Miami Icons: The Biltmore, a Glitzy, Golden-Age Throwback
Photos by Karli Evans
San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Lee Zimmerman swoons over the retro sophistication of The Biltmore.
It's hosted heads of state, athletes, movie stars, and even gangsters. In the '20s and '30s, the world's biggest celebrities went through its doors. When it first opened those doors on January 15, 1926, its stature as a South Florida landmark was all but assured.
Back then, the Biltmore was the centerpiece of the young but thriving city of Coral Gables, a remarkable melding of Mediterranean, Moorish, and Old World architecture, one that stands alone in its dignity and distinction. Over the years, it's also become a symbol of a golden era, of glitz, glamour, and upper crust society. Its location was obviously appropriate, a draw to a destination soon to be dubbed America's Riviera.
Even today, the Biltmore casts a long shadow over its surroundings. With its golf course, ample terraces, soaring central tower, expansive luxury ballrooms, and sprawling oversized swimming pool, it epitomizes the very ideal of what a classic and classy hotel should be. Its marble columns, imposing porticos, beamed ceilings, and fine furnishings leave the impression of a regal palace, a stately setting befitting kings and queens. For all the flash and finesse touted by Miami Beach's concrete canyons, there's no other beacon of hospitality that comes close to eclipsing the Biltmore's style and sophistication, or, for that, matter its lengthy gilded legacy. Its history parallels Miami's own rise to prominence, and it remains one of the world's most distinguished destinations even now.
Envisioned as the architectural focal point for Coral Gables' stately suburbs, the Biltmore was part of the original grand plan city founder George Merrick conceived in consultation with hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman. Bowman enlisted architect Leonard Schultze and developer/contractor S. Fullerton Weaver to see that vision to fruition, resulting in a 400 room hotel that would also house a country club, a championship golf course, tennis courts, polo fields, and a swimming pool that alone would rival that of any other resort. Today, its imposing facade remains a distinctive part of the local landscape, one that rises above its lush surroundings so as to be easily seen for miles in every direction.
Like any first class hotel, its list of distinguished guests speaks to its elegant appeal. Franklin Roosevelt, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and, yes, even the notorious Al Capone took advantage of its hospitality. Today, that reputation still resonates; the name "Biltmore" evokes a stately sense of grandeur. This might just be the classiest thing Miami has going for it.
Ultimately, the Biltmore is more than an architectural artifact. It's an echo of another age, synonymous with times of great optimism and a belief in endless possibilities -- the very things that made Miami America's playground and a bastion of luxury and leisure.
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