This text is made available in place of the Flash file for patrons with disabilities or those without access to a browser that supports Flash files. If you wish to view the book in Flash format update your web browser and download the latest version of Flash.

Get Adobe Flash player

Town and Gown

By Les Standiford

Civic leaders in Miami spoke from the earliest days of the need for a university to provide an educational and cultural anchor for the fledging city.  In 1916, three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan called for establishing of a school in Miami that would draw students from across the U.S. and all the Americas. He called it the “Pan-American University”.

With George Merrick and the development of Coral Gables, that concept moved past the talking stages.  In 1925, Merrick donated 160 acres (the size of the original Merrick homestead) and $5 million of his own money to found the University of Miami, which in his words was “destined to become the cultural center of the entire South.”  He rounded up a matching $5 million in pledges from other leaders and on February 4, 1926, the cornerstone for the Solomon G. Merrick Building, the first structure on the campus, was laid.  Architectural renderings show the building as an impressive specimen of Merrick’s favored Mediterranean Revival style, and by mid-September the superstructure of the structure was essentially completed.  Alas, the scourge known as the 1926 Hurricane came calling and flattened the half-finished building. 

With the devastating storm passed and with classes set to begin in mere days, workers were pulled off the project to partition the nearby Anastasia Hotel for temporary classrooms.  On October 15, less than a month after the hurricane, several hundred students and faculty, many of them housed in the San Sebastian Hotel, marched into the first classes at the so-called “Cardboard College” singing, “Yes, We Are Collegiate.”  One week later, the university’s first football team took the field, an all-freshman unit that defeated Rollins College and went on to finish the season at 8-0.  While the accomplishments of those first players would linger as inspiration for subsequent Hurricane juggernauts, the fate of the Merrick Building was quite different.  Though something of its skeleton remained upright and it was finally completed in 1949, the Mediterranean design was discarded for a more contemporary style.  To this day, no campus building has been undertaken in the characteristic style that pervades the surrounding city.

Though the university struggled financially for a number of years, servicemen returning from World War II on the GI Bill doubled, then tripled, enrollment.  Gifts expanded the size of the campus to 230 acres and a school of medicine — Florida’s first — opened in 1952.  The primary teaching facility for the latter is now located at Jackson Memorial Medical Center, just west of downtown Miami, and is perennially ranked among the best in the nation.  Today, the university has become the largest private research institution in the Southeast, with a faculty of 2,500, more than 91 percent holding the Ph.D., and a total student body of 14,000.  Students are drawn to notable programs in theater, music, business, marine science, medicine and law, but the weather and the accomplishments of the national championship football teams (1984, 1987, 1989, 1991 and 2001) also have played roles in popularizing the institution.  To Merrick however, it was the cultural vibrancy of the university (ranked tops in Florida recently by U.S. News & World Report) that would come to matter most.  All else in his city was in his words of “but ephemeral insignificance beside this great enterprise of permanently real and vital influence upon the lives and hearts of present and future Miami.”