Monday, January 18, 2010

The man who created a city

The city of Coral Gables began as a plantation run by a congregational minister, who purchased the land, without ever seeing it, in 1899. According to the website of the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, Rev. Solomon Merrick's Coral Gables Plantation sold fruit in Miami and operated the "largest grapefruit export business in South Florida" and were the first to ship the citrus north by train. "Coral Gables" was initially the name of the rock house built with limestone quarried on the Merrick property.

Rev. Solomon Merrick

The Merrick Homestead

After Rev. Merrick passed away in 1911, he was succeeded by his son George, who grew the family business and expanded upon his father's dream of selling plots of land to retired clergy by creating an entire planned community that became the city of Coral Gables. Influenced by Frederick Law Olmstead's City Beautiful Movement, Merrick envisioned a city of Mediterranean Revival architecture that would be carefully planned for maximum aesthetic effect. Lots went on sale in 1921 and Merrick recruited the famous orator William Jennings Bryan to help sell his inventory.
George E. Merrick
William Jennings Bryan

Carefully theming everything from architecture to advertising, lot sales boomed and by 1926 Coral Gables encompassed 10,000 acres of South Florida. In 1925 Coral Gables was officially incorporated as a town. But as often is the case in Florida history, the boom was followed by a bust and the city went bankrupt in 1929. Merrick's pocketbook was severely damaged to the point that when he died in 1942, he was still in debt.

Examples of Coral Gables Mediterranean Revival architecture

Coral Gables recovered and today is gorgeous city of historic architecture and lush tropical foliage. Merrick's legacy has endured for over 75 years and the city appears to be thriving in the face of another period of economic stagnation in the Sunshine State. Visiting the city over the holidays, I was impressed with Merrick's community. While he at one point accumulated enough wealth to help start the University of Miami with a $5 million dollar endowment, I have to wonder if he did it all for money. It seems like he created something wonderful and lasting. I wonder how many builders in Florida today can say the same thing?

Church detail, Coral Gables

Coral Gables City Hall

Black and white archival images from the State Archives of Florida

1 comment: