Imagine walking under barrel-vaulted ceilings, passing through marble columns, or gazing at hand-painted frescoes. If you think you’re somewhere on the Mediterranean, think again…
Just a short drive southwest of downtown Miami is the city of Coral Gables, known as “The City Beautiful.” This city is renowned for its aesthetic charm and beauty. And in this city is the Biltmore Hotel, a National Historic Landmark.
In 1925, George Merrick set off to create a hotel for the people of Coral Gables; a luxury hotel that would also serve as “a center of sports and fashion.” Merrick teamed up with John Bowman, the Biltmore hotel mogul, and together they contracted Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver. This pair had already been responsible for the Atlanta and Los Angeles Biltmore’s, New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, and the Miami Daily News Tower (also known as Freedom Tower).
The Biltmore’s grand opening was on January 15, 1926. In less than 1 year, the 400+ room hotel had been built, along with a country club, golf course, and enormous swimming pool (the largest hotel pool in the continental US). Many athletes, musicians, movie stars, politicians, and even gangsters frequently stayed at the Biltmore to enjoy fashion shows, galas, and aquatic shows. People such as: Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Johnny Weissmuller, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Al Capone.
That all changed with the start of World War II, however. The hotel was seized by the government and converted into a military hospital. The beautiful ceilings were covered, the windows were sealed, and the floors were overlaid with linoleum. Even after the war was over, it remained a hospital for veterans until 1968. Although the city of Coral Gables was eventually able to get the property back, the building remained empty for almost a decade. In fact, it was almost torn down! Then in 1983, restoration began. It took nearly 4 years and $55 million to return the Biltmore to its former glory. Everything now is as it once was, with only slight modifications.
For those that would like to see the magnificent hotel and learn more about it, a free tour is given every Sunday at 1:30pm and 2:30pm. The tour starts in front of the concierge desk in the main lobby, lasts approximately one hour, and is given by a volunteer of the Dade Heritage Trust, an organization whose mission is to preserve Miami’s culture. When I visited the Biltmore, Judy was giving the tour. She had been giving these tours for years, simply because she loved to do it.
As we walked around the property, Judy gave us insight into George Merrick’s world upon his arrival to desolate South Florida. We learned about his family and the history of Coral Gables. I hadn’t realized that Merrick had named the city streets after names he’d read in Spanish books. We also learned interesting tidbits about the hotel itself. For example, the inspiration for the design of the hotel had been the Giralda bell tower from the cathedral in Seville, Spain. I also learned that the carpet in the Alhambra ballroom was created to match the ceiling. And since some of the original decorative tiles can no longer be manufactured if they are damaged, they’ve had an artist come and hand-paint new ones.
Once the tour was over, I continued to walk around the hotel. I could not get enough of the Mediterranean style and felt like I could have spent hours photographing every small detail. I loved that there was so much history there. As I walked around the main and lower lobbies, I stopped to look at old photographs and read their descriptions.
Most people have a misconception of Miami and I want to reiterate that there is so much more to the city than beaches and booze. There is culture and endless stories of men and women who have persevered against strong odds to build what has become one of the most important cities in the world. So if you’re traveling to Miami, or even if you’re a local, I would highly recommend visiting the Biltmore Hotel and taking advantage of the free tour. I guarantee you’ll leave as captivated and mesmerized as I was.
1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134
Have you been to the Biltmore Hotel? What did you think of it?