South Florida presents an odd dichotomy: the primordial ooze of the Everglades beside the gleaming newness of our cities. But the Miami Springs Historical Society wants you to know that while Miami’s history is short, it is fascinating.
The society is based out of Miami Springs, but the club’s aims are to preserve and bring to life the intertwined history of the industries and people who built a suburban metropolis from the swamps of South Florida, according to communications coordinator Jim Watson.
“The same architect who designed the Congress building downtown drew up many of the Curtiss houses here,” he said. The Congress building was a historic office building recently turned into apartments.
For now, the core theme of the Society’s programming are the exploits of the Curtiss-Bright development company, a joint venture between aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss and cattleman James Bright that inaugurated the cities of Hialeah, Miami Springs and Opa-Locka in the land boom of the early 1920s.
Curtiss and Bright began by developing in Hialeah, where Curtiss noted the mistake they’d made in the city’s uninhibited sprawl. For Miami Springs, Curtiss decided to change gears: he hired architect Clinton McKenzie, who had laid out the streets of Coral Gables, to plan a streetscape for his city. Incorporated in 1926 as Country Club Estates (the city’s 60 registered voters would change the name to Miami Springs just four years later), the city had strict building codes, tree-lined streets and a preplanned city center.
Borrowing again from Coral Gables, Curtiss stole George Merrick’s idea of a unifying architectural theme for a city, and decided to build in what would in the Pueblo Revival style inspired by the adobe villages of the southwestern Pueblo Indians. (For Opa-locka, the theme was to be Arabian Nights.)
You can tell a Pueblo Revival house by its bell-cots, irregular roof parapets and wall contours, thick, uneven walls and recessed windows. You might be fooled into thinking these are really adobe structures, but they’re actually covered in stucco. We’re thousands of miles away from the nearest desert.
Not many Pueblo buildings were constructed, given Curtiss’ abrupt and early death from appendicitis, and fewer still remain. But Curtiss’ legacy is retained in the city’s small-town feel.
Newly retired art director Sharon Wills has lived in Miami Springs since 1961, and on a recent historical society bus tour of the town’s Pueblo architecture, she called the little city “the land that time forgot.”
In all the years she’s lived there, she says, the town has somehow “stayed very true to small town community.”
That’s something the residents of Miami Springs guard fiercely, said society president Yvonne Schonberger, who peppered the tour with nods to parcels that developers had unsuccessfully lobbied the city to let them build on. “We keep getting discovered,” she joked. “But every time they try and build condos, we say no.” City rules won’t even allow apartment buildings to exceed three stories.
The bus tour — the society hosts two tours a year, including one in December in which participants can enter most of the buildings — winds its way through the city, starting first at the white and sprawling Hotel Country Club on Curtiss Parkway. Built in 1926 and furnished with solid mahogany furniture, the five-story construction was supposed to host vacationers and prospective buyers to populate Curtiss’ new town.
One of the walls is adorned with a giant hieroglyphic thunderbird, symbolizing rain and prosperity — “appropriate for a land developer in the ’20s land boom in South Florida, no?” Schonberger quips.
But while the rains continued to fall, prosperity dried up. When the crash of 1929 hit, Curtiss had no choice but to offload the hotel. For $10, he gave it to John Harvey Kellogg (of breakfast cereal fame), a doctor and nutritionist. He reopened it as a sanitarium and ran it until it was rented during World War II to the Air Transport Command for recovering veterans. It would later become a spa, and currently serves as an assisted living facility.
On Park Street, the tour turns a page in the Great Depression story with Miami Springs Elementary, the art deco school built in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
Notably, the tour also hits several Pueblo Revival homes — many built a little before incorporation, usually for Curtiss’ friends or family — homes that Miami Springs residents still live in today. On Deer Run, visitors can see the Y-shaped, two-story house originally built for Curtiss’ mother Lua, an amateur painter. Lua quickly decided she wanted something bigger, and a second house was built for her on Hunting Lodge Drive, but Schonberger and her husband are quite content there, where they host the society’s annual kick-off party in the fall.
Seven-year-old Edward Bartlett, along for the tour with mom Jennifer, took a break from sketching the environs to exclaim, “I live right next to your house!”
And, perhaps in an unintended homage to the ephemeral nature of development in South Florida, the tour also stops on Pinecrest Avenue, where one of the first four Curtiss-Bright homes stood until it was demolished in 2007 and replaced by a decidedly larger and un-Pueblo house.
The tour also circles the Miami Springs Golf Course. Curtiss had always planned to include a golf course in his new city, and with fundraising help from the likes of Carl Fisher and Roddey Burdine, it opened in 1923 as the county’s first municipal golf course. In 1947, it became the first golf course in Florida to integrate.
The tour also drops by the Clune-Stadnik building on the Parkway circle, the only surviving building left from the civic center first envisioned by Curtiss. For a while, it was host to the society’s Miami Springs Historical Museum, but seven years ago the owners decided it couldn’t afford rent-free tenants.
Society members say a new museum should open at 501 East Dr. in the fall — they’re crossing their fingers for Oct. 1 — but wary that converting the former municipal storage shed into a fully operational historical museum might entail some delay. The museum will have exhibits rotating every three months or so, according to Watson, but also serve as “living space” for community groups to meet and host small events.
Society president Beverly Roetz added that the club has initiated talks with Miami-Dade public schools in hopes of getting kids from across the county come to the museum once it opens.
With the new museum, Watson hopes that the society might also start to profile the history of these towns decades after incorporation. In particular, the museum will highlight the role that aviation played in the development of Miami Springs from the 1950s into the ’70s, when big airlines like (now-defunct) National and Eastern used to be headquartered in the area and many of their employees lived in town.
Along with model Curtiss “Jenny” airplanes — the Jenny would be instrumental in popularizing civil aviation in the postwar era — and Harvey Kellogg’s cane, the society also has a series of Eastern Air Lines stewardess outfits from the 1960s and ’70s in storage, waiting for a new museum display.
On the way to the golf course, Watson — whose father was a captain with National — pointed out a signature 1950s neon sign that reads “The Pilot House BAR” atop a shuttered building, just across from the airport on 36th Street.
“One day driving home I just saw the sign flashing like a ghost,” he said.
It’s those kinds of pieces of a neglected history, Watson says, that he hopes the society can begin to expand upon.