Blog Archives

The Magic of Miami’s Stiltsville

It’s easy to take things for granted.  Many of us never take the time to see what’s in our own backyard.

Miami’s Stiltsville was a unique, raucous, lively, storied, and often infamous, cluster of shack houses about a mile offshore in the middle of Biscayne Bay. Known for both wild parties and old-fashioned family weekends in the sun, Stiltsville was a destination that promised fun and a hint of the unknown.

When I moved to Miami in the 70s, I took Stiltsville for granted, passing up opportunities to visit.  The community had rebounded from Hurricane Donna in 1960, and Hurricane Betsy in ‘65.  But then, on August 24, 1992 – it was gone.  Or at least most of it was gone. What was left after the fierce winds of Hurricane Andrew was mired in controversy and political wrangling. Not considered old enough (50 years) for designation by the National Trust for Historic Places, powerful people wanted the remaining seven damaged structures demolished.

The Bay Chateau House.

My husband and I were among the fortunate few when we recently visited Stiltsville on a glorious, sunny afternoon, and spent some very special time (with very special friends) relaxing at the colorful Bay Chateau House.

For four decades, our good friends’ family owned home #14, “Haven from Slavin.” I’ve always enjoyed their family stories of weekends spent fishing, swimming and exploring the tidal flats surrounding the homes. Water levels on the flats are 2-3’ and during low tide drop to just a few inches; a perfect aquatic playground.   Their three sons, now with children of their own, enjoy an exceptional shared history of their days on the Bay. It’s one of those sons who is now part of a group of caretakers for the Bay Chateau House.

Today, there are no private owners left at Stiltsville.  Instead, there is the unusual relationship forged by the Park Service and former owners; the non-profit, public-private Stiltsville Trust formed in 2003. Owners were transitioned to caretakers of this incredible resource. The U.S. Government now owns the entire area, a part of America’s only national park 95% under water, Biscayne National Park. Visitors can see the area by boat, but very few have the opportunity to actually enter one of the homes.

At its height in the 60s, there were 27 buildings, most on pilings raising them about 10’ above the sandy flats. Earliest records indicate man-made structures as early as 1922, and in the 30s Eddie “Crawfish” Walker sold bait and beer from a shack nailed to a barge.  Later in the 30s, things got really hopping with off-shore private clubs.  Then the Quarterdeck Club had a long run from the 40s until it burned in 1961, but much of Stiltsville’s boisterous reputation is due to the Bikini Club. The Bikini Club, run out of a yacht towed out and grounded in 1962, made quite a name for itself in its short three-year history. Its reputation was for hard-drinking, gambling, nude sunbathing and who knows what else. The club was closed down for operating without a liquor license and possession of 40 under-size, out-of-season crawfish.

Anyone for a swing-jump off the deck into the bay?

Private clubs notwithstanding, most of the stilt homes were owned by private families, who just loved the beauty, freedom and camp-like vibe of the natural setting. Of the seven surviving structures, one is the Miami Springs Power Boat Club started by firefighters, policemen and workers who lived near the airport.  The others are known as the Leshaw House, Hicks House, Baldwin-Sessions House, Ellenburg House and A-frame House.

I’m told by locals that Flipper’s famous TV scene going from deck to Bay was filmed at the A-frame House. Stiltsville also had many famous human visitors, including several Florida governors, local judges, Steven Stills, rib-master Tony Roma and Ted Kennedy. It’s been featured on film and in print, including TV shows Miami Vice and Sea Hunt, as well as several books by local best-selling author Carl Hiaasen.

Who knows what treasure will be the next to disappear.  Look around . . . while you can.

For More Info:

For a well-done 30-minute documentary produced by WLRN and featuring local expert, professor Dr. Paul George, visit Stiltsville through this link: http://video.wlrn.org/video/2365452261/

Biscayne National Park: https://www.nps.gov/bisc/index.htm

 

 

The A-frame House. Can you visualize Flipper sliding off the dock?

The Ellenburg House.

With the Miami skyline as a backdrop, the Baldwin-Sessions House. The most elaborate structure still in existence, it was once featured in a national ad for Pittsburgh Paints.

The Historic Coral Castle, an Engineering Marvel

The 20-foot tall crescent moon (weighing 23 tons) and Saturn are visible behind Ed's Throne Room featuring several unusual chairs. The largest chair (throne) weighs 5,000 lbs.

The 20-foot tall crescent moon (weighing 23 tons) and Saturn are visible behind Ed’s Throne Room featuring several unusual chairs. The largest chair (throne) weighs 5,000 lbs.

We’ve passed the Coral Castle dozens of times through the years, but have never taken the time to stop.  We weren’t sure whether it would be worthwhile or just another entry on a long list of Florida’s kitschy tourist “traps”.

But in honor of our 35 anniversary (for which the traditional symbol is ‘coral’) we incorporated a visit as part of our day. We were glad we did.

On the National Register of Historical Places since 1984, the Coral Castle was started in the 1920s by a diminutive (5’ – 100 lb), Lithuanian immigrant named Ed Leedskalnin. He must’ve had OCD because for the 20 years he toiled alone to build a mysterious, unusual monument to a lost love.   Using simple, homemade tools, he capitalized on what he learned from his family tradition as stonemasons and his early years in the U.S. working in mines, lumber camps and farms.

He didn’t completely lose his head to lost love, because he quickly turned the site into a money-making tourist attraction, charging 10 cents for admission and 2 cents for a hot dog.  In 1936, growth and development near his one acre site, pushed him 10 miles north to the current site in Homestead. He was savvy enough to place his new location just off US1, giving the state 7 of his 10 new acres to help build the highway.

Today, the site is often featured on programs about mysticism and aliens, but visitors need to get past the crazy rumors and speculation about magic, the supernatural, and aliens. This man clearly understood physics, engineering and how to sell his attraction.  Always building, and/or moving, pieces at night, he crafted seemingly impossible walls, sculptures and furniture, all from massive pieces of local coral rock.  He quarried and carved slabs weighing 6, 9, 18 and 23+ tons and moved them with the aid of pulleys and counter weights in a system he keep secret and took to his grave in 1951, at age 64. No one ever saw him working to put the rock in place.  When he moved pieces from his first site, locals saw the tractor pulling the sculptures up the road, but never being loaded on or off.

He built thick walls, a castle tower with a workshop and his spartan living quarters, rocking chairs, reading chairs to catch the sun at just the right angle, sundial, tables, beds, a Polaris telescope to spot the North Star, a fountain, and much more. To accommodate local photographers, and the growing popularity as a great spot for a photo-op, he even built a photographer’s stand.

His main entrance features a three-ton triangular gate that even I can easily rotate (it is balanced on the axle of a Model T Ford with a Coca-Cola bottle neck on the end, so it can still be lubricated).

The attraction is a bit quirky, but in a fun and interesting way.

The early admission gate.  Now on display at the Coral Castle Museum south of Miami in Homestead, FL.

The early admission gate. Now on display at the Coral Castle Museum south of Miami in Homestead, FL.

Helpful Tips:

You can find discount coupons on-line and there are senior prices. With a discount coupon, it was $25 for two adults and the price included an excellent tour, lasting about an hour.  Be sure to take the tour, they are ongoing and you join them in-progress.  The guides really help bring Ed’s story to life. Two hours is plenty of time for a visit. There is a snack bar and a nice little gift shop. It’s a great spot to give kids a lesson in physics.

Miami: Yes, We Have History Too

The Vault on the second floor of the Art Moderne Alfred Dupont Building in downtown Miami.

The Vault on the second floor of the Art Moderne, Alfred Dupont Building in downtown Miami.

 

The former Security/Capitol building from the Land Boom in 1920s Miami, now houses a contemporary gallery.

The former Security/Capitol building from the Land Boom in 1920s Miami, now houses a contemporary gallery.

Miami is a young city, and many visitors and residents don’t realize the rich and interesting history found within the boundaries of Miami-Dade County. We’ve grown and we’ve grown fast.

Whether people have come to speculate, study the incredible natural surroundings, immigrate for a new chance, or hobnob with the rich and famous; Miami has, and does, have it all.

March and April are always Dade Heritage Days. Together with other like-minded historically-oriented organizations, the Dade Heritage Trust sponsors and highlights a wide variety of tours, guided walks, movies, special events and more.  You could keep busy practically every day with the selection available, learning about the fascinating history and characters of the area.

Each year, we try to make it to at least one different area of the county to explore.  This year we chose to attend a special event, the “Taste of Historic Downtown Miami.”  A progressive trip through Miami’s architectural heritage, we visited eight locations while sampling specialty cocktails, tasty snacks and listening to a smorgasbord of musical styles.  It was a typically beautiful April night, and a fun way to see how the buildings have been restored and re-purposed.

My favorite was La Epoca Department Store, an original Walgreen Drug Store from 1936 in the Streamline Moderne Style.  Once promoted as the largest in the chain, with an 88 foot soda fountain, the inside stills retains the dramatic feel and look of an ocean liner. Today this site is part of the Downtown Miami National Register Historic District.

We rounded out our weekend activities by participating in The Villagers Historic Hunt.  The Villagers is a volunteer group formed in 1966, dedicated to the restoration and preservation of historic sites in the area.  This year was their 25th annual hunt and although we did not repeat any of our past winning efforts – we had a blast.

The theme was “Entertaining Miami” (which was also the theme of this year’s Dade Heritage Days), and the creative clues led us to 10 sites originally used as theaters, some well-known, some still in use as theaters. We traveled from the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach (now an H&M store), through Miami and Coral Gables before finishing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Coconut Grove.  Our team learned a few new things and had a lot of fun along the way.  The event is open to the public, with funds raised going to historic preservation.  Stay tuned next year for advance information and come join us!

To Learn More: For a downtown Historic walking tour, a map with key sites and information is available.  Contact the Downtown Development Authority or www.dwntwnartdays.com

The Lyric Theater was the centerpiece for Overtown's "Little Broadway," an after-hours hot-spot for African American performers who were not allowed to stay in the "whites-only" hotels in which they performed.  Entertainers like Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Nat "King" Cole, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots stayed and played in the once thriving Overtown neighborhood.

The Lyric Theater was the centerpiece for Overtown’s “Little Broadway,” an after-hours hot-spot for African-American performers who were not allowed to stay in the “whites-only” hotels in which they performed. Entertainers like Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots stayed and played in the once thriving Overtown neighborhood.

 

The Mediterranean Revival Style Gesu Church was built in 1925 on land donated by Henry Flagler. It houses Miami's oldest Roman Catholic parish founded in 1896, and still operates with a daily mid-day Mass.

The Mediterranean Revival Style Gesu Church was built in 1925 on land donated by Henry Flagler. It houses Miami’s oldest Roman Catholic parish founded in 1896, and still operates with a daily mid-day Mass.

Bronze bas-relief elevator doors featuring Florida motifs are a highlight of the 1939, post-Depression Alfred Dupont building in downtown Miami.

Bronze bas-relief elevator doors featuring Florida motifs are a highlight of the 1939, post-Depression Alfred Dupont building in downtown Miami.

%d bloggers like this: