As acts of conjuring go, God's universe-in-seven-days gig was none too shabby. But George Merrick's siring of Coral Gables, conceived with a flash of genius and realized with all the precision of divine foresight, is almost enough to make the Big Guy jealous. Coral Gables: The City Beautiful, the latest offering from the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, tells the story of Merrick and his unique creation, surveying the area's growth from untamed backcountry to a center for Latin American business.
Organizers faced the challenge of presenting a city that, with its wealth of historic sites and notoriously strict zoning rules, has long seemed a museum unto itself. But historian Paul George, who wrote the captions for the exhibition, claims its assortment of historic and hidden treasures (many borrowed from private collectors) offers a fresh perspective. "We're going to put it all in front of you," he says. "You'll see a lot of things that would be hard to find [just walking around] in Coral Gables."
The museum picks up the story at its beginning in 1898, with twelve-year-old Merrick transplanted from New England to the South Florida wilderness. The Merricks literally "created something out of nothing," says Carol McGeehan, curator of the Merrick House, the original family home whose coral-color roof tiles inspired the city's name.
The Merrick House bolstered the exhibition with items from the era when young George helped his father build a thriving citrus plantation. After his father died in 1911, George became the man of the family, and often awoke at 2:00 a.m. to sell fruit in downtown Miami by morning. "It used to take him four hours to get downtown," McGeehan says. "It still takes four hours to get there!"
On display: some of Merrick's books from his youth, which may have sparked his love of Mediterranean architecture and stimulated him to create one of America's first planned cities based on sixteenth-century Spanish and Italian towns. "One of his favorite writers was Washington Irving, who worked as an attache to Spain and wrote books about Spain," McGeehan notes.
Aside from personal objects, much of the most precious memorabilia is commercial. Merrick spared no expense in promoting his city, commissioning elaborate, brightly colored real estate brochures that touted "Miami's Riviera" and offered "40 miles of waterfront." According to Noelle Shuey, museum curator of objects: "Coral Gables was well-known for its aggressive marketing."
Merrick's hype helped the city spring up seemingly overnight. "It literally grew up in a five-year period [from 1921 to 1926]," says Ellen Uguccioni, Coral Gables historic preservation director. Its swift construction proved crucial in separating the Gables from other planned but largely unfinished cities such as Opa-locka and Miami Shores. "Coral Gables was able to get a lot of its buildings off the drawing board before the [real estate] boom crashed in 1926," George adds.
Other than showing what was, the exhibition will provide a glimpse of what might have been. "Several maps that predate the incorporation of the city give us an evolutionary view," Uguccioni notes. Six international villages (with themes like African Bazaar, the Hacienda, and Persian Canal), elaborate water features, and a hotel larger than the Biltmore slated for the area south of South Dixie Highway fall among the unrealized plans.
By 1926 Merrick lost all his holdings, but the city of Coral Gables, incorporated the previous year, was a reality. The stubborn, dynamic visionary had seen his vision through. "He was a poet and a dreamer, but with a real practical streak," says museum trustee and Gables buff Samuel LaRoue, Jr. "He got this thing done."
"Coral Gables: The City Beautiful," runs Friday, February 19 through May 30 at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W Flagler St. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children ages six through twelve, and free for children under age six. Call 305-375-1492.