facebook_pixel

Meet George Merrick, the man who made Coral Gables

For this month’s Neighborhood Guide, powered by Lyft, we’ve been exploring Coral Gables. What should we know about? Who should we talk to? Let us know in the comments below.

George Merrick, the millionaire visionary who created Coral Gables, spent his earliest years in Miami riding in a mule-drawn cart loaded down with guavas.

But in just a couple decades, he vaulted from just a preacher’s kid transplanted from the northeast who tended the family farm to a millionaire dreaming up one of the most innovative urban planning projects of his era.

Today Merrick’s impact is visible not just in the former family home at Merrick House and the Village at Merrick Park, the swanky shopping and dining complex, but also in the thousands of trees shading the city, the streets he mapped out, and the city’s distinctive Mediterranean architecture.

Merrick’s money funded the creation of the city, and a rat pack of family members and friends designed and built it: first cousin George Fink, an architect, mapped out Merrick’s vision; uncle Denman Fink, an artist, designed some of gated entrances to the city as well as the Venetian Pool; and Frank Button, a landscape architect, gave the city its distinct lush greenery. Editor’s note: This sentence has been updated to clarify Button’s connection to Merrick.

But nothing happened without Merrick’s say and approval.

“It’s the closest thing to a one-man show of any city that was created in that era that I can think of,” said Dr. Paul George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami and a history professor at Miami-Dade College. “His idea, his cash, his marketing, his micromanaging, his vision. He died 75 years ago and is still so recognizable in that city.”

Merrick’s family moved to South Florida when he was 13. His father, a congregational minister, was seeking someplace for them to start anew after losing a daughter to an illness. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the family loss. 

They choose Miami, a city which was then only three years old and known as “a brand new city where the sun always shined,” said Arva Moore Parks, a local historian who recently published the book, “George Merrick: Son of the South Wind.” They purchased 160 acres of land covered in guava trees and including a wooden shack where the stately Merrick House stands today.

They had a dream of exporting grapefruit, but until those trees began bearing fruit, Merrick — who never returned to school after the move to South Florida — was responsible for the daily delivery of guava to the processing factory where the Kampong House is today. Merrick spent his most of his time on the delivery route reading — a commute which was four hours each way on by a mule-pulled cart, says Parks.

The voracious reader named the streets of the Gables after places in Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra.” When the grapefruit grove finally did begin bearing fruit, the Merricks were the first to ship a cartload of grapefruit out of Miami.

Merrick left for a couple years to attend school at Rollins College, then moved on to law school in New York, but he dropped out when his father got sick and came back to manage the grapefruit grove. Editor’s note: Information has been added to this sentence to clarify chronology.  On the side, he began working as a subdivider, splitting large tracts of land into smaller ones to sell them. He made a fortune, and the $1 million or so he stocked away funded the work of building Coral Gables when he started in 1921.

Coral Gables is often described as Florida’s first planned city. It’s not — that honor belongs to Winters Park, the location of Rollins College, said Parks. But it was the first in the Miami area. With the help of Fink, Merrick mapped out the whole area before the first lot was sold. He also planted the vast majority of the old growth trees that you see today, at his own expense. His tree nursery, where the Biltmore Hotel stands today, had 35,000 trees at one point. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect the number of trees. 

He and Fink also, according to Parks, pioneered the Mediterranean architectural design that defines the Gables.

Coral Gables was incorporated in 1925, against Merrick’s will. He wanted it to be Miami’s master suburb, not standing off on its own. Regardless, he became a commissioner right off the bat.

He was only active in the Gables for a short while though, Parks said. In 1928, when the Great Depression caused a local economic downturn, he was expelled from board because people blamed him for the scores of foreclosures that hit Gables residents, she said.

Still, those eight years were formative for the Gables. His influence is preserved today in the strict architectural controls in Coral Gables and the lush landscaping that long outlived him.

“He only had direct influence between 1920 and 1928, and look at what he gave us,” Parks said.

The second half of Merrick’s life was less high-profile. He became a local postmaster in 1940, and died in 1942 at the age of 55, still paying off his debts from the foreclosure crisis in the 1920s. Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to correctly reflect Merrick’s age at death.

Parks said that Merrick was “adored as a human being” by most, even the postmen who worked for him. They were his pallbearers at his funeral. And one of his first moves as postmaster was to give equal pay to women

But in the decades that followed, Coral Gables got away from Merrick’s vision, said George, the historian. The newer parts of the city were typified by modern ranch style homes. The streets weren’t planted with the canopies that told you that you were in the Gables.

“It’s only in the last 30 to 40 years that people said ‘We have to get back to the way it used to be’,” he said. “They got so far away from the original plan of George Merrick.”

With no children of their own, Merrick and his wife Eunice have no one carrying on their name in Miami. But with the resurgence in interest in building in Merrick’s Mediterranean style, his influence over the city looks unlikely to extinguish.

Want to know more about George Merrick? Head to the Coral Gables Museum, currently showing the exhibit “Creating the dream: George E. Merrick and his vision for Coral Gables.