house. As an artist he understood the dramatic effects of color—he preferred pastels. He looted Spain and Central America of tile roofs and furnishings and set up his own Mizner Industries, Inc., to make the latest thing in “antiques,” wrought iron, artificial stone, stained glass, terra cotta, tiles, urns, pots, and fountains.
Not far from the Everglades Club were the Via Mizner, the Via Parigi, and the Worth Avenue Arcade, where Mizner created Old World alleys of little shops and sidewalk cafés with gay pink, blue, and cream-colored fronts. Up and down Palm Beach his talent ran riot, spawning a city of palaces with great watch towers and thick walls, cloistered arcades, high galleries, vaulted ceilings, and tiled pools. These edifices have been called by some the work of a quack, by others, including Frank Lloyd Wright, that of a genius.
Addison Mizner soon had a million dollars, he claimed, salted away in government bonds, but it was inevitable that he would be drawn into the subdivision madness that swept up from Miami. He was joined in that adventure by his scapegrace brother, Wilson, a latter-day Sir John Falstaff who had come down from New York in 1921 to manage the Mizner Industries. He was a master of the pulverizing phrase and was credited by some with the quip, “Never give a sucker an even break.”
As the boom roared into fantastic excesses, Wilson found himself more and more at home in the Florida wonderland. The Mizners got a late start, but they made up for it by projecting the most ostentatious subdivision of all at Boca Raton (Rat’s Mouth), a little stop on the Florida East Coast Railway south of Palm Beach. The plans featured El Camino Real, a highway 219 feet wide and only about twelve times as long, with twenty traffic lanes and a “Venetian canal” with powered gondolas running down its center. There was to be a hotel, an airport, a polo field, two golf courses, a yacht basin, and a church that was to be a memorial to Mama Mizner and a source of satisfaction to the Mimers’ other brother, an Episcopal priest—the white sheep, as it were, of the family. Unfortunately, little of it got off Addison’s mental drawing boards. “Beaucoup Rotten,” the rival realtors labelled it, and so it turned out to be, for it got under way as the boom roared to a collapse. The only structure completed was the hotel, the Cloister, one of Addison’s masterpieces.
At mid-decade the boom spirit soared to its peak. The Gold Coast, of which Miami was the heart, was geared to a winter-resort economy; from April to November it subsided into lassitude. But in 1925 the season never ended. The swarms of “tin can” tourists continued to arrive in their flivvers throughout that summer. Kenneth L. Roberts, covering the scene for the Saturday Evening Post , estimated that 4,000 people a day entered the state by automobile, supplemented by another 3,000 on trains and 200 on ships, making perhaps more than 2,500,000 in the boom year.
The new arrivals included a liberal sprinkling of real and psendo celebrities. Indeed, the number of celebrities a town or subdivision had was considered a good barometer of its prestige. Thus Miami Beach boasted that it was the resort of “America’s wealthiest sportsmen, devotees ol yachting and other expensive sports.” The subdivision of Floranda had the Earl and Countess Lauderdale, Lord Thirlestane, and the exKing of Greece; Gene Tunney regularly appeared at another subdivision; Bobby Jones was at Davis Islands in Tampa Bay; while Helen Morgan and Elsie Janis could be seen at Hollywood-by-the-Sea. And Florida’s famous visitors did not have to go around thirsty in the sun just because of the Eighteenth Amendment. Liquor was as readily available as it was in Al Capone’s Chicago. The primary source for this cheer was the Bahamas. Jn 1922 a friend just back from Nassau reported to a horrified William Jennings Bryan, “The Bahamians are very proud of the fact that Prohibition in the United States has made their country independent. They boast of the fact that theirs is the only government known to be out of debt, with millions in the Treasury and a monthly income of more than $500,000 in revenue from the sales of whiskey alone.”
Amidst this combination of boom times, dazzling celebrities, and free-flowing booze, the most ludicrous scenes became commonplace. At the Miami Western Union office those unable to reach the desk wrapped their messages in rocks and tossed them over the heads of the crowd. Every evening on the streets of Miami, charabancs of “realtors” passed slowly through the crowds shouting out their bargains to the accompaniment of trombones and saxophones. One of the most conspicuous features in promotion was the boom orator. There were all kinds among these spellbinders: side-show barkers, auctioneers, and free-lance orators willing to talk on anv subject for a minimum of ten dollars an hour. Bible-Belt gospel shouters, many of them carried away with a semireligious enthusiasm for Florida, earned lhe premium wages. “It was a common sight,” Weigall reported, “at any wayside barbecue on the Dixie Highway, to see some purple-faced orator mounted on the back seat of his car under the blazing sun bellowing of the land of hope to an awestruck audience standing round him in the white dust.”
It was scarcely an exaggeration to say that everybody in Miami was “in real estate” in one way or another. The city was finally forced to pass an ordinance against making sales in the street or on the sidewalks. Since all ordinary office and salesroom space was taken up, the realtors had to operate from partitioned sections of hotel lobbies and warehouses, in cleared basements, enclosed porches, and boxed-in spaces between buildings.
In the better-organized operations, lots were sold from blueprints or models. D. P. Davis promoted development at St. Augustine with a forty-foot mock-up that featured tiny powered boats running around a minuscule island. Actually to see the lots was not possible, since they were offered “predevelopment,” before the streets had been laid, the yacht basin opened, or even the mud dredged up to raise the land above water level. Underwater lots were among the standard frauds, but customers stood in line—some of them reportedly for forty hours—to buy lots on Davis Islands in Tampa Bay and Venetian Islands in Biscayne Bay while they were still under water. (Surprisingly, these particular speculations returned a tidy profit to the investors when the operations proved successful.)
To attend the opening of a subdivision sale, one frequently needed a reservation. Many a customer, having made a down payment of ten per cent, would step up when his turn came, select a lot from the blueprint, see it stamped “Sold,” accept his receipt, and then rush out in search of a buver. In the speculative fairyland of fast turnover and quick fortunes, the careless plunger was more likely to profit than the prudent investor. No matter how outrageous the price, there always seemed to be somebody else to whom one could “pass the baby” for more money.
Even well-planned Coral Cables became more and more involved in the boom-time hoopla. Merrick soon had three thousand salesmen hawking building lots and a fleet of seventy-six buses “to take you to Coral Gables at any time you desire”—as a guest of the corporation. The Coral Gables fleet made regular runs to and from the larger southern cities and occasional runs to and from New York, Chicago, and even San Francisco. And to guarantee that prospective buyers would be in a receptive mood once they reached his heaven on the Atlantic, Merrick had band leaders Paul Whiteman and Jan Garber making sweet music at the Venetian Pool, with “When the Moon Shines on Coral Gables” one of their most popular numbers. In addition, from a platform in the pool itself, the champion of silver, William Jennings Bryan, earned a little gold by orating on the miracle of Miami; it was, Bryan declared, “the only city in the world where you can tell a lie at breakfast that will come true by evening.” For trumpeting this cheering news, Bryan received an annual salary of more than fifty thousand dollars. And just in case Bryan didn’t do the trick, he was sometimes followed by the original “shimmy girl,” Gilda Gray, who shook her chemise with such gusto that it took the viewers’ minds off the prices quoted for lots by salesmen circulating through the audience.
But the Mizners’ Boca Raton was not about to play second string to Merrick’s Coral Gables or any other subdivision in the Florida promotion game. Wilson Mizner imported an old friend, the publicist Harry T. Reichenbach, to make Boca Raton into what Wilson called a “platinum sucker trap.” The bait—overpowering snob appeal. It was announced that only the “best” people could get into the place, which meant, quite simply, only those with lots of ready cash. (Palm Beach, Wilson said, would be converted into servants’ quarters for Boca Raton.) In Reichenbach’s unmeasured terms, it was the habitat of “the world of international wealth that dominates finance and industry … that sets fashion … the world of large affairs, smart society and leisured ease.” The Mizners collected, among other celebrities, two Du Ponts, one Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Arden, Irving Berlin, Herbert Bayard Swope, James M. Cox, George Whitney, and Marie Dressier, “the Duchess of Boca Raton.” At one point sales of lots, on paper, averaged two million dollars a week.
The legends of money to be made in Florida real estate began to rival those of the California Gold Rush. Kenneth Roberts told of a strip of land in Palm Beach which was sold in 1915 for $84,000, in 1922 for $240,000, in 1923 for $800,000, in 1924 for $1,500,000; in 1925 it was estimated to be worth nearly $5,000,000. Weigall knew a New York bank clerk who went to Florida with a thousand dollars and returned three weeks later with $375,000, which he had the good sense to invest in gilt-edged securities. A New York cab driver took a passenger, who could not get train accommodations, all the way to Miami, stayed, and made a fortune speculating with the money he earned driving his cab. Land on West Flagler Street in Miami, which had been worth $30 an acre in 1910, was bringing $75,000 an acre by 1925.
But it was the “binder boys” who perfected into a fine art a method of making profits on little or no investment. The principle was to pay a nominal “binder” fee on the promise of a down payment to be made perhaps a month later and additional payments “as of one, two, and three years.” The profit then would be reaped by the simple process of trading binders which might pass through a dozen or more hands before the initial down payment was made. The practice was finally broken up by Miami realtors who caught a group of smart operators from New York on binders and quickly produced abstracts with an agreement that cash payment was due immediately.
Even the clearest vision seemed to become dazzled by all this glitter. Both Weigall and Reichenbach actually began to believe that there was genuine twentyfour karat gold to be had in speculation, and plunged in with their own savings. Roger Babson, who was to make his reputation by warning of the 1929 stock market crash (see page 90), predicted an endless rosy future for Florida real estate.
It was all too good to last. Here and there skeptics began to raise their voices. Walter J. Greenbaum, a Chicago investment banker, warned against “wildcat land speculation” in Florida, and the Massachusetts Savings Bank League cautioned depositors against withdrawing money to invest there. Walter C. Hill of the Atlanta Retail Credit Company predicted that it would all end in the winter of 1925-26. The alarm seemed especially severe in Ohio. State Commerce Director Cyrus Locher went to Florida to investigate. “When the boom has subsided, there will be headaches all over America,” he reported. “The rise in Florida will continue as long as northern money is sent to Florida, and the end will be that of every boom, where few prosper and many hold the bag at the end.” Ohio passed “blue sky” laws in 1925 forbidding certain firms to sell Florida property.
These doubts suddenly began to take their toll of confidence. It was calculated that within ten miles of Miami there were enough building lots on the market to provide sites for houses for two million people. The first hard sign that the boom was going sour came when a lot on Miami Beach, which had been sold for $50,000, brought only $25,000. Other clouds, too, began to appear in the sunny Florida skies. In the summer of 1925, a fire started by an electric hair curler burned down both the Breakers and the Palm Beach Hotel. Then, Flagler’s East Coast Line and the Seaboard found that their tracks had taken so much punishment from increased traffic due to the boom that urgent repairs were necessary at once. To make this possible, an embargo was declared in August, 1925, on all carload lots except fuel, petroleum, livestock, and perishable material. In September, a “less than carload lot” embargo went into effect.
The embargo had disastrous effects on the boom, leaving thousands of desperate builders with unfinished construction on their hands. (One frantic contractor smuggled in a carload of bricks buried in ice and labelled “lettuce.”) The only alternative was to bring in material by water, and scores of abandoned hulks were resurrected for the purpose. But in January, 1926, an old Danish training ship, the Prinz Valdemar , which was being renovated to serve as a floating cabaret in the Miami harbor, capsized in the middle of the channel, completely halting all inbound and outbound shipping for several weeks.
As though these problems were not enough, other developments cast further gloom. For one thing, federal income-tax troubles began to dog the speculators. The rumors of a tax reduction in 1926, and the report that a number of special revenue agents had been sent into Florida, led many speculators to hold up sales in order to postpone profits until January, 1926. In December, 1925, the Internal Revenue Service announced that all notes on real-estate transactions would be considered as cash received and that full tax payment was due on them. The National Better Business Bureau commenced an investigation of frauds in Florida real estate, and a stock market break in February and March of 1926 forced back to New York many businessmen who had gone to Florida to plunge.
Through Christmas week, 1925, Miami was able to disguise its nagging doubts behind a cheerful holiday mask. On Christmas Eve the New York Times reported that rents were coming down, but the planned festivities went on. In a joint statement the mayors of Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, and Coral Gables proclaimed the last day of 1925 and the first two days of 1926 “The Fiesta of the American Tropics,” a season “when Love, Good Fellowship, Merrymaking, and Wholesome Sport shall prevail throughout Our Domains.” They declared that “through our Streets and Avenues shall wind a glorious Pageantry of Sublime Beauty Depicting in Floral Loveliness the Blessing Bestowed upon us by Friendly Sun, Gracious Rain, and Soothing Tropic Wind.” But the market would no longer respond to this kind of ballyhoo. The new season saw real-estate prices breaking sharply as optimists whistled in the dark about “stabilization,” “levelling-off,” and “salutary readjustment.” On February 14, 1926, the New York Times reported a decided lull. By July, Stella Crossley wrote bluntly in The Nation: “The Florida boom has collapsed. The world’s greatest poker game, played with building lots instead of chips, is over. And the players are now cashing in or paying up.” The roads north, she said, were black with “a strangely quiet exodus.”
The coup de grâce to the boom was administered by a formidable tropical hurricane, with winds in excess of 128 miles an hour, which roared over the Gold Coast and the Everglades on September 18, 1926. The storm killed 115 people in the Miami area and another 300 in the village of Moore Haven when it was flooded by the waters of Lake Okeechobee. Miami Beach was entirely inundated, and at one point during the storm the ocean extended deep into Miami itself. Four thousand homes were destroyed and nine thousand more damaged in the area from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, with property losses in the Greater Miami area alone put at $76,000,000.
Yet the wreckage left by the hurricane was as nothing compared to the wreckage left by the collapse of the boom. On Singer’s Island, just north of Palm Beach, an unfinished hotel begun by Paris Singer became a luxurious resort for sea birds. In Miami, a hotel near the airport was transformed into a haven, not for snowbirds but for chickens. With property holders defaulting to creditors and to the tax collector, the only land-office business in Florida was being done in the courts.
The Mizners’ Boca Raton was never finished, and the brothers, when they died in 1933, were both financially ruined. But Addison left behind more than a score of houses that are among the supreme artistic artifacts of the Twenties. George Merrick’s Coral Gables, which had never relaxed its rigid zoning or its architectural standards, remained one of the most beautiful towns in America. And though Merrick himself lost heavily when the bubble burst, he made something of a comeback. In 1934 he re-entered the realestate business and soon had branch offices throughout Greater Miami. When he died in 1942 he was Miami’s postmaster.
Not all of the new arrivals of the Twenties departed when the bubble burst. Miami’s population had grown from 5,471 in 1910 to 29,571 in 1920; it had risen to 110,637 by 1930. In the Twenties the metropolitan area led all others in the nation in its rate of growth, and the twin cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg ranked sixth. And in the thirties, Florida as a whole continued to grow at a more rapid rate than any other state in the Union. But, when compared to the boom time of the Twenties and the boom time which was to come in the fifties, the peninsula was as in a great sleep.
In 1928, Henry S. Villard described a trip to Miami for The Nation: “Dead subdivisions line the highway, their pompous names half-obliterated on crumbling stucco gates. Lonely, white-way lights stand guard over miles of cement sidewalks, where grass and palmetto take the place of homes that were to be. … Whole sections of outlying subdivisions are composed of unoccupied houses, through which one speeds on broad thoroughfares as if traversing a city in the grip of death.”