What do you think of when you hear “Key Biscayne?”
Condos and McMansions?
Weekend beach crowds?
Decades ago, it felt more like a small village. Key Biscayne is an island retreat that was transformed by a bridge. Once the home to Tequesta Indians, pirates and coconut plantations, the island was linked to the mainland in 1947 by the Rickenbacker Causeway, triggering a building boom of 553 homes built by the Mackle brothers and the Key Biscayne Hotel, which opened in 1952.
President Richard Nixon, who maintained a winter White House complex there, spent a lot of time in Key Biscayne as the Watergate scandal unfolded.
Let’s travel back in time to the Key Biscayne of yesterday through the archives of the Miami Herald:
Published Sept. 17, 2016
Mention Key Biscayne and visions of beaches, mansions and, if you’re a certain age, Richard Nixon’s winter White House come to mind. But the Key Biscayne of 2016 is so much more.
Cruise down its famous Crandon Boulevard and there are high-rises (lots of them) and businesses, notably ones catering to the Key’s increasingly cosmopolitan population. For such a small area - 5 miles long by 1 1/2 miles wide - the quality and diversity of eateries is astounding.
Veer onto one of the residential streets and on a typical work day, when the mainlanders haven’t invaded, you’ll pass couples tooling around in golf carts and uniformed nannies pushing strollers. The ubiquitous roundabouts are a nod to the increase in traffic.
Yet longtime Key rats, as they call themselves, say the relaxed island lifestyle is still very much part of the experience, only updated with more cars, more services and more families.
“It’s still very much like a large neighborhood,” says Melissa White, executive director of the Key Biscayne Community Foundation. “There’s still a small-town feeling to it. You know your neighbors, and you run into the same group of people all the time.”
White, 40, was born and raised on the Key, and although she recognizes some of the old-timers’ complaints about growth, she firmly believes the island has improved with age.
“Where else can you live on a barrier island that is just 10 minutes from a major international city?” she asks.
Along with development and population have come better services for residents and a “really great” community center and village green that didn’t exist when White was growing up. This, she adds, was a result of the village incorporating back in 1991, the first new city in Miami-Dade to do so in 50 years.
As it celebrates 25 years of incorporation, Key Biscayne is home to an estimated 14,000 people. Like the rest of the county, it is mostly Hispanic. There are churches and real-estate offices, boutiques and travel offices, churches and a Chabad Jewish learning center. While there are longtime private schools and a K-8 public school center, residents were thrilled when a partnership between the Village and the Miami-Dade public school district gave local kids access to the Maritime and Science Technology Academy magnet school campus. It is the Key’s first public high school.
For easy reference, the island can be divided into thirds: Crandon Park — a Miami-Dade park — on the north and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park on the south, with the incorporated residential area sandwiched in the middle. As the southernmost barrier island off the continental United States, the Atlantic Ocean borders it on the east and Biscayne Bay on the west.
Although many of the physical and population changes have happened more recently, the Key has an illustrious history that dates back centuries. Many longtime Miamians know it as the home of the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade County - the historic lighthouse at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, originally built in 1825 and then rebuilt more than 20 years later. But the Key was popular long before the white man discovered it.
For the Tequestas, “it was a site from which they could escape the inland heat, enjoy the cool prevailing trade winds, and find food and fresh water; it was a fishing and whaling village,” Joan Gill Blank, the Key’s historian, wrote in her 1996 book “Key Biscayne: A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse.”
Yes, whaling. While writing her book, Blank found records mentioning whales as a source of food for the earliest residents.
Centuries later, in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon claimed Key Biscayne for the king of Spain and named the island Santa Marta. The island would change hands a few more times until its modern history, including the years when John Dubose, the first keeper of the Cape Florida lighthouse, his wife Margaret and their children became the first American family to take up permanent residency on the Key. However beautiful the scenery, it was far from an easy life. The 1835 hurricane damaged the lighthouse, and in 1836, native Americans, forced south by the Seminole Wars, burned it down. (Dubose had sailed to Key West days earlier, to attend a birthday celebration his family had planned for him, but one of the two men at the lighthouse was killed in the attack.) About 10 years later, the lighthouse would be rebuilt to its current height, 95 feet.
In 1908, after failed dreams of developing the island as a health resort and aborted attempts by the Davis family to establish a town in 1839, William John Matheson developed a coconut plantation and fruit groves on the southern tip of the key. He would eventually build a community on the plantation, a nine-hole golf course and the Jamaica Inn as the island became populated.
His children would later donate the northern half of the Key to the public (what is now known as Crandon Park) in exchange for a causeway to link the Key to the mainland. That causeway, named after World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, opened in 1947, and the island changed irretrievably.
In the southern end, James Deering, he of Viscaya and Deering Estate fame, bought the Cape Florida tract with the intent to make it an international resort. Although he rebuilt the lighthouse plantation, the resort dream never came to fruition before his death in 1925. In 1948, Jose Manuel Aleman, a Cuban exile, bought Cape Florida for $1.5 million as an investment, but his widow eventually sold the property for a hefty gain nine years later. In 1964, Miami News editor Bill Baggs led the fight to purchase the land for a park. The property was opened to the public in 1967.
Blank, who moved to the Key with her first husband in 1951, remembers the island when it was a new community forging an identity. She kept a dinghy at the beach and attended bonfires where neighbors gathered to cook a meal.
“Everybody was known as a new settler,” recalls Blank, now 88. “You’d walk to the beach and catch a fish for dinner. It was a very relaxed, casual way of life, of being one with nature.”
And although many of those settlers resisted development, the high-rises and single-family homes became unavoidable starting in the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of those Mackle homes, she adds, are now being torn down to build more modern - and ostentatious - structures.
Even as development hopscotched around its middle, Key Biscayne has remained an attractive destination for both movie stars and politicians. Longtime residents are proud of calling it the Island Paradise.
“What hasn’t changed,” explains White of the community foundation, “is the ability to enjoy the natural resources. They’re all still here.”
NEW HOUSING PATTERN
Published May 4, 2014
The lime green house has three bedrooms and one bath, 1,102 square feet in all. Its land-locked lot covers 77 feet by 100 feet. There is no garage.
The concrete-block home looks much like it did when the prolific Mackle brothers built it in 1950, when it would have fetched about $10,000.
The house is ordinary in all respects, except for that basic tenet of real estate: location; location; location. It’s in Key Biscayne. And it sold in March for $1.48 million.
Somebody call the authorities: Key Biscayne is on fire.
The Mackle house at 544 Ridgewood Rd. survived Hurricane Donna in 1960, Betsy in 1965 and Andrew in 1992. But it won’t survive the bulldozer that is almost certainly headed its way amid the latest boom.
“It’s a tear-down,” said John Paul Rosser, the listing agent for the seller. “I’m told the buyers want to build a new house - a spec house.”
Key Biscayne, a perennial retreat for the rich and powerful, wasn’t immune to the devastating housing crash. But like other luxury spots around Miami, it bounced back sooner and stronger than most of the region.
The longtime magnet for Venezuelans, Argentines, Colombians and Europeans is more international than ever. And while it historically welcomed a mix of wealthy and middle-class residents, home prices are effectively banning newcomers of moderate means.
For 2013, the median price for a single-family home in Key Biscayne, which is ZIP 33149, was $2,072,500, approaching its frothy 2008 peak of $2.2 million, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Many properties are going for record highs.
“The old knock-down Mackle houses sold for up to $1.4 million during the boom. Then we hit the skids, like everyone, and they were $850,000 or $800,000,” said Joan McCaughan, a longtime Key Biscayne resident and Realtor at Coldwell Banker. “Now you can’t find anything under $1.5 million.”
Nostalgia is pivotal to the allure of Key Biscayne. “This place is a throwback place,” McCaughan said. “You can walk around at 2 or 3 in the morning, and nothing will happen to you.”
McCaughan’s father, Jim McCaughan, was a mortgage broker who helped the Mackles obtain financing to develop Key Biscayne. The boom has been great for her business, but she acknowledges the change sometimes makes her sad.
While many South Florida municipalities have struggled over budgets constrained by weak property tax revenue, Key Biscayne’s taxable property value jumped 6.46 percent last year to $6.15 billion. The bulk of that growth - 5.84 percent - came from the increased value of existing property, before counting new construction. The village had a surplus, enabling it to pare back its tax rate for 2013.
“We’re in a very, very good way with our real estate and how it affects ad valorem taxes,” said John Gilbert, the village manager.
A long-running gentrification of the Key has hit high gear as imposing mansions spring up on most every block, triple or more the size of the modest, older homes they replace on the tiny island.
“This is the most activity I’ve ever seen,” said Jud Kurlancheek, the director of building, planning and zoning, who has been with Key Biscayne 16 years.
Today nearly half the 1,366 single-family lots have newer, elevated structures on them. Sixty homes are under construction, and 11 old houses are tagged for demolition to clear the way for more.
Elevated to meet flood standards and often drawn in stark, contemporary lines, the houses loom even larger over their older neighbors, built in a post-World War II era before the waterfront became an exclusive province of the rich.
The rapid change is spurring mixed emotions among many longtime residents.
Bob Bristol, who grew up on the Key and heads the Key Biscayne Historical and Heritage Society, has watched big new homes go up near his vintage 1951 Mackle house.
The Mackles, who also pioneered communities in Marco Island and Port St. Lucie among other spots, targeted veterans and retirees willing to endure a drawbridge to the city in exchange for the lush, tropical feel of the one-time coconut plantation founded by William John Matheson a half-century earlier.
Bristol remembers roaming the island as a kid and hunting arrowheads around Indian mounds near the historic lighthouse. He often walked barefoot along the streets, because summer rain provoked flooding before the stormwater drainage improvements. Ditches along the swales held water, and during rainy season, “there were always tadpoles in all stages on the side of the road,” he said.
Today his home gets runoff water from the elevated neighbors, but he can’t complain too much. “I like the fact it’s made my property value go up,” he said, figuring the corner-lot house he paid $40,000 for in 1973 would command $1.7 million to $1.8 million.
“It’s also made it to where if I want to live on Key Biscayne, I have to hang on to what I have,” said Bristol, whose family ran a camera shop there. “I may be able to sell for close to $2 million, but if I sold I couldn’t buy anything on Key Biscayne.”
Oceana Key Biscayne, a luxury condominium project nearing completion on the oceanside site of the old Sonesta Beach Resort, is almost sold out at $1,300 per square foot. Pre-construction prices ranged from $1.5 million to $19.5 million.
For a lot of Key residents who bought homes in the 1980s, “it’s their 401(k),” said Buzz Vernon, a Realtor and former village mayor. Four generations of his family lived on the Key, but “It’s going to be difficult for my kids and their kids to purchase, simply because of price,” Vernon said.
The boom leaves many wistful. “A lot of people want it the way it was 40 years ago,” he said. “It’s not realistic. If it were the way it was 40 years ago, the homes would be worth $15,000.”
Despite the changes, Key Biscayne still has some of its laid-back feel. The pace is slower than the nearby mainland, and boating and water sports loom large.
The Mobil station on Crandon Boulevard has a sign for “Bait and Propane.” Golf carts and bicycles are common ways to get about, though Lamborghinis and Porsches also are popular.
Edgardo Defortuna, who has lived on the Key since 1992, sees many charms there, not the least of which is its yesteryear safety.
“My front door lock broke, and for eight months I didn’t fix it,” he said.
Defortuna is a native of Argentina and founder of Miami-based Fortune International Realty, which markets (and now also develops) pre-construction luxury condominiums. He completed his $21 million bayfront estate on the Key in 2012, having bulldozed President Richard Nixon’s old compound from the site in 2004 with little resistance from residents.
It has 21,500 square feet of air-conditioned space.
Driving across the Rickenbacker Causeway to Miami “makes me feel like I’m on vacation every day,” Defortuna said.
Demand for custom luxury homes is robust, said Enrique Aguila, project executive for CDC Builders, which built Defortuna’s house and a host of others on the Key. CDC, owned by Key resident Jose Ortega, got its start on the island after Hurricane Andrew’s wallop in 1992. It currently has five custom homes under construction on the Key and is negotiating contracts on five others.
On South Mashta Drive, CDC is building an 8,000-square-foot custom home for a Venezuelan businessman and his wife. “The house is over-designed. It’s a bunker,” said Aguila, pointing to a heavy-duty concrete slab driveway that cost $300,000. “You could land a 747 on a slab with this thickness.’‘
The rare vacant lot, which boasts wide bay views with Stiltsville in the distance, cost $6.6 million. Construction has tallied $8 million, up from the $6 million budgeted because of changes along the way, CDC said. The contemporary Venezuelan-style design has a sophisticated air-conditioning system with individual room control, a big generator, a water desalination system and smart features to adjust blinds, lighting, temperature, entertainment and security systems from an iPhone.
“It’s self-sufficient. You can live two months as an island,” Aguila said.
The Key is so hot, developers are building spec homes, like the new four-level, manse at 755 S. Mashta Dr., listed for $17.6 million.
The classic contemporary six-bedroom, 61/2-bath home has panoramic bayfront views, including downtown Miami in the distance. It has a rooftop garden, two infinity pools, a spa, an elevator, a four-car garage and a 40-foot dock. It’s furnished and sits on a gated fingertip of the Key.
“When people go over that bridge to Key Biscayne, it’s like they’re entering paradise,” said Jill Eber, a luxury broker and half of The Jills team at Coldwell Banker, which is marketing the Mashta property.
“It’s more of a small-town atmosphere. I think that’s what so many people love about it. You can be as private as you want, or people get to know you there. And I think people also feel safe there.” The home is 6,544 square feet, about the maximum permitted for its 13,898-foot lot.
Miami architect Ramon Pacheco, who designed the house, said a key objective was to make the most of the view. “It’s a very small lot. I was impressed we got that amount of square footage,” Pacheco said.
The village has taken modest steps to pare the size of new homes, which look even larger because of flood elevation requirements for the low-lying island.
“I notice a dramatic change in people’s reactions when I explain to them that taking down the size of the house further will affect [reduce] the value of the land,” building chief Kurlancheek said.
“We all wish it was 1952,” Kurlancheek said. “It’s not the days of Leave It To Beaver anymore.”
Published June 6, 1999
They were basic, humble actually.
Three bedrooms. One bath. Tiny kitchen.
But the Mackle homes of Key Biscayne were special to the young couples who bought them as starter homes in the 1950s. Over the years, they’ve been remodeled and enlarged to accommodate changing lifestyles, but details such as porthole windows or A-frame roofs still identify them as among the 1,000 homes built by the Mackle brothers, Frank, Robert and Elliott.
Today, these homes that sold for as little as $9,999 go for $350,000 and up. “Tear-downs,” Realtors call them, because so many have been leveled to make way for the island’s million-dollar-plus Mediterranean McMansions.
To preserve this slice of island history, the Key Biscayne Chamber of Commerce hosted “Humble House” tours in 1995 and 1996, featuring the Mackles and other early island homes. The tours spawned a preservation movement among some residents, fighting to defend the simpler homes in one of South Florida’s hottest housing markets.
“The purpose of the tours was to show people what could be done with these houses instead of tearing them down,” said Ed Stone, a local banker who lives in a Mackle home. “Those new houses are spacious but they change the complexion of the neighborhood. They cast shadows on the small homes next door.”
Dorothea Bailey, a broker-associate with Fortune International Realty who helped Stone organize the tours, said, “It’s a ‘my house is bigger than your house’ syndrome.”
The original Mackle homes had nearly identical floor plans and were painted either yellow or pink with white trim.
The owners got the basics: three small bedrooms, one, sometimes 11/2 baths, a small kitchen, utility room and L-shaped living-dining room. The smallest, the porthole model, had 900 square feet; the largest, 1,200 square feet. Membership in the Key Biscayne Beach Club came with the house, appliances and air conditioning did not.
“We bought our own fridge and stove and put A/C units in the windows,” recalled Ellen Merritt, who with her husband, Bill, a retired postal worker and orchid show judge, bought a Mackle house in 1953 for $12,750. Their 46-year-old Frigidaire still hums on the back porch. “It won’t quit running,” she said.
The houses were so basic that the utility room had no drainage.
“We had to run the water [from the washing machine] out of the door with a hose,” Ellen said.
The first homeowners started renovating almost immediately. Soon after Jean Yehle and her then-husband Arthur bought their home in 1950 for $11,600, $600 down, they added a screened porch on the back that became their year-round dining room.
The house has stayed in the family. In 1987, Jean, an archivist at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key, sold it to her son, Mark, and daughter-in-law Michele. They have two children, Emily, 15, and Gannon, 13.
Mark and Michele have remodeled too. They replaced the screened porch with a large family/dining room; stole space from the dining room to create a kitchen pantry; added a master bedroom and bath at the back of the house.
“My big dream was twin sinks [in the master bath] after living in a one-bath house,” Michele said.
“There’s not much difference living in one cramped Mackle to another,” said Mark, who has lived in Mackle homes most of his life. “We’ve changed this Mackle over the years so I don’t have a flashback to the way it was. But the oak trees in the backyard connect; they’ve always been there.”
The Mackle homes were built on 75- by 100-foot lots, which meant space to build out or up.
Among the most common improvements: combining two small bedrooms into one, adding a second bathroom or building a master bedroom/bath suite. Carports evolved into garages or home offices; white concrete tile roofs gave way to terra cotta.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the small living room in the middle of the house. In homes where family rooms have been added, the original living room serves as a hall linking other parts of the house. (In an ironic twist, many of today’s new homes are returning to smaller living rooms.)
Ann and Ray Goodwin each raised a family in a Mackle house. When they lost their spouses and married each other, they chose to live in Ann’s Mackle, which she bought in 1951 for $11,890. She had added a screened porch and a master bedroom and bath.
The couple’s more recent projects included connecting the kitchen to a dining/family room addition and adding a long counter between the two. ‘Real island living’
Thanks to ocean breezes and cross ventilation, air conditioning wasn’t necessary when the Mackle homes were new. Except for the bedrooms, Miriam Woodman’s home still isn’t air-conditioned. She and her late husband, James M. Woodman Jr., built a Florida room across the back of the house and a screened porch behind it.
“The air flows through the house and it’s quite comfortable without A/C,” said James Woodman III, a writer who divides his time between Paraguay and his mother’s home. “This is real island living.”
Oscar and Christina de Armas own one of the so-called Preacher Brown homes that, like the island’s Reid and Mackle homes, are small but well-built 1950s homes. They used tropical paint colors - mamey, periwinkle, kiwi and sunny yellow - to recreate their home as an island cottage.
“It’s the smallest house in the block and color was the only way to make the house noticed,” said de Armas, who heads the architecture department at Miami-Dade Community College’s Wolfson campus. “A lot of people have knocked on my door, asking how I picked these colors. I have helped a lot of people choose colors; I do it for fun.”
While he dislikes the huge homes that have been built on the island, de Armas acknowledges some of the older homes are not easy to remodel.
“The spaces are very small and are defined by interior beams,” he said. “If you have enough land to expand to the back, side or front, it can be done. Lots of times people who buy here are not your typical middle class. They are usually upper class, spending $350,000 on a lot. They need a bigger house so they tear down the existing house. But what is being built is out of scale for the property.” Coconut plantation
The Mackle homes, like all the others on the island, stand on what was a coconut plantation owned by one of Miami-Dade County’s first families, the Mathesons. The island was accessible only by boat until 1947, when the Rickenbacker Causeway linked the island. This spurred development at the same time when thousands of World War II veterans and their families needed housing.
There were other developers, including Warren Reid, but the most prominent were the late Frank, Robert and Elliott Mackle. Pioneers in mass marketing Florida land, the brothers founded the Deltona Corp. in the early 1960s and built planned communities throughout the state.
In 1950, the brothers paid $25 million for 220 acres of Matheson land on Key Biscayne. They built their first 298 homes. They sold well; they built more. By the time they finished, they had built around 1,000 homes, said Joan Gil Blank, author of Key Biscayne, A History of Miami’s Tropical Island and the Cape Florida Lighthouse (Pineapple Press, 1996).
Though Mackle homes were simple, concrete-block structures, building them was not easy. Because the northern section of the island was mangrove swamp, fill had to be pumped in from the bay to raise the ground level to four feet above sea level. Since the ground was unstable, concrete pilings were driven to the bedrock. Houses built on more stable land do not have pilings.
Conversations with Mackle homeowners almost always turns to hurricanes. The sturdy little houses stood up to unamed hurricanes in 1949 and 1950 as well as the named ones that still cause people to shudder: Donna, Betsy and Andrew. The older homes on the island fared much better than new ones during Andrew, though there was flooding after the winds died down.
The Merritts fled to the mainland for some storms but rode out Andrew at home.
“I was sitting here in the living room wondering what I was going to do next, when I saw my shoes floating down the hall in three inches of water,” said Ellen Merritt. “It made me laugh.”
That their home weathered the storm - unlike some newer ones on the island - is testament to why the humble homes of Key Biscayne should be preserved, she and others said.
Moreover, noted architect de Armas, they give the island its true character.
“It’s still a beach community, very low-key compared to other places in Miami. It’s still a small town where everybody finds out something sooner or later,” he said laughing. “You can’t do anything wrong here.”
Published July 22, 2004
It was the place where the late President Richard Nixon could be found when he needed to get “tan, rested and ready.”
The private sanctuary at 500 Bay Ln. - also known as the Winter White House for Nixon’s frequent stays there - was where plans for the Watergate break-in at Democratic headquarters were discussed. It was also there that the president went to lick his wounds as the Watergate scandal unfolded.
Now it’s history.
The nondescript ranch-style home was razed Wednesday to make way for a new, and no doubt flashier, residence, Key Biscayne village officials said.
It was part of a compound including three other properties, a private beach and a floating helipad that Nixon frequented between 1969 and 1974.
“When he became president, he needed a getaway, and that became his Winter White House,” said Paul George, history professor at Miami Dade College. “He retreated there many times during the Watergate crisis.”
Telephone transcripts from the congressional investigation indicate that plans to break into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington were discussed there, George said.
Nixon visited the home almost monthly during his presidency, making at least 50 visits over his five-year tenure.
“It was your basic, boring 1950s concrete-block home, low to the ground, thick walls, nothing glamorous about it,” George said. “This is where he was all the time.”
Nixon purchased the home from George Smathers, with whom Nixon had served in the U.S. Senate. He purchased it with the help of his close friend and confidant, banker Charles “Bebe” Rebozo.
Rebozo owned the home immediately to the north. Another Nixon ally, financier Robert Abplanalp, inventor of the aerosol spray can, lived north of Rebozo. He leased his property to the U.S. government to serve as living quarters for Secret Service agents.
The property immediately to the south of Nixon’s home also belonged to Nixon. That property, 485 W. Matheson Dr., was redeveloped in the 1980s and was featured in the film Scarface.
Key Biscayne’s top building official, Jud Kurlancheek, confirmed the demise of Nixon’s home. “It’s done,” he said. “It’s all torn down.”
Kurlancheek said a new home would be built there. He said he couldn’t say who the owner is, but property records trace it to developer Edgardo Defortuna, president of Fortune International Realty.
Defortuna was on vacation and could not be reached Wednesday, according to a receptionist at his office.
Real estate records from 2002 show that Defortuna once sought to rent the home for $20,000 a month. “Magnificent sunsets and Miami skyline views,” the listing boasted.
Key Biscayne historian Joan Blank said a second story was added to the building after Nixon sold it.
A local historical society, The Villagers Inc., celebrated the entire Bay Lane compound last December with a guided holiday tour, Blank said.
“I guess that turned out to be the last hurrah,” she said.
Blank noted that other presidents, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman among them, have found comfort in South Florida.
“Florida is an important place,” she said.
“Truman chose Key West, Kennedy chose Palm Beach, and Nixon chose Key Biscayne.”