23 September, 2007

"When the groves begin to bear..." George Merrick and the founding of Coral Gables

by Jorge Reyes

Hard to think that up until the late 1920's, the City of Coral Gables was a just a frontier outpost village. The world that George Merrick, founding father of Coral Gables, came to live with his father in the 1890's was a place ravaged by yellow fever; place of a jungle-like setting for wild panthers that roamed freely in the wide open homesteads.

Born June 3, 1886, in Springsdale, Pennsylvania, George Merrick came to what is now Miami-Dade County with his father in 1898, Solomon Greasley Merrick, only after a friend told them to visit a town of "perpetual sunshine called Miami." After numerous inquiries about the possibility of buying available land in South Florida, the elder Merrick was told of a settlement with a small homestead in a place called Coconut Grove, now part of what later became Coral Gables. Sales price: $1100.

Upon arriving to South Florida, the settings were less than ideal: the homestead promised was nothing but a simple cabin surrounded by a patch of rocky land and guava trees.

Life was, needless to say, not easy for the Merrick family. They had to work hard, and hard they worked. Land and coral rock had to be cleared in order to plant grapefruit trees. So, in the meantime, they planted okra, beans and eggplants which George, with typical boyish enthusiasm and ambition, loaded up onto carts and sold to the Royal Palm Hotel.

In less than assuring times, George's father gave courage and fortitude to the young boy in what has become an oft repeated phrase to describe this time in the Merrick's life: "Yes, we will-- when the groves begin to bear."

Years later, recollecting on his childhood days, George Merrick would write about Miami's early beginnings as follows: "The road was all rocks and stumps, and wound in and out like the Indian trail that it was, among the virgin trees... there I was, a timid kid, along in the pitch-black woods, people to my excited min with panthers, wild cats and all kinds of ferocious animals thirsting for my blood."

It was during this time, as quoted in a 1925 Sunday Times-Union newspaper based in Jacksonville, Florida, that "driving along the old mule, particularly on the way to town in the darkness, that the Coral Gables you see today first began to appear to to me-- purely imaginary then, with faint hope of ever seeing it in actuality."

In 1907. George enrolled in Rollins College and a year later entered law school. Never one to underestimate his poetic side, during this time George had several of his short stories published. Among them, "The Sponger's Delilah" which won a contest and was published by the New York Evening Telegram, February 24, 1910. When his father became seriously ill, George cut short his education and returned to Miami to take over what then had become a family plantation.

After his father's passing in 1911, George bought his mother's share of the partnership and began to build what later became known as the most prosperous plantation of South Florida, which had grown to 1,600 acres.

In 1916, George Merrick married Eunice Peacock, daughter of one of Coconut Grove's family founders who'd settle in South Florida in 1878, much earlier than the Merrick family.

Thus far, George's life was a continuance of hard work, education and what can be called a social life by early South Florida standards. It was, though, a life that could be called a success up to a point.

But George wanted more, and his ambitions increased.

By 1910, Miami-Dade County was a fast growing but still a primitive outpost. Regardless, George became an influential business and civic leader and along with others, Miami-Dade County grew into various subdivisions: "North Miami", "South Bay", "North Coconut Grove" and "Goulds".

But, yet, there was something missing from George's vision; a vision that was as much fueled by financial dreams as by his own romantic, poetic desire to make his most outlandish dream come true: to create a "pretty city", a place that could enhance South Florida's quality of life and rival the majestic beauty of the old world. And why not make the "old Merrick homestead" the nucleus of this suburb?

And so it began, the creation and building of what has become to be known as the City of Coral Gables, Merrick's dream of a pretty city, "the City Beautiful."

Part of the designing of Coral Gables went to Denram Fink, an uncle of his, to enhance the aesthetics of avenues, promenades, streets and parks, as George envisioned; a place laden with Poinciana trees of "scarlet bloom or deepest dye."

As Fink went wrote during this time: "We have taken for our motif such grand old Spanish cities as Cordona, Salamanca, Toledo, and lovely old Seville."

In 1921, George Merrick himself penned a few articles in the Miami Herald advertising his grand vision: "On all the principal boulevards at Coral Gables have been laid out delightful parks, plazas and the rest posts, one-half to five acres in area, taht break the vistas of the avenues and provide the most charming possibilities for landscape work of the most effective kind."

It was a vision he never wavered from because, as he wrote, in geographic location and climate, South Florida is very similar to the showers of the Mediterranean, Spain, North Africa and everything to the South Sea.

Along with Fink and Frank M. Button, another architect, and after an extensive study of the building design of the Mediterranean, Merrick and his team began to build homes. "I (have) become more than ever convinced now that the dream of Americans for a 'castle in Spain' would become an actuality."

Between 1921-1927, 2000 residences were built designed by a cousin of his, George Fink (it seems that the building of Coral Gables was a family affair.) Also, between 1920-23, over fifty-million dollars were expended for the construction of new roads and other commercial buildings.

George Merrick, as expected, paid very close attention to every detail of these early, now historic architectural landmarks. Each home was photographed from as many angles as possible to make sure that it was built with as much care and harmony as possible-- from the tiling color and dye to the number of planted trees in each home. Rumor has it that many of these early tiles had been manufactured in Cuba and often salvaged from derelict buildings in Cuba, from churches to prisons, and some homes in Havana dating back to as far as the late 1700's. The tile roofing was of particular concern to George because the tiles' century old exposure to the Caribbean elements had changed their hue into a particular blend of color he liked.

And little by little, the dream became a strange reality and right in a landscape known for its swamps and tigers and mosquitoes. And little by little, what was at first a dream based on the feverish romanticism of a boy, then actually inspired by his adult travels and wide reading in fiction and poetry, a world of beauty and romanticism, as much as skepticism and allusions to romance, became a city built of beauty.

Of the many poems that George Merrick wrote, and he was an accomplished writer in his time, one poem in particular, Song on the Wind on a Southern Shore, may provide us with insight into his inspiration:

"I dream of the home of the Fairies and Fays,
on the isles of the calm southern sky,
Of the fanciful turrets and towers ablaze
In the flood of the rays from on high..."

By 1925, Coral Gables boasted of having 150 miles of paved streets, boulevards and an average number of 1000 modestly-priced family residences, with families that had settled from over twenty-nine states. A group of architects instructed to build this beautiful city went to Greece in order to draw blueprints based on old architectural ruins from Pompeii's glory days and these renderings became the basis for about 200 residences that still are part of Coral Gables.

A full-scale campaign to "sell" the Gables throughout the states roared on and multiplied, galvanizing the interest of many well-known people, such as the writer Rex Beach and orator and one-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, also equally famous for his role in what's become known as the Scopes Trial.

But it wasn't all a dream. The next few years were a combination of personal upheavals and financial disasters.

The 1926 Miami hurricane fractured many of George's dreams. As he would go on to reflect in another of his poems: "Gray-purple dusk behind the wrath-swept hill." More than 114 people lost their lives in Coral Gables while others, shocked and bewildered, boarded up their homes and left.

In 1927, still recoiling from the devastating hurricane, George Merrick was honored in Spain by King Alphonso, giving him the honorary title of "Don of the Order of Isabella De Catolica," not bad in itself.

But back home, even this title did not give much comfort considering that the 1930's brought the great depression, consequences from which neither he or others would come out winning. Eventually, the economic depression wrecked George's finances, forcing him to give up his personal control of his pretty city and on to others.

George Merrick's influencing on the building of Coral Gables was never too far from the truth. He really never gave up on his dreams, even if not from a financial stand-up. Ironically, in 1934 he opened a real estate firm, George B. Merrick Incorporated. For most of the 1930's and well into the 1940's, he became active member of the Dade-County Planning Commission. In 1940, he was appointed Postmaster of Miami, and he also became director of the Fairchild Tropical Gardens.

On Thursday, March 26, 1942, George Merrick died at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His remains were quietly and without much fanfare laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery, facing what's known in Miami as Eighth Street, or "Little Havana."

George Merrick's legacy is more than a dream to build something pretty. It has become a reality. His optimistic lifelong endurance cannot be underestimated and without it perhaps Coral Gables would not have become what it has become today-- a unique municipal enclave right for its beauty, design and quality of life. Merrick's philosophy was simple, but effective: out of chaos and unrest a sense of beauty, charm and decor can co-exist for us all, always, no matter what.

Back in 1925, the Miami Tribune paid homage to the man with a prescient conclusion: "...Coral Gables will grow ever in the lengthened shadow of its founder, whose wonderful dream has been matched by a like wonderful performance."

Yes, a wonderful performance it was and against so many odds; and it is still, today; and it will be for future generations. We, those know either live or know about the City Beautiful, are inheritors to a city built unlike many others-- built from dreams and poetry; a very special city.

Originally published in "Gablers Magazine," Aug/Sept 2000.

No comments: