Chinese Village in Miami's Coral Gables
By: Beth Dunlop, Holly Blount and Dona Spain
In an era when most grand buildings had architecture borrowed from Europe, Mediterranean was an invented style, not an imported one. You might call it a pastiche, as it draws on elements of Italian, Spanish, French, Moorish and Arabian design.
The idea was to conjure up images of the Old World in a tropical “New World.” Most architectural historians look to the beautiful El Jardin, designed by Richard Kiehnel in 1918 and now part of the Carrollton School, as the first true Mediterranean building, but others soon followed.
The visionary developer George Merrick drew up plans for his near-utopian City of Coral Gables. It was in Coral Gables in the mid 1920s that Mediterranean style flourished with houses, buildings and fountains—all designed around another time and place. The wonder was that it became the emblematic architecture of an era in Miami, and indeed throughout Florida.
The beauty and charm of Coral Gables is experienced in the city’s numerous plazas, entrances and fountains that set the original “Spanish” style of the carefully planned community.
The entrances include the Douglas Entrance (Puerta del Sol), which also incorporated a planned Spanish village, the Granada Entrance, the Commercial Entrance and Country Club Prado. The plazas and fountains include Balboa Plaza, Columbus Plaza, De Soto Plaza and Fountain, Ponce de Leon Plaza and Granada Plaza. Denman Fink designed all the original entrances and plazas with nationally known landscape architect Frank Button. Walter DeGarmo also contributed to the Douglas Entrance. Charles Merrick, George Merrick’s brother, did much of the stone masonry.
Tour historic buildings in Coral Gables
Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
3251 S. Miami Ave.
Vizcaya is an American realization of an Italian Renaissance Villa and an American industrialist’s dream. It is one of Miami’s most well-known historic sites; the legacy of James Deering and his Gilded Age. It launched a love affair with all things Mediterranean and remains a major influence on the region’s architecture. Completed in 1916 in the middle of a pristine sub-tropical hardwood forest along Biscayne Bay, Vizcaya has 34 rooms open to the public. The villa’s creators, architect F. Burrall Hoffman and interior designer Paul Chalfin, traveled to Italy with Deering to study Italian country villas that would serve as models for his magnificent winter estate. The final masterpiece represents the composite of several periods and styles. It incorporates a priceless and unparalleled collection of decorative arts that provides an uncommon glimpse into four past centuries. The 10-acre formal gardens with ancient statuary, pergolas, decorative urns, fountains and pools add to the ambience. The picturesque village, now under restoration, has a variety of outbuildings that include a dairy barn, blacksmith shop, garage, chicken coop, stable and superintendent’s quarters.
Coral Gables Merrick House
907 Coral Way
No tour of Coral Gables can be complete without a visit to the Merrick House, the original home of the Merrick family and the genesis of George Merrick’s vision for Coral Gables. Now a house museum owned and operated by the city, the imposing 1910 “coral rock” home is an elegant addition to a 1903 wood frame to addition to the original structure. Designed by Althea Fink Merrick, George Merrick’s mother, the family named their new home “Coral Gables.” It contains original furnishings and artwork by members of the talented Merrick and Fink families.
Country Club of Coral Gables Historic District
The Country Club of Coral Gables Historic District is comprised of the Country Club Building, the Granada Golf Course and 85 adjacent residences. George Merrick built the Country Club in 1922 to serve an important role in entertaining prospective buyers for the germinating development. Designed by the nationally known firm of Langford and Moreau, the golf course opened on January 1, 1923. The residences that overlook the golf course are some of the finest in the city and include representative designs by such pioneering architects as H. George Fink, Martin Hampton, Kiehnel and Elliott, Phineas Paist, Walter DeGarmo and John and Coulter Skinner. A majority of the homes reflect the Mediterranean architectural character. Many of the original residents played an influential role in the developing city. Collectively they represented the fields of finance, medicine, politics, real estate and commerce. A great concentration of early Coral Gables-style residences can be seen in the neighborhoods between Tamiami Trail (8th Street) and Bird Road (40th Street).
Coral Gables City Hall
405 Biltmore Way
Phineas Paist and Denman Fink designed Coral Gables City Hall in 1927 and 1928. The cornerstone was laid on November 10, 1927. It is constructed of oolitic limestone, commonly called “coral rock.” Inside, in the bell tower, the multicolored mural painted by Denman Fink can be viewed. It depicts the four seasons. The faces of young women represent spring, summer and autumn while winter is recreated as an old man.
John M. Stabile Building
296 Aragon Ave.
One of the earliest commercial structures in Coral Gables, it is characteristic of the Mediterranean style with its elaborately framed entrance and balcony overlooking Salzedo Street. Constructed in 1924, it was originally an ornamental concrete block shop.
Coral Gables Art Cinema
260 Aragon Ave.
Opened in October 2010, the 144-seat Coral Gables Art Cinema presents high-quality American independent, foreign and classic films that are not generally available at other venues. It has live performances, and has become a cultural hub for filmmakers, other artists and the public.
Old Police and Fire Station/Coral Gables Museum
285 Aragon Ave.
Designed by Phineas Paist and Harold Steward in 1939, the Old Police and Fire Station was built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide a public safety headquarters, and jobs for local construction workers and artisans. Paist and Steward used the simple lines and mass of Depression architecture combined with Mediterranean details. The three-arched bays on the west side originally housed the fire trucks. Above these bays are sculptures by a female artist professionally known as Jon Keller, depicting two Coral Gables firemen and a typical family they protect. The recently restored building is home to the new Coral Gables Museum. The Museum’s mission is to celebrate, investigate and explore the civic arts of architecture and urban and environmental design, including fostering an appreciation for the history, vision and cultural landscape of Coral Gables; promoting beauty and planning as well as historic and environmental preservation for a broad audience, including children, families and community members, as well as local, regional, national and international visitors. The museum optimizes its mission by cultivating effective partnerships, and providing programming that includes exhibitions, collections, educational offerings, lectures, tours, publications and special events.
Weiland Clinic/Books & Books
265 Aragon Ave.
This building, now a bookstore, was built as the Coral Gables Medical Center in 1927 and housed the offices of local physicians. Designed by Lee Wade, with a 1936 addition by Phineas Paist and Harold Steward, it consists of two wings connected by an arcade supported by four simplified columns. There is a courtyard within.
Hotel Seville/Place St. Michel
162 Alcazar Ave.
Originally constructed in 1926 as an office building, it was soon converted into the Hotel Seville. The first floor included retail space. Now called the Hotel St. Michel, the interiors have interesting 1920s-style broken tile on the floor and on the vaulted ceilings. The St. Michel is the last of four beautiful small hotels that once characterized tourist facilities in the Downtown Coral Gables area.
Coral Gables Elementary School
105 Minorca Ave.
In July 1923, George Merrick sold this site to the Miami-Dade County School Board for $10,000. Designed by Kiehnel and Elliott, this Mediterranean-style elementary school has classrooms with wide doors rimmed by arcaded loggias, two impressive central courtyards and a large auditorium. In 1983, George Merrick’s wife, Eunice P. Merrick, participated in the dedication of a courtyard to commemorate her role in its founding.
Cla Reina Hotel/La Palma
116 Alhambra Circle
Now called La Palma, and converted into offices and a restaurant, it was one of the earliest hotels in the city. Designed in 1924 by H. George Fink, George Merrick’s first cousin, it has a large interior courtyard and interesting decorative ironwork.
Miracle Theater/Actors’ Playhouse
280 Miracle Mile
Designed by William H. Lee and built between 1947 and 1948, the Miracle Theater is a pre-eminent example of the Art Moderne style. Once a neighborhood movie house, the building reflects the streamlined design born of an industrial age. The interior detail is in the grand tradition of historic movie palaces. It has been the home of Actors’ Playhouse since 1995 and houses a 600-seat mainstage auditorium with a 300-seat second stage. It is a cultural and performing arts center for the community.
133-169 Miracle Mile
Designed by Phineas Paist in collaboration with Walter DeGarmo and Paul Chalfin, James Deering’s interior designer for Vizcaya, George Merrick built it in 1926 to house his growing sales operation. The structure is a mixture of Spanish Colonial and Baroque. Since the 1920s, the Colonnade has had many tenants including the Colonnade Movie Studios and a World War II parachute factory. Today, a hotel and office building designed by Spillis & Candela adjoins the original structure.
H. George Fink Studio
2506 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
This 1925 church-like building was the office of prominent architect H. George Fink, who is credited with coining the term Mediterranean to describe the unique Coral Gables-style buildings. It is an outstanding interpretation of this style and an excellent example of Mr. Fink’s prodigious talent. Of particular note are the Gothic arches surrounding the three leaded-glass windows and the row of carved eaves on the balcony’s arched pediment. Fink was one of Coral Gables’ earliest and most prolific architects.
Coral Gables Art Center Building
2901 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
Situated in the heart of the Crafts Section, an area originally planned exclusively for craftsmen and artisans, the Art Center Building was built by George Merrick in 1925 to house the offices and studios of his architects and artists. The most noted among them were its designers Phineas Paist, Denman Fink and Paul Chalfin. Merrick’s brother Richard, an artist, also worked out of the building.
The Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Ave.
Designed by internationally known architects Schultze and Weaver, The Biltmore Hotel is an impressive National Landmark that can be seen for miles. The 26-story tower is a replica of the Giralda Tower of the Cathedral of Seville, Spain. Schultze and Weaver also designed New York’s Pierre and Waldorf-Astoria Hotels, Palm Beach’s Breakers, Miami’s Ingraham Building and the Freedom Tower (Miami News Tower). The January 1926 grand opening included the arrival of two deluxe trains carrying 1,000 VIPs from New York. Venetian gondolas traveled from the hotel through the Coral Gables Waterway to Tahiti Beach (now Cocoplum). Guests also enjoyed a polo field, two golf courses, tennis courts, a bridle path, fox hunting and a gigantic pool. During World War II the hotel became an Army Air Force Hospital and later a Veterans Hospital. After a protracted preservation battle, the city acquired the building under Richard Nixon’s Legacy of Parks Program and the Historic Monument Act of 1972. In 1985, the city signed a 99-year lease for renovation and management of the structure as a 286-room luxury hotel and office complex.
Coral Gables Congregational Church
3010 De Soto Blvd.
Designed by Kiehnel and Elliott and patterned after a cathedral in Mexico, it was the first church built in the city. It was dedicated on Palm Sunday, April 5, 1925 and included an outdoor pulpit. George Merrick, whose father was a Congregational minister, donated land for the church and dedicated the building to him. He and his wife also donated the Spanish sanctuary sconces. The church’s interior—with polychrome beams and massive chandeliers—is the best remaining example of pristine Coral Gables style.
2701 De Soto Blvd.
Originally a rock quarry for the oolitic limestone used in many of Coral Gables’ earliest buildings, Denman Fink transformed it into the Venetian Pool -- what was dubbed “the world’s most beautiful swimming hole” in 1924. It resembles a Venetian lagoon featuring rock outcroppings and caves, a waterfall, Venetian posts and a small island connected to the casino by a bridge. In the early days, Merrick used the pool as his sales center and hired renowned orator, William Jennings Bryan, to extol the virtues of Coral Gables to willing customers.
Coral Gables Water Tower
Intersection of Alhambra Circle, Greenway Court and Ferdinand Street
Advertising his planned community as “a city without a scar,” in 1924 Merrick commissioned his cousin, architect H. George Fink, to hide a necessary, albeit unsightly, four-story water tower by transforming it into a beautiful lighthouse. It remained in use as a water tower until 1931.
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