By Trevor Bach
By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
There was a flip side to Sykes's prankishness and merriment. Patricia says that contrary to his gregarious public persona, her father was emotionally detached from his own children, an avoidance of intimacy she attributes in large part to his fondness for the bottle: After work he would retire to his cluttered shack of a home and drink himself to sleep. "He lived like a rat," she shudders. "There was a path from the front door to the bedroom that might have been eight inches wide. Stuff everywhere: His accordion, his tuba, books, newspapers, journals, Christmas gifts."
Sykes's history of alcoholism was no secret; he'd been hospitalized for the illness in the early Eighties and would tell people he started Big Fish to distract him from booze. According to Patricia, the drinking never really stopped (though she says he never drank on the job), and actually worsened as Sykes grew older. She struggled with how to handle the problem. Threats did no good, and she finally decided that she couldn't change his behavior. "I kind of looked the other way," she admits. "I'd get the maid in and dust around the bottles."
Despite Sykes's private addiction, the restaurant was profitable; by Patricia's estimate, in its prime Big Fish hauled in between $1000 and $1500 a day. Then Sykes began to run out of steam. Patricia speculates that his drinking and deep unresolved feelings about his divorce two decades earlier depressed him. "It was like his pilot light went out," she recalls. "I don't think he was very happy. But he made other people happy. He was a real Pagliacci." In the fall of 1992 Sykes sold the restaurant to his waiter and took a job at Shell Lumber. On February 6, 1995, he was found dead on the floor of his cottage. An autopsy report cited the cause of death as "hypertensive cardiomyopathy" -- a disease of the heart. In Sykes's case the term may have had a dual meaning: His doctor told the medical examiner that during an appointment two weeks before his death the patient had talked of suicide because "he was discouraged that he couldn't put his life back in order."
Two hundred people turned out for Sykes's funeral. After the service the mourners filed outside playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" on kazoos and later gathered at Big Fish, where the ashes were cast into the Miami River amid a hail of firecrackers and small plastic parachute men.
Another memory from that day is less joyful. At the funeral, Patricia recalls, she was approached by "this little, twenty-something woman" who said she was a friend of Marjorie "Marge" Brickell and her son Butch, owners of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. "She said, 'We're going to run the restaurant now.' She was telling my sisters and me what she and Marge Brickell were going to do," recalls Patricia, who was then thinking about taking over the restaurant herself. "We were stunned that somebody would say something like that at that time."
The present-day Brickells can thank their maverick forebear Miami pioneer William Brickell for ownership of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. Born in 1825 in Ohio (T.O. Sykes's home state), Brickell was an adventurer, partaking in the Gold Rush in California and then traveling on to Australia, where he met and married his second wife. Returning to Ohio, he made his fortune in the oil business. He scouted out the nascent settlement in Miami during a sailing expedition in 1870 with Ephrain Sturtevant (the father of Julia Tuttle), returned north, packed, and carted his wife, two daughters, a housekeeper, and a governess back down to the soggy, mosquito-ridden peninsula.
Brickell set up a trading post on the south bank of the Miami River near its mouth, exchanging manufactured clothing, guns, and whiskey with the Seminole Indians for egret plumes, alligator eggs, and coontie starch, a staple of the local diet. And he began to acquire land. According to historian Paul George, over the next two decades Brickell's holdings grew to stretch roughly from the mouth of the Miami River to as far inland as today's Little Havana, and south to the edge of Coconut Grove -- including what is now 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. In addition, the pioneer owned property near the Miami City Cemetery downtown as well as real estate in Fort Lauderdale. In 1925 the Brickell estate was assessed at $12 million.
Having staked out their turf on the south bank of the river, the Brickells kept largely to themselves, developing a reputation for being standoffish and cantankerous. "They had what you and I might call 'an attitude,'" comments George, an associate professor at Miami-Dade Community College. In his 1993 book The Miami River and Its Tributaries, Miami River historian Don Gaby writes: "George Parsons, an educated man who lived on the river near Brickell Point in the mid-1870s, described Mrs. Brickell as 'a vile woman' and Mr. Brickell as 'not really a man and who should be wearing woman's clothing (from how he behaved)' and 'mean and petty'. Others complained of daughter Alice Brickell's performance as postmistress, because she gave people their mail -- or didn't give them their mail -- depending upon how she felt that day!"