Coral Gables – City Beautiful – Past and Present

Most visitors to Miami, do not look at Coral Gables as a destination unless they have friends or family living there.   Coral Gables is viewed as a very upscale residential community without beaches and South Beach lifestyle.

Coral Gables doesn’t promote itself as a tourist location, but there is plenty to see and do just within the city, even though it is a short drive to the great beaches of Crandon Park and Key Biscayne.  Just to the north is Calle Ocho with its great Cuban restaurants and colorful shops.

As a historian and historic preservationist, Coral Gables has a special place.  George Merrick planned a complete town in the booming 1920’s with incredible architecture, neighborhoods of homes reflecting the diverse culture of the nation, and Miracle Mile, one of Florida’s favorite shopping spots. The Gables is the most complete of the Florida Land Boom communities.

Restaurant at the BILTMORE RESORT in Coral Gables

I have a bias about the Gables since I lived there, both on the University of Miami campus, and also in an apartment just north of downtown near the library.  I was there in a heavily Cuban neighborhood when Bay of Pigs was going on and South Florida was arming itself for an invasion and building bomb shelters in a town where digging basements is almost salt-water intrusion impossible.

Here are some Coral Gables sights that have significance to me.  Gables has dozens of safe and exciting hotels and resorts in all price ranges.  Here are two of them which I know well.  THE COLONNADE HOTEL in the middle of Miracle Mile was my bank when I lived nearby. Today, it is the front part of a huge hotel attached in back complete with a rooftop pool and fancy restaurants. 

Front entrance to Colonnade Hotel; I knew it as a bank.

But the original building in the 1930’s was Colonnade Movie Studios where my mother (film name Nona Kaye) made several films for Columbia Pictures.  Originally a dancer, my mother and her brother dancing partner performed during the winter season at the Miami Beach.

The Colonnade was a movie studio owned by a certain Hollywood firm company.
My mother outside Colonnade; most of her films were done in England & South Africa.

The most historic resort in the Gables is the BILTMORE resort, built in the Florida Land Boom, complete with golf course and gardens.  The Leonards (Dad and his parents) stayed here when they came to Miami and my grandmother even pointed out every room where they stayed.

I never swam here even after I covered UM swim contests.

As sports editor of the Miami Hurricane newspaper, I spent many hours covering swim events which were then held in the Biltmore’s vast pool.   Two of the UM photographs actually donned scuba gear and photographed the diving events under the three-meter board.  

Coral Gables isn’t entirely beach-free if you count the place where I went to study: MATHESON HAMMOCK PARK off Old Cutler Road was a CCC project that became a quiet 630-acre oasis. Safe for kids to wade into the water, MHP has lush walking trails.

The Hammock was a great place to study and even today it is relaxing.

Despite recent hurricane damage, the park is restored as is the famous RED FISH BY CHEF ADRIANNE restaurant on the beach.  The food place didn’t exist when I was at “the U”; NOTE: the Gables has more 4+ star restaurants per square mile than anywhere else in Dade County.

The waterfront Red Fish is one of dozen of top-rated Coral Gables restaurants.

George Merrick’s biggest project in the city was the creation of the largest private university in the Deep South – the UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI.  The original building was north of the Main Campus and it had cardboard walls for the Florida Land Bust hit before completion.   You’ll have to go to the Main Campus is see whet is viewed as historic.

This was the original North Campus; now you have only the Main Campus.

So much is new except for the Administration Building (1947) where I met with Wilson Hicks, the advisor to student publications.  The baseball field is still there by Fraternity Row, but back then the basketball team had to play games on Miami Beach, where half the fans were rooting for the opponents.

Merrick also built what was once the largest public swimming pool in the world, VENETIAN POOL, from an old limestone quarry.  I had a friend who was a lifeguard there and I was shocked the pool required a huge staff due to its size and unique underwater features.

Venetian Pool is so large, areas are usually off-limits to swimmers.

Coral Gables is an architect’s dream – by driving around this planned community, you’ll see what you can do with detailed zoning regarding telephone poles and garbage cans.  Entering through DOUGLAS GATEWAY or some of the other entranceways has the feel of going into a movie set.  Gables was what the Florida Land Boom tried to create: a new Riviera.

Entering the Gables on one of the main drags is like entering a giant movie set.

But the Gables is not a town of just Spanish Mediterranean homes and California bungalows. Merrick built little villages that reflected the architecture of Dutch South Africa, Chinese, French Country, Italian, French Normandy, Greek, and French Country.  His Moorish and English villages were incomplete.

Chinese mansions in Florida? At Coral Gables, it is so.

So if you are planning a trip to Miami or want a different South Florida weekend excursion, I suggest you take a close look at Coral Gables.

About floridatraveler

Historian and travel writer M. C. Bob Leonard makes the Sunshine State his home base. Besides serving as content editor for several textbook publishers and as an Emeritus college professor, he moderates the FHIC at www.floridahistory.org
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