The legends and truths (but mainly legends) that tell the story of Stiltsville represent local history at its most colorful -- from the entrepreneurial fisherman known as Crawfish Eddie, who made some good of a bad thing in the early 1930s by building a bait shack on a barge that had run aground in Biscayne Bay; to the assortment of free spirits who followed Eddie's lead and built a community of houses nearby, all perched atop pilings about a mile south of Key Biscayne's Cape Florida; to a waggish fop named Commodore Edward Turner, who erected a place of his own for a rumored $40,000 and transformed it into a members-only rumpus room called the Quarterdeck Club, boasting dining, gambling, and a well-stocked bar; to the fabled all-night bacchanals that raged well outside the earshot of cops and code-enforcement officers sleeping soundly on the mainland; to the succession of old salts and politicians, judges and scalawags who have, over the decades, built and maintained the village of weekend retreats despite the prevailing winds of nature, government, and morality.
It is history, without doubt, but are the sea-battered planks and barnacle-encrusted pilings that make up Stiltsville history worth preserving? The owners of the community's seven surviving houses certainly hope so. In recent months, several of them have been quietly preparing a last-ditch effort to stave off Stiltsville's legislated demise. Because the homes sit just inside the northern boundary of Biscayne National Park, and because the National Park Service has insisted that the park become an enclave free of private development, the structures are scheduled to be demolished and all traces removed by July 1, 1999.
The owners, a loosely hewn group that has adopted the moniker Save Our Stiltsville, have hired lobbyist Jim Cooney to help them rescue their homes, most of which are simply designed, sparsely furnished shanties with few if any amenities. Generators provide electricity in some. Cooney is investigating the possibility of securing county and federal historic designation for the properties. "I'm from Miami, my family came here in 1887 from Key West, we're a pioneer family," begins Cooney, former state secretary of commerce under Gov. Bob Graham. "I was initially contacted by a representative of another pioneer family who said the representatives of Stiltsville might need some help." Cooney says he's assisting the group in collecting historical data and advising them regarding the means and significance of acquiring historic designation. He has also made contact with state preservationists, local historians, and Richard Frost, superintendent of Biscayne National Park. "No applications have been filed," he notes. "It's in the sounding stages."
Robert Carr, director of the Metro-Dade Historic Preservation Division, is among those people who have been contacted. He says once the Stiltsville group submits a request for designation, his staff will evaluate it and then take it before the county's historic preservation board. Even though the community is under federal jurisdiction, Carr says the the National Park Service could respond to a local designation in three ways: ignore it and move forward with demolition; allow the homes to live out their natural life but permit no rebuilding; or actively work to maintain the community as a historic site.
But Carr points out that both the federal and local preservation laws require the buildings in question to be at least 50 years old, unless they possess what he terms "unusual significance." The Stiltsville homes have all been built or rebuilt in the past half-century. "To say they have historic significance is certainly accurate," the preservationist muses, "but to say how that significance might [warrant protection] is another question."
The decision to prolong the life of Stiltsville leases initially rests with Superintendent Frost, who has been approached by several Stiltsville representatives (in addition to Cooney) and remains noncommittal on the subject of historic designation. "I basically said, 'I can't guarantee anything, but if you want to pursue that, then once you have it we'll see where that takes us,'" says Frost, adding that historic designation could improve the owners' chances of saving the homes. "One of the responsibilities I have as a park superintendent is to protect park resources if they are worthy of protection," he goes on. "Historic designation would at least give me another dimension to the decisions I have to make."
Miami native and historian Paul George has already been commissioned by the homeowners group to write a brief history of the settlement and has completed a draft of his report. According to George, an assistant professor of social science at Miami-Dade Community College, the water around the Biscayne Bay flats south of Key Biscayne has long been popular among fisherman for its shallowness and clarity. But, he admits, the origins of Stiltsville remain "murky."
Most accounts credit Crawfish Eddie (a.k.a. Eddie Walker, but also called Crawfish Charlie) with the birth of Stiltsville. By the early 1940s his initiative had spawned a collection of houses in addition to the Quarterdeck Club, which, according to George, acquired widespread fame after a write-up in Life magazine in 1941. Not everyone was pleased with these developments, though. A representative for the heirs of pioneer John Deering, who owned land on Key Biscayne, scorned Stiltsville as a "menace to the property to the north of Cape Florida and the west on the mainlands."
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.
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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!