- Historic Sites
The Bubble In The Sun
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
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
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.