Coral Gables

City proposes historic district on Coral Way

By Jenny Staletovich

When George Merrick first prodded his mule through the grapefruit groves that would become Coral Gables,  he later wrote,  he looked up into the inky,  starlit night and "dreamed of someday seeing here a thousand homes which would make my 'castles in Spain' a reality."

A century later,  the city of Coral Gables is hoping to preserve that dream by making the stretch of Coral Way where Merrick first lived a historic district.

"It just stands to reason it would be a historic district,  because there are such a large number of historically significant homes on that street, " said Dona Spain,  the city's historic preservation officer.

Spain's office notified residents earlier this month of the city's decision to designate Coral Way between Anderson Road and Alhambra Circle. The city currently has 21 historic districts.

Two public meetings will be held before the matter is considered by the Historic Preservation Board,  Spain said. Those meetings have not yet been scheduled.

In the meantime,  city staffers have been working to document the street's significance by photographing the outside of every house and writing their histories,  including details about architecture,  dates of construction and any alterations made over the years.

Arva Moore Parks,  author,  historian and preservationist who helped save,  among other things,  the Biltmore Hotel,  said the designation is long overdue.

"It's about time, " she said when told of the plans. "It's really where Coral Gables was born."

Parks,  who is completing a biography on Merrick,  said the street embodies his "original plan that a lot of people don't realize,  to build everything in rock and really build for the middle class."

Merrick's family bought the 150-acre homestead site unseen at the turn of the century in what was considered the backcountry that today straddles Coral Way,  according to Park's book George Merrick's Coral Gables. Merrick,  then a bookish 13-year-old,  grew up working the plantation,  tending to the vegetable-planted glade that is now the Granada Golf Course and dreaming of becoming a writer. But at his father's insistence,  he enrolled in law school in New York. When his father,  a Yale-educated minister,  fell ill,  Merrick returned to take over. After his death,  Merrick turned the plantation into one of South Florida's largest fruit and vegetable farms.

But Merrick soon became interested in land development,  Parks said. He built nearly 20 projects around the county,  including Allapattah Farms in 1913 and Twelfth Street Manors,  north of Flagler Street and east of Red Road,  which still bear the mark of his wide roads and lushly landscaped medians. A permanent exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum chronicles the rise of the area and Merrick's role.

Over the years,  he saved his money so that when he finally created his dream city,  he could do it on his own terms,  Parks explained.

The Merrick family's coral-rock house at 907 Coral Way,  which his mother,  Althea,  designed,  became the inspiration for the houses,  with field hands from the grove becoming the first construction workers. When Coral Gables finally opened in 1921,  the first lots were auctioned from the front yard of Poinciana Place,  the house Merrick built for his wife,  Eunice,  at 937 Coral Way.

Merrick originally intended for the entire development to be constructed of coral rock,  like those he had built for his family,  Parks explained. It wasn't until 1923 that he modified that requirement to allow stucco structures with coral-rock details and trim,  Parks wrote in her book.

"If you drive around Coral Gables - and this is what makes it very different from Palm Beach or other places - all the early houses have rock trim,  so even if they're not entirely of rock,  they have rock trim, " she said.

The first plazas,  the ornate fountains and coral-rock gates that embody the philosophical influences of thinkers like John Ruskin and William Morris were also built on Coral Way,  Parks said.

In addition,  eight of the original coral-rock houses - many of which housed Merrick family members - still sit on the street and are already listed as historic under a thematic citywide designation,  Spain said. The trees,  she pointed out,  are also protected under a street designation.

In recent years,  two houses attracted interest after they were demolished or suffered extreme neglect. The house at 1044 Coral Way that was built for Merrick's aunt Emma and her husband,  Worth St. Clair,  literally collapsed from neglect in May 2006,  according to city records. Then,  last year,  the house at 1248 Coral Way was auctioned off after its elderly owner left it to the U.S. government in his will. The property was purchased by a partnership that plans to renovate it and build a new home on the neighboring lot,  Spain said.

Rafael Penalver lives in a house Merrick built for his sister at 800 South Greenway Drive (which was originally part of Coral Way). It is the second-oldest permitted house in the city. For Penalver,  his role is more of a steward than an owner.

"For the homeowner,  particularly those of us who are preservation-minded,  we look at the general and the historical impact of this in the preservation of the city,  and you put those considerations above a personal interest in exploiting a property for your own value, " said Penalver,  an attorney and preservationist who oversaw the renovation of the landmark San Carlos Institute in Key West and helped preserve downtown Miami's Freedom Tower.

Still,  Penalver,  who first learned of the efforts to designate the street when he arrived home from the Olympics last week,  is curious about what it means for construction or alterations to property.

"If you have a historically designated home,  you can do the same things. It's just a different way of doing it, " Spain explained. "Anything is doable. It's just a matter of doing it appropriately so the historic portion is not damaged.

"As far as the bureaucracy involved,  I believe it helps. But I'm sure there are people who disagree."

The historic board does not get involved in interior changes,  she added,  just exterior.

"We just sign off. It doesn't have to go to the board. It's just major things like additions."

When Anna Fuentes and her husband,  Eddie,  remodeled their coral-rock house at 1217 Coral Way,  the city proved to be more helpful in carrying out their plans than the contractor,  she said.

"I think it was because we wanted to stay within what was historically correct, " she said. "It's good to have their opinion because I'm not an architect and most of us aren't,  so we may not know what suits the house. I liked that. But I guess it depends on what your intentions are with your house."

The house was originally built by Merrick for his aunt and her husband,  John V. Bond,  the city's first contractor. After Merrick's aunt died,  his sister married Bond and lived in the house,  Parks said.

Like Fuentes,  Penalver,  who is in the midst of his "ordeal" of a renovation,  concedes that living in a historic house has its challenges.

"Old houses like mine,  we have very small closets. Very small bathrooms. But there's a charm to these properties that makes up for that,  and I feel it's important to pass that on to future generations, " he said. "And this historic designation helps preserve that without having a particular property have to go through the historic-designation process,  which is very tedious."

"I just find the whole area, " he added,  "from Anderson to Alhambra,  with the trees and rock houses,  that is the essence of Coral Gables."