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1920s Boom and Bust
By Les Standiford
It is one thing to design a masterpiece of a city, but unless people are willing to buy lots and build homes and businesses there, all the grand intentions in the world will amount to nothing. George Merrick may have been a poet, a visionary and a lover of the natural world, but he was also adept in the realm of politics and practicality.
He platted a wide range of homes at prices ranging from $4,000 to $75,000, laying out residential sections according to building design, and tying house size strictly to lot size. While Mediterranean Revival is the signature style in Coral Gables, Merrick also introduced variety into his plan with seven distinct architectural villages that still exist: Dutch South African, Colonial/Florida Pioneer, Chinese, Italian, French City, French Country Village, and French Normandy Village. He was careful to separate business and craft districts from residential enclaves, set aside a city maintenance and utilities area, and designated country clubs, golf courses, tennis courts, marinas, riding trails, and athletic fields. Inspired by Pierre L’Enfant’s grid-busting street system for Washington D.C., Merrick’s layout integrated broad diagonal avenues and fountain-studded roundabouts to speed traffic once it had passed through one of the eight grand gates studding the city’s perimeter. In addition, he laid out a system of canals to evoke the splendors of Venice and provide access to Biscayne Bay for inland residents, and he built an extension of the City of Miami’s trolley car line so that citizens could easily make that commute.
Merrick added a 7,500-seat coliseum, where Will Rogers and his traveling rodeo served as the first attraction; he donated land for schools, churches, and civic organizations, and he gave 160 acres of land and $5 million in cash to establish the University of Miami.
To purvey all this, Merrick hired Edward E. “Doc” Dammers as his sales manager, a man whom Coral Gables Mayor Fred Hartnett once described as “a master huckster.” Dammers presided over the auction for the sale of the first city lot in November 1921, an event attended by more than 5,000 people. Between 1921 and 1926 Dammers and his sales team of nearly 3,000 sold more than an estimated $50 million of Coral Gables property, but Merrick claimed that nearly every penny that he realized was reinvested into expanding his dream. In addition to promotional booklets commissioned from bestselling novelist Rex Beach and then-fledgling writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Merrick devised an advertising campaign in national magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Forbes, Vogue and others that totaled $1 million in 1925. Famed orator and attorney William Jennings Bryan was placed on retainer at $100,000 per year — half in cash, half in property — to help spread the word.
While Dammers profited handsomely, he was clearly well worth what Merrick paid him. As one story goes, Dammers listened patiently one day as one of his salesmen complained of the difficulty in selling a lot bordering on a quarry where a good deal of limestone had been excavated for some of the early building in the city. The next day, Dammers reported back with his solution. The “eyesore” the salesman was complaining about would be transformed into what we call today the Venetian Pool. This 60,000-square-foot, 820,000-gallon paradise was completed in 1923 and is the only such structure to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.