Coral Gables

The man who made the Gables: New book sheds light on George Merrick

Historian Arva Moore Parks, at the Coral Gables Museum, has written a book about Coral Gables founder George Merrick.
Historian Arva Moore Parks, at the Coral Gables Museum, has written a book about Coral Gables founder George Merrick. cjuste@miamiherald.com

He was an idealist and a visionary. His growing wealth did not diminish his optimistic personality, something he once described as his most cherished gift. He had learned how to make money but never lost his singular reason for doing so — Arva Moore Parks on George E. Merrick

Renowned historian Arva Moore Parks’ ties to Coral Gables run deep and long. This is where her parents enjoyed their country club, where she attended day camp and learned to swim, and where she later raised her children in an old Gables home designed by Walter DeGarmo. More recently, the Miami native served as chief curator, interim director and chair of the Coral Gables Museum.

Writing a biography of Gables founder George Merrick seemed a natural extension of both her interests and her knowledge. But Parks’ new book, George Merrick, Son of the South Wind, is more than the story of a visionary with the soul of a poet. It is a sweeping account of how one man came to symbolize the optimism of his time and how his idea for a “master suburb” with plenty of greenery would prove prescient. For Parks, the research opened new windows to understanding a man she thought she already knew.

“What most people don’t know,” Parks says, “is that his dream was to build for the growing middle class of the time. He was an idealist. He felt they deserved beauty as much as the rich did. He never stopped thinking about that, but he also never dreamed how successful he would be.”

Parks, author of several books on Florida history, including The Forgotten Frontier: Florida through the Lens of Ralph Middleton Munroe and Miami, the Magic City, will be presenting her new book at the Coral Gables Museum on Oct. 15.

Unlike many developers past and present, Merrick sought more from his projects than to turn a profit. He wanted to create a utopia of sorts and in the process became, as Parks describes him, “green before green [was in], a New Urbanist before the movement even had a name.” Out of his own money he paid for parks and statues and waterways. He pledged land to a university that would become the University of Miami.

But perhaps Merrick’s most significant contribution is the fact that almost 100 years after he sold the first lot, his plans for Coral Gables have survived against great odds. “Coral Gables is not the only exemplary planned community,” Parks writes, “but few, if any, can match its size, scale and economic, social and cultural mix. It encompasses 13 square miles, with 47 miles of waterways. It has 42 public parks — from small plazas and parkways to fully developed recreational facility. It boasts more than 20 schools, a major research university and 34 churches.”

As fate would have it, the university he considered his most important legacy became one of the founders of New Urbanism through its College of Architecture and former dean Elizabeth Plater-Zybeck. But Merrick, Parks added, was far from a perfect man. He had a drinking problem, an issue that strained his relationship with wife Eunice Peacock, a Christian Scientist and daughter of Coconut Grove pioneers. And he had a girlfriend — a woman he eventually gave up, which led to a much closer marital relationship with Eunice in the last years of his life.

For all his successes, the man who was once a multimillionaire died in March 1942 at 55, with an estate worth less than $400. The Great Depression and a devastating hurricane had destroyed much of his wealth.

Parks’ book is both an unflinching and compassionate look at a man who truly made Miami, not just Coral Gables, what it is today. Her profile of this creative genius who knew how to both turn a phrase and make a buck was influenced by unprecedented access to surviving relatives as well as Merrick’s personal letters, speeches, even his poems and short stories.

Mildred Heath Merrick, George’s sister-in-law and wife of younger brother Richard, had mentored Parks when she was a graduate student at UM decades ago. As caretaker of some original Merrick papers, Mildred offered these to Parks, who met with her off and on over more than two years as she organized the material for donation to UM Libraries’ Special Collections. This is how she discovered Merrick’s short stories. Parks quickly realized these stories were actually autobiographical, not fiction, and was able to use them as a primary source for her own work. She is hoping to publish them, with annotations, in the future.

“He very much wanted to be a writer, and the stories are quite good,” Parks adds.

In fact, part of Parks’ book title is derived from a 1920 poetry book Merrick published, Songs of the Wind on a Southern Shore.

Parks traveled extensively to understand the man and his motives. She visited the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the earliest Merricks lived, and went into Ohio to research his mother’s family, the Finks. “He was very much a product of his heritage and his ancestors,” Parks said. “Many of them were pioneers, too.”

The granddaughter of a Merrick cousin on George’s side, Elaine Fink Schumacher, provided three “incredible scrapbooks” that helped shed light on George Fink’s role and relationship to Coral Gables. Other descendants also provided a treasure trove of family stories.

Along the way, Parks came across a few surprises. Merrick had planned for high-rises in Coral Gables and at one point wanted to build a gaming hotel casino in what is today’s Cocoplum. He was also a marketer extraordinaire, having spent millions of dollars on national advertising long before anyone thought of doing that for a local development project.

Parks hopes readers come to appreciate Merrick as more than a developer who made a lot of money creating one of Miami’s most swank places. “I want them to think this is more than the history of Coral Gables,” she adds. “It’s also the history of good planning.”

Ana Veciana-Suarez: 305-376-3633, @AnaVeciana

If you go

What: Presentation of “George Merrick, Son of the South Wind,” (University Press of Florida, $31.95) by Arva Moore Parks

When: Thursday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. Free.

Where: Coral Gables Museum, 285 Aragon Ave.

Information: 305-603-8067.

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