Preserve Our Pilings!

Stiltsville's owners are hoping historical designation can save them from demolition

As more people moved onto the key during the 1950s, the torrent of anti-Stiltsville invective grew, George reports. "[Key Biscayne residents] were complaining with increasing frequency over the presence of Stiltsville, which they considered an eyesore, and whose residents they referred to as 'squatters' who did not pay taxes," the historian writes in his report for Save Our Stiltsville. (In 1968 the State of Florida imposed a modest leasing fee on the properties; today's owners pay about $1200 per year, Frost says.)

The success of the Quarterdeck Club also gave rise to several other clubs over the years, including the Biscayne Bay Bikini Club, which opened in 1962 on a 150-foot-long yacht that had run aground on the flats. Its patron was a goateed bon vivant named Harry Churchville, who went by the name "Pierre." According to George, the host supplied club members with booze as well as staterooms for trysts. The deck was decorated with sunbathing women during the day and became a party haven at night. That fling ended in 1965, though, when state beverage agents busted Churchville for operating without a liquor license.

"With the Bikini Club gone, Stiltsville regained some of its lost tranquility, while many of its residents attempted vigorously to counter its image as Gomorrah on Biscayne Bay," writes George. Still, the residents could do nothing to control Hurricane Betsy in 1965, which destroyed many of the structures. New ones quickly went up in their place. Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was more lethal: Six of thirteen homes were blown to splinters, but none was permitted to be rebuilt because the national park's restrictions were already in place.

The homes are now used as weekend getaways and bases for daylong fishing trips. "People stop for a while and go fishing then come back in," says Tom Caldwell, chairman of Save Our Stiltsville and a past president of the Miami Springs Powerboat Club, which owns one of the homes. "I'm not much of a fisherman. I just go and hang out."

Paul George calls the enclave "an anachronism," not least because its owners are predominantly white. "It's a Miami of Southern accents, a Miami of Anglo last names," he points out. That fact has contributed to a public perception of wealthy, elitist exclusivity, an image Caldwell wants to banish. His club, he says, is composed of a bunch of working stiffs and their families, including firemen, cops, utilities laborers, and a postal employee.

But winning public favor is the least of the group's worries. They now have to sell preservationists on the notion that the place is worth keeping. George says he spoke to the National Register "and they didn't seem too receptive," but the county's preservation board, on which he sits, "seems pretty receptive to it. The hook is that Stiltsville's cultural makeup is so unique," he explains enthusiastically. "It's an only-in-Miami thing!

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