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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 River of Grass

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Florida’s Everglades.  I can’t think of a better way to bid adieu (or I guess it should be adios) to sunny South Florida, than a ride through the River of Grass with a few friends. Dillon, the third generation of this family-owned business did an excellent job as captain and tour guide, explaining the complex ecosystem to this crowd of locals.  The Coopertown crew has helped with a lot of filming for TV and movies. Currently they are on a TV show in France, can’t remember the name, but it sounds like it’s the French version of Amazing Race.

Riding on an air boat is just plain fun – at any age.DSCN5034

Coopertown Air Boat rides: 11 miles west of the Florida Turnpike on US 41 (Tamiami Trail).  305.226.6048 http://coopertownairboats.com/ Call to reserve.  There is also a brief wildlife show and a restaurant with a menu featuring frog legs and gator tail.

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A Perfect Day at the Beach for the Anti-Sunbathing Crowd

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There is a lot more you can do at the beach besides bake in the sun.  The Beach Walk on Miami Beach beckoned for one final call before the weather turns unbearably hot and sticky. I’ve written about this before, so won’t take space to expound, but will share a couple of shots from a fun afternoon escaping the realities of a routine day. Of course, it’s always fun to pick a spot along Ocean Drive for lunch and people watch while you cool off.

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Craftsman Al, makes replica lifeguard stands, a perfect souvenir or just plain fun to have. Priced from $40 – $55, he can be found at the 17th Street entrance to the Beach Walk..

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Miami’s First Preservation Group, The Villagers, Turns 50

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Check out my recent story, in Pinecrest Lifestyle magazine, about this incredible group of historic preservationists:

Pinecrest Mag.50 Years of Saving Places

What’s Better than Vintage Cars at the Beach . . .

One of three colorful lifeguard stands at Homesteads Bayfront park - this one by Romero Britto. The atoll is perfect for swimming with kids and picnics.  The restaurant La Playa serves good food and has a great view of the beach and bay.

One of three colorful lifeguard stands at Homestead Bayfront Park – this one by Romero Britto. The atoll pool is perfect for swimming with kids or a scenic picnic. If being waited on is more your style, La Playa Grill serves good food and has a great view of the beach and bay. The park is located adjacent to Biscayne National Park.

Classic car shows are a staple of winters in South Florida

Winter car shows are a common sight in South Florida.

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Try the Vagabond for a Great Mid-century Experience

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The Vagabond Motel is a mid-century treasure – recently restored.  The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, with a great internationally-inspired menu and a cool Jetsons vibe.  

Check it out – you won’t be sorry.  

7301 Biscayne Blvd.  www.vagabondrestaurnat.com  786-409-5716

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Veterans: Thank You for Your Service

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We were proud and honored to drive Navy Veteran Steve (shown above) in today’s Veteran Day Parade on Miami Beach. We were part of the contingent from the Sunshine Corvette Club.  It was an emotional experience to learn just a bit of Steve’s 31-year military history, including time MIA in Cambodia (imagine begin a POW during the years our government didn’t acknowledge we were even in Cambodia).  Steve was a big hit with the crowd, particularly the kids, as he gave away several hundred American flags. Thank You All for Your Service.

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.

A Morning at The Kampong

A tranquil lily pond, complete with a variety from the Amazon.

A tranquil lily pond, complete with a variety from the Amazon.

I have always wondered what was behind the intriguing gates of The Kampong, located in Coconut Grove, Florida.  About four years ago, it became possible to visit the site, which was the home of David Fairchild and his wife Marian Bell (daughter of Alexander Graham Bell).

For a glimpse into the storied life of this famous botanist and explorer, a visit to The Kampong offers a lovely way to spend a morning. You can combine appreciation of tropical plants, history or architecture with an easy hour-long tour of the grounds and home.  After the tour, you are free to wander the multi-acre oasis on your own, and continue exploring the indigenous hammock, man-made boat slip or just sit at “The Point” and contemplate beautiful Biscayne Bay.

Your guide will explain the many plants, show you the mini-museum, located where Dr. Fairchild worked and wrote many of his books, and take you through the beautifully designed Indonesian-themed home.  For those familiar with his namesake Fairchild Tropical Gardens, you will feel like you are in a mini-version of that paradise.

Dr. Fairchild introduced more than 30,000 plants to the US, including flowering cherries (famous in Washington DC), mangos, soybeans, bamboos and more.  He worked for the USDA (Department of Agriculture) as head of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction and was active with the National Geographic Society.

The Kampong is the only mainland member of The National Tropical Botanical Garden and depends on donations to perpetuate the site and its many scientific and educational programs.

Tips to Enhance Your Visit

Open for guided tours September through June, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with tours at 10:30 and 12:30 ($20 per person).  I found the on-line registration impossible to complete (seemed to be a glitch in the system) and finalized arrangements by phone.  When we arrived, we were not on the list, but the gracious docent was unfazed and allowed us to join the group. 

Plan to arrive a few minutes early, when you do, staff will direct you to nearby parking.  You are free to bring a picnic and extend your enjoyment of the grounds.  In any case, wear comfortable walking shoes and bring your own water.  Walking is easy and the tour is fine for children and mobile elderly.

The Kampong is located at 4013 S. Douglas Road in Coconut Grove

www.kampong.ntbg.org   305-442-7169

Sign on Douglas Road, outside the brightly colored Asian-inspired gates.

Sign on Douglas Road, outside the brightly colored Asian-inspired gates.

 

Approaching the home's main entrance.  A worker carries tables to set-up for an evening wedding.

Approaching the home’s main entrance. A worker carries tables to set-up for an evening wedding.

 

Finally. An Art Museum for Miami

Art and images of controversial Chinese dissident/artist Ai Weiwei. Perez Art Museum Miami.

Art and images of controversial Chinese dissident/artist Ai Weiwei. Perez Art Museum Miami.

A few months ago, Miami stepped up in the art world with the opening of the long-anticipated Perez Art Museum Miami.  Known as the PAMM, it is a museum of modern and contemporary art befitting a very young, progressive city.  It also lends itself to featuring prominent artists throughout the Americas – not a bad fit for a city sometimes known as the capital of Latin America. 

Modern art is not generally my cup of tea, but this museum is a great experience however your tastes run.  First of all, the building itself is beautifully put together to marry the interior with its spectacular, sparkling, bay-side setting.  Columns of live greenery hang from the rafters and the views are never hidden, but seem to be celebrated.  Ample outside terraces overlook nearby park areas and the soon-to-be finished Frost Museum of Science.

Parking was easy ($2 an hour), and an elevator was handy for those who can’t take advantage of the wide staircases leading to the entrance.  The on-site Verde Restaurant provides much better than expected, trendy fare and has become a destination on its own.

The highlight for me was the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been a star in the art world and a thorn in the side of the Chinese government.  Currently not allowed to leave China, he was also the creative genius behind the iconic Birds Nest Stadium at the Beijing Olympics.  His sculpture and photography reveal interesting insights and social commentary.

Much of contemporary art is created to deliver a message and make a person think about things a little differently and our day at PAMM did not disappoint.

Just the Facts:

Closed Monday; open Tuesday through Sunday 10AM-6PM; Thursday til 9PM.  On the third Thursday of the month, the Verde Restaurant offers a happy hour from 6-9PM. 

At this time, second Saturdays from 1-4PM are free.  Adults are $12, Seniors (62+) and students are $8; children under 6 and active Military (with ID) are always free.

If you don’t want to drive, you can take the downtown Metromover to the Museum Park Station of the Biscayne Blvd. Trolley

For exhibit info and event schedules, visit www.pamm.org and for more about the Verde Restaurant www.pamm.org/dining

It’s pretty chilly inside – so bring a jacket or wrap.

Surroundings as part of art?  Just one of the beautiful views from the new Perez Art Museum Miami (looking through some of the hundreds of bicycles re-purposed as sculpture). The facility has 120,000 ' interior area and 80,000' more terraces and exterior space.

Surroundings as part of art? Just one of the beautiful views from the new Perez Art Museum Miami (looking through some of the hundreds of bicycles re-purposed as sculpture). The facility has 120,000 ‘ interior area and another 80,000’ of terraces and exterior space.

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