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Coral Gables: The Florida Fantasy That Fulfilled Merrick's Magnificent Dream
[Merrick’s] dream was to build a city beautiful without blood or blemish, without ugliness or dirt a city of majestic size but perfect harmony the city planned with reverence and with care and built after the old Grecian ideal that nothing is so secret as the beautiful
Author Rex Beach
Coral Gables embodied the best Florida could offer during the 1920s land boom.
No other planned city in the Florida of the 1920s embodied the “City Beautiful” movement better.
The driving force behind Coral Gables was Pennsylvania native George Edgar Merrick (1886- 1942).
Critics dismissed Merrick as a charlatan who never earned formal architecture credentials at the University of Salamanca. Nevertheless, other American developers still revere Merrick’s memory as a giant among their ranks.
To countervail these criticisms, Merrick hired a publicist who described him as a brilliant artist who used “wood and steel and stone” to “paint his pictures upon a canvas of spacious fields, cool groves and smiling waterways.”
By 1921, Merrick had 1,600 acres just southwest of Miami, $500,000, and sound experience in real-estate development.
He created an entire city that embodied his vision for Florida. Travel to Coral Gables today; you’ll see Merrick’s influence everywhere. He imposed strict rules on architectural design, including the height and coloring of every building. Engineers hid Electrical wires and telephone lines beneath the streets.
His accomplishments speak for themselves.
Merrick started by building more than six hundred homes. Then, he paved more than sixty-five miles of roads. Next, he completed eighty miles of sidewalks. Next, he planted more than 50,000 trees. Finally, he installed a street lighting system that covered 238 miles.
By 1927 the city of Coral Gables boasted 3,000 homes, eighty apartment buildings, seven hotels, 122 offices and store buildings, two hospitals, twelve schools, eight churches, imposing entrances, plazas, and a trolley system.
The Miami Biltmore
Merrick’s most outstanding achievement was the construction of one of America's most iconic hotels, the Miami Biltmore.
Inspired by a recent visit to Spain, Merrick announced plans for a luxury hotel in early 1924.
In November 1924, Merrick announced the construction of a $10 million hotel on 150 acres conceived in Spanish revival architecture. The property would boast 400 rooms, a Country Club, two 18-hole golf courses, polo fields, and tennis courts. Lacking a waterfront, Merrick designed Venetian Pool, a massive 150 by 225-foot swimming pool -the largest in the world for many years.
The grand hotel complex was crowned with a replica of the Giralda Tower that stood upon the Roman Catholic cathedral in Seville. It boasted exquisite hand-painted frescoes on barrel-vaulted ceilings, imposing marble columns leaded glass fixtures, and carved mahogany furnishings.
On January 14th, 1926, the Biltmore - now the tallest structure in Florida-opened its doors. Befitting the skyscraper curse, the Biltmore opened precisely at the peak of the land boom.
Merrick even hired William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued former United States secretary of state, who cajoled prospect daily. For his efforts, Bryan earned an annual salary of $100,000—half in cash, half in land.
William Jennings Bryan speaking at the Venetian Pool- Coral Gables, Florida.
For almost two years, Bryan delivered his orations to audiences in bleacher-type seats around the Venetian Pool.
Here, Bryan reminded attendees, "Miami was the only city in the world where you could tell a lie at breakfast that would come true by evening."
Still, Coral Gables’ posh properties did not sell themselves. Merrick spent $3 million in one year on advertising. It was the most elaborate advertising campaign ever rolled out for a real estate development.
Merrick hired an army of 3,000 salesmen. He offered free transport on 76 buses to Coral Gables to bring potential buyers down to Florida from as far away as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Emblazoned with the Coral Gables logo, each bus was a rolling advertisement for the development.
The scope of the Coral Gables ad campaigns in 1925 and 1926 was breathtaking.
Twenty national magazines carried full-page ads or double-page spreads, many in full color. These reached more than eleven million readers.
An additional 100 newspapers carried Coral Gable's ads targeted at another six million readers. A member of Irving Berlin’s songwriting team wrote “Moon Shines in Coral Gables.”
Overall, some 98 million images of Coral Cables passed before the American public during the decade.
As Coral Gable’s reputation grew, prospects poured in, looking to buy houses or empty lots of land.
Between October 1923 and March 1924, Merrick sold over seven million dollars in property in Coral Gables.
All this was against the advice of Merrick’s accountants.
They pointed out that the excessive selling and marketing expenses wiped out the potential profit on each lot.
Put another way, the Coral Gables development had a deeply flawed business model.
The more lots Merrick sold, the more money he lost.
And Merrick didn’t even have a clue.
Merrick spent money like a drunken sailor, donating $5 million along with 165 acres of land for a campus of the University of Miami.
Prince to Pauper
The real estate bust was unkind to Merrick.
By 1927, he lost control of the Coral Gables Corporation, and it went into bankruptcy.
On April 18th, 1942, the New York Times reported that Merrick—who once refused $80 million for his real estate holdings in Coral Gables in 1925 (today's money: $1.05 billion)—left an estate valued at a mere $300. It consisted of “equity in an automobile and a salary balance due from his job as Miami’s postmaster.”