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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.

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