The International Writers Magazine: Historic Florida - Go find it it's still there.
you are going to Florida naturally you'll think of visiting Disneyworld,
or Seaworld, St. Augustine Alligator World, Barnum and
Bailey World, Universal Studios or even the underwater mermaids
at Weeki Wachee Springs. Even if this list doesn't interest
you, why not try Parrot Jungle or Cypress Gardens or the rival to
St Augustine's attraction, Gator World in Orlando or watch something
hurtle into space at Cape Canaveral. Still can't temp you? Excellent.
Then you might very well be the type of person who hates to be 'entertained'
when on vacation and want to go to the real Florida. Come with me
and let's give Mickey a miss. Weirdly enough, Florida actually provides
one of the most cultural destinations in the USA outside of Boston
and New York and in both cases in a warmer and more convenient package.
Florida wasn't always thus. The State is a relatively new invention,
not really aspiring to anything until after 1890 when Henry Flagler
and Henry Plant rivalled each other for supremacy with their competing
railroads on the East and West Coasts of Florida. When Flagler discovered
St Augustine, the original Spanish settlement, he declared it to
be a perfect winter holiday resort, but found nowhere to stay and
the surroundings very swampy and infested. In
a very short time he built the Ponce De Leon Hotel in the heart
of the town - one of the most spectacular, durable and stylish hotels
Ponce De Leon Hotel
now Flagler College, was the first major poured concrete construction,
built to last centuries and in Mediterranean Spanish Renaissance style.
The very best artists were brought in and no expense was spared. George
Maynard painted the fine murals on the dramatic domed ceiling. Tiffany did the windows! The gardens
were elegant and to spare anyone any trouble, private trains could be
'parked' in the sidings specially built for the convenience of hotel
guests. The 'season,' January to early March attracted the very best
of society and Florida as a 'destination' was begun. The Hotel Ponce
De Leon built 1888 is now the excellent Flagler College. Great value for money and a wonderful friendly institution.
Henry Plant, seeing the success of Flagler's hotel,
responded by building the equally spectacular Tampa Bay Hotel in 1890,
serviced by it's own railroad.
||The Hotel looks for all the world like a Russian fantasy building,
a cross between the Kremlin and a huge Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Henry Plant
didn't really go for any Spanish styles with his hotels. The Gulf coast
was still looking for an identity. Competition between the two coasts
had begun. It was not enough to build hotels. Alongside the hotels sprang
cities and ports and although there was no particular ordinance for
it, a Florida 'Mediterranean' style began to take hold. Perhaps only
a veneer in many cases, but the idea that Florida would look 'different'
to the rest of America began.
The railroads had already pushed south
as far as Palm Beach when Miami became a city in 1886 (with a population
of 512 people). It would not be far for the railroad to travel the sixty
miles to this new and promising city. Florida would now become a cruise
destination as well. Flagler, ever building, now topped himself with
the amazing Royal Palm Hotel on Miami River (built for speed, it was
in a more traditional American Hotel style rather than continuing with
the Spanish theme). The brochures were all talking about the 'American
Riviera'. The grand opening ball was held on New Year's Eve 1896.
|The Astors and Vanderbilts, Sanford's were all guests of Henry Flagler
to make sure of its success in society and immediately it opened
that January of 1897 it was. The thrust south was encouraged by the terrible
winter's of 1894 and 1895, where frost destroyed the orange crops as
far south as West Palm Beach - coincidentally the site of Flagler's
most ambitious hotel The Breakers, built right on the ocean.
Flagler himself had moved on from St Augustine to his own mansion at
Palm Beach just outside the frost region. Around him were also built
the Royal Poinciana with 1,150 rooms and Colonel Bradley's Beach Club,
the most exclusive gambling club in the US and Palm Beach was then to
acquire it's somewhat exclusive reputation. Modern motor racing
developed here on the beach and early flying feats were performed here.
Whereas Miami became the popular resort, somehow Palm Beach remained
uptown and insular. Nevertheless the presence of high society wintering
in his hotels also help Flagler's other interests, selling real estate
and city, seaside housing developments. In each of the resorts he founded,
he built huge towns fed by his own publication the Florida East Coast
Homeseeker. These were sold as investments and of course, refuge from
the harsh northern winters.
To encourage visitors there was a ACL-FEC Hunting and Fishing Bureau
inside the New York ticket office on West 45th street. As demand grew
for Florida vacations and homes to purchase, key areas were developed
along the Flagler railroad ( the motor vehicle not yet dictating where
towns should be located). Daytona beach, Titusville, New Smyrna, Delray
Beach, Jacksonville and as far west as Key West (1912) were all earmarked
for development. With it, came a demand for employment and development
of Florida's key resource, citrus products. Florida Orange juice was
being touted all over the USA by the turn of the century and Florida
seemed set to become one of the most prosperous regions in all the States.
Art colonies grew up, schools and Universities were founded and the
rich endowed them willingly for they were retiring to this new state
and wanted the cultural life to follow them. The great hotels became
the winter playgrounds for vacationers and behind them came the orchestras,
restauranteurs, movie theatres, dancehalls, speakeasies as well as designers,
artists, musicians. Almost anyone could have a better life down here
and no one really needed a brochure to get them there. They couldn't
get there fast enough.
Of course Florida was definitely not the place to be in the hot summer and the
Florida economy often struggled in July to September prior to air-conditioning
becoming widespread. By the 1920' s however, the State was in the grip
a fantastic property boom. Cities like Sarasota were being sold in New
York and Chicago to people who had no idea that it actually only existed
on paper, or that just a few buildings were being constructed. Other
places really did only exist on paper and were real estate scams that
probably hurt a lot of people. Cities like Aladdin or Garden of Allah,
outside Sarasota promoted glamorised versions of fabulous Meditterannean
architecture no doubt inspired by a popular film in 1924 'Thief of Baghdad'.
Its ads read 'Study the drawing - you can have a Home on Mecca Boulevard'. Lots were sold and resold many times, but no actual houses were ever
built. The Marx brothers actually made a film based on the flim-flammery
of Florida real-estate brokers called 'Coconuts'.
Sarasota advertised itself to would be punters with posters stating
'No Income Tax or Inheritance Taxes to pay in Florida'. Local promoters
did invest. John and Mable Ringling built in the Mediterranean
style and they also owned the Ringling Bank which encouraged investment
by a new phenonema of 20th century America; the very mobile, car owning,
credit-empowered middle classes. People keen to purchase not just a
home, but a lifestyle and cities like Sarasota on the Gulf Coast were
heavily advertised all over the USA and even in British magazines such
as Country Life. They told people that they could buy into a fantasy
life of tea dances and romance beside the bougainvillea.
||By now there was a consensus, Spanish architecture would dominate
the landscape and some pretty spectacular buildings were going up in
this style. Would be investors who came south to buy their lots would
see the elegant and simple Atlantic Coast Line Passenger Station, (1925).
The substantial Sarasota County Courthouse (completed 1927)
and the stunning Hotel El Verona which inspired artists all over the
USA, not to mention the never completed but ambitious Ritz-Carlton Hotel
on Longboat key.
The El Verona was seriously ambitious. Inside the cavernous
lobby and restaurants everything was aged to have the appearance of
centuries of wear and floor and wall tiles from Mexico gave it a patina
of authenticity and cool atmosphere that convinced many people to believe
it was a relic of the Spanish Empire. Florida was being moulded into
a Spanish country and might have become one but for the disastrous hurricane
of 1926 that destroyed Miami.
It heralded a complete collapse of Florida as a popular 'investment' and many
boom places were not only not built, but what was there, fell quickly
into ruin. Suddenly, what had seemed like paradise on America's doorstep
turned very sour indeed and Florida went into a long decline as far
as property development was concerned, not generally retrieved until
the late thirties. Miami was rebuilt and still attracted
inward investment, and it slowly mushroomed as an all-year around retirement
resort. Many of the wonderful Art Deco hotels on Ocean Drive survived somehow and have been restored over the years. Even if investment could
have been stimulated for the rest of the State, the depression saw to
it that in Florida it took courage to invest. It
would take a generation to forget the land and property price collapse
The Florida that developed during WW2 and after went in a modernist direction,
but fortunately, some of what was built by the early State pioneers
and visionaries has survived and still influences the way some domestic
architecture has progressed. The Spanish look is still in vogue and
appropriate to the weather.
The City of Coral gables founded by George Merrick (1886-1942) is one
such place. Built as a utopian ideal it ignored all the architectural
influences of the North which dictated one could only build in the Midwest
Prairie School of Architecture and went headlong into Mediterranean
Revival, picture-book architecture. There were others of this kind.
Miami Shores, Fort Lauderdales's Progresso community, Snell island
in St. Petersburg. It was never particularly functional, more expressive
architecture. The Mediterranean style flourished from the time Flagler
built his Ponce De Leon hotel in St Augustine in 1888 to John Bindley's
house (who owned Pittsburgh Steel) on Biscayne Bay in 1917 and later
on in the 20's with the Everglades Club. The Moorish style we love now completely
faded from vogue with the depression, to be replaced by art-deco and
The thirties saw the rise of art-deco and the 'moderne' style continued
right through to the 1950's with big building booms in Miami and South
Beach Miami in particular, with wonderful eclectic designs. The National
Hotel on Collins Avenue typifies this and the Delano Hotel, 1685 Collins
Avenue is a very colourful example. These things
go in and out of vogue, but right now South Beach is one of the most
interesting resort venues in the USA where the main attraction is the
art-deco rows of hotels. It is
lively and exciting and new buildings will all kinds of influences are
Check this out at the bottom of Collins Avenue and 5th Street.
To see just over a century of cultural and architectural development
visit Miami this autumn and stay in fabulous places such as The National
Hotel on Miami Beach, an art deco classic on 1677 Collins Avenue www.nationalhotel.com
and take your time to visit these other wonderful places: The News Cafe
on Ocean Boulevard, The Penguin Hotel on 14th for a genuine raw art deco
hotel and great breakfast go to LINCOLN ROAD (16th Street) for great
pan-asian food at PACIFIC TIME or across the way experence British food
at BALLANS or go native at VAN DYKES, about the only place serving decent
wine. Better yet, walk to the end and find the state of the art cinema
with around 12 screens. (Look out for the flea market on weekends and some wierd and wonderful stuff on sale.
The Florida without a Mouse guide recommends: The Art Museum & The FIU
School of Architecture University Park Campus PC 110 SW 107th St. Miami,
Bass Museum of Art 2121 Park Avenue, Miami Wolfsonian & Florida International
University 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. Miami Art Museum & Historical
Museum 101 West Flagler Street, Miami Ambrosino Gallery Contemporary
Art 3095 SW 39th Avenue, Miami
And a side trip: Visit the Ponce de Leon
Hotel-St Augustine (now Flagler College) and stroll along St. George
Street for the simple pleasure of tasting what Florida could have been
like if it was still a colony of Spain. Go find Backstreet Coffee Bar. It's off Cordova somewhere. Best time to visit Florida is October - check for Hurricanes before you go.
Sam on South Beach before Hurricane Irene
© Sam North 2022 (updated from 2000)
Author of Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles and more
The Sam North Novels
Florida Hurricanes - Irene
Miami - The How and Why of
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