Celita Lamar remembers when horses from the long-gone riding academy roamed the streets of Coeal Gables, when the city’s first car dealership became an oyster house, and when a couple purchased the building on the southwest corner of Alhambra Circle and Salzedo Street to pursue their dream of a European-style café.
Now, Lamar, 73, is one of several volunteers who help share this history with the public on the Historic Walking Tours offered by the Coral Gables Museum each Saturday morning.
“I’m passionate about Coral Gables because I think it’s unique and its history is exciting,” Lamar said. “I’ve been connected to it for a very long time.”
Caroline Parker Santiago, director of programs at the museum, conceived of the tours as a way of preserving local history and imparting the area’s architectural heritage.
“There are so many rich examples of buildings from the 1920s,” Santiago said. “I thought it would be great.”
For $10 a person, participants meet at the museum at 11 a.m. and head out for a 11/2-hour stroll through downtown Coral Gables, stopping at points of interest to learn about each building’s hidden past.
Salvatore Davide brought his daughter, Vicky Davide, whose favorite part of the tour was looking at the interior of the buildings.
“And not only because of the air conditioning,” she said after snapping a photo of the antique Otis elevator in the Hotel St. Michel. “It’s fascinating.”
“Vicky’s a little history nut,” Salvatore Davide said.
Each tour is led by a volunteer who shadowed a museum staff member and underwent training offered by the Coral Gables Museum and the city’s Historic Resources Department.
Lamar attended the training, but her passion for the City Beautiful was just as clear as her knowledge of its history as she led her first tour on Saturday.
Lamar explained to visitors that the Westin Colonnade hotel was once the real estate office of Coral Gables founder George Merrick.
“This was the place,” she said. “This was where the deals were made.”
Complete with sweeping rotunda, marble floors, trickling fountain and Corinthian columns, it must have made quite an impression.
“It was the perfect place to convince people to come live here,” she said.
Walking through Coral Gables, it is clear buildings were often designed to maintain the Mediterranean Revival Style of the 1920s.
Arches, rounded roof tiles, towers and balconies contrast sharply with the modern buildings on the north side of Alhambra Circle.
“This represents what happened later,” Lamar said, pointing at the looming glass.
But even as Coral Gables continues to change, remnants of history lie in the small architectural details emphasized on these tours — the two fireman heads protruding from the side of the museum or the colorful stained glass in the Alhambra Towers.
The museum used to be a police and fire station. The Alhambra Towers were a Presbyterian church.
“These are fun facts that even residents don’t usually know,” Santiago said.
The tours kicked off Jan. 17 as a new addition to the museum’s programming, which already includes exhibit tours and bicycle tours.
They will continue indefinitely with the exception of holidays.
“It’s nice to see people realize we have a treasure here,” said Patrick Alexander, a museum staff member who led the first tour. “You’re always discovering something new.”
Santiago said she hopes out-of-town visitors and South Florida residents alike will take advantage of the walking tours.
For Santiago, keeping the history of Coral Gables alive is the most important thing.
“You are going to realize what a special place Coral Gables is,” Santiago said. “Then, when your friends come from out of town you will share that knowledge and become a sort of tour guide yourself. That’s historic preservation. It’s a ripple effect.”