Miami Icons: Stiltsville, Offshore Escape For Miami's Most Colorful Characters

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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, New Times art critic Carlos Suarez de Jesus remembers Stiltsville, a sneaky, serene escape for Miami's most colorful characters.

The first time I saw Stiltsville was on a Zodiac boat I had boosted with some teen-aged buddies from behind a yacht moored at a Key Biscayne marina.

It was during the summer of 1974, and our sunset joyride had been inspired by Deep Purple's thundering performance of "Smoke on the Water" during a concert at the Orange Bowl.

Earlier that day my friends Wicho, Hamburger, Jungle, and I had snuck into the stadium to see the British rockers. Afterwards, the thought of torching some weed at the wooden shack archipelago floating on Biscayne Bay seemed like the perfect way to end the night.

Hitting Stiltsville had been Wicho's idea. He often visited there with an uncle that had a lobster boat and knew where the spot was located.

The Zodiac was powered by a small outboard motor that was sturdy enough to cut across the bay at a fast clip. I remember the ocean spray soaking the satin and rhinestone-studded duds we were wearing as the rubber raft bounced over the water and the mist added to our haze. Soaring high on the effects of a couple of joints and some Valium that Hamburger had filched from his mom's medicine cabinet, our worries about getting busted by a marine patrol quickly dissolved.

When the small collection of cabins on stilts appeared in the distance, we all whooped and hollered and began taking off our platform shoes and rolling up our slacks with the anticipation of climbing onto one of the buildings and sparking up a fat bone to celebrate our trip.

I vividly remember that as we slowly approached the closest shack, the stillness of the moment magnified the striking beauty of the buildings, cast in an amber glow from the sun lazily shrinking on the horizon. It made an impression that remains unfaltering today.

But at the time my mellow revelry was cut short by a barrage of flying beer bottles hurled at us by a group of guys who belonged to the Utes, a local gang that had been using the shack we had pulled up to for a gang initiation. When one of them pointed a spear gun at us and threatened to sink the boat, we tucked tail and sped back toward shore as fast as the raft could take us.

Ever since it first cropped up during the Prohibition era, Stiltsville has been a favorite haunt for hard-partying scoundrels and those eager for a brief escape from the vagaries of big city life.

An early pioneer, "Crawfish" Eddie Walker, who migrated to Miami from Key West in 1907, erected his ramshackle lodge in the early 1930s, back when Stiltsville was known as "The Shacks." He sold bait, beer and chowder out of his joint, which doubled as a gambling den since it was legal a mile offshore back then.

Over the next few decades, Stiltsville became a favorite destination for high-powered politicos, bankers, lawyers and other well-connected Magic City denizens who converged there along with smugglers and gamblers to drink, party, gamble and who knows what else. Florida's Governor, LeRoy Collins, was a frequent visitor during the 1950s, and later Teddy Kennedy---then still a bachelor--hosted a legendary blowout featuring a live band that nearly unmoored one of the shacks from its pilings on the Biscayne flats.

Through the years, the renegade retreat boasted several clubs and ersatz casinos while one of the makeshift pleasure palaces even hosted members-only bashes for bikini-clad women and nude sunbathers. The "Bikini Club" was the brainchild of local scam artist Harry Churchville, AKA "Pierre," who in 1962 grounded a 150-foot yacht on the mud flats where he peddled hooch and offered free booze to ladies in bikinis. Churchville's illicit tub was raided and closed down by the Florida Beverage Commission in the summer of 1965 for selling liquor without a license.

At its heyday in the 1960s there were more than two dozen houses in Stiltsville. But by the beginning of 1992, only 14 of the "campsites" remained before Hurricane Andrew struck on August 24, 1992 -- the 18th anniversary of my first visit---when only seven buildings survived the destruction. Earlier that year, before Andrew's arrival, one of the salty homes had collapsed after more than 100 visitors partied inside during a rainstorm.

Stiltsville's notorious hoedowns were often wilder than a force of nature, many have said.

Stiltsville's history is a fascinating one. It has been the setting in scenes for novels such as Les Standiford's Done Deal and Carl Hiaasen's Skin Tight, Stormy Weather, and Skinny Dip. It has also appeared on the silver screen in films like 1981's Absence of Malice and 2003's Bad Boys II.

More recently, Stiltsville served as the inspiration for Perez Art Museum Miami, which was designed by award-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron after the Swiss partners first discovered the tiny village during a boat ride while visiting Miami. Their spectacular building is destined to become one of our city's top landmarks as well.

Yet for me, Stiltsville represents much more than a mere memory of old South Florida, as our town continues struggling to reinvent itself with an obsession for the new and shiny.

With its enduring charm and deep-rooted history, Stiltsville is both profoundly Miami and an iconic symbol of those who have forged it. Whenever possible, I make a point of taking out-of-town visitors there where they can appreciate our skyline while discovering our past.

Wicho, Hamburger, Jungle, and I never did get to light up at Stiltsville that long ago summer. In fact, our misguided excursion ended up with a ride home in a police car that night, courtesy of a friendly cop who made us feel pitiful and stupid but mercifully spared us a trip to jail in our sorry state.

These days when ever I hear Deep Purple wailing "They burned down the gambling house, it died with an awful sound," I'm immediately transported to Stiltsville, and offer a silent prayer that this fading slice of Florida history never goes up in flames.

Previous Icons:

The Colony Hotel, Ocean Drive's Most Famous Art Deco Building

The Freedom Tower Welcomed Cubans to America

The Miami Tower, Colorful Chameleon of the Skyline

Vizcaya, Birthplace of Magic City Luxury

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