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Fit for a King

By Les Standiford

From the earliest days of the development of Coral Gables, George Merrick saw the need for a sizable and stylish resort hotel in his new city.  As a Miami News reporter of the day put it, “A great hotel would not only serve as a complete hostelry to the crowds which were thronging to Coral Gables but would also serve as a center of sports and fashion.”

In 1924, Merrick met with noted hotelier John McEntee Bowman and convinced him what a distinction it would be for Bowman-Biltmore Hotels to come aboard the Coral Gables express.  In November local papers trumpeted the news:  Bowman would, in fact, spend $10 million to build a hotel and resort complex featuring three golf courses, polo fields, tennis courts and a swimming pool unequaled anywhere.

Bowman, owner of the Los Angeles and Atlanta Biltmore Hotels, insisted on using his own team of architects (one, Leonard Schultze, had designed Grand Central Station). The model for the Coral Gables project was the 315-foot Giralda Tower in Seville.  Ground was broken on the hotel in March 1925, and work continued at an astonishing pace, culminating in a formal opening in January 1926.

Those there were amazed by the immensity and grandeur of the 350-room Coral Gables Biltmore, with its 10-story center block flanked by two seven-story wings and capped by a 15-story tower replicating its famed Spanish counterpart.  The lavish Mediterranean-styled furnishings, rugs, and drapes alone were valued at more than $1 million.  For the event, two express trains carried more than a thousand celebrities, dignitaries and reporters from New York City to Miami in less than 36 hours, a new speed record for the time.  Guests included Eddie Rickenbacker, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones, Bernard Baruch, Gene Tunney and Adolph Zukor.  Three bands played for the 1,500 on hand at the inaugural dinner-dance, and reporters estimated that more than 25,000 people swarmed the building and grounds for tours on the following day.  Bowman’s promise of a swimming pool without equal was no empty boast.  Director of aquatic instruction Johnny Weissmuller was on hand to show off his 1,250,000-gallon, 20,000-square-foot domain, the largest in the country.

The hotel has gone through many incarnations since those grand days—transformed from a pleasure dome where the likes of Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby frolicked into service as an Army training center and hospital during World War II and actually sitting vacant from 1968 until 1987. Following a $50 million-plus renovation guided by the city in conjunction with a development team headed by Joseph Herndon, the hotel rose like the fabled Phoenix from its ashes in 1986.  The Biltmore remains a grand physical monument to Merrick’s vision, its tower visible as far away as downtown Miami and serving as a reference point for mariners far out on Biscayne Bay.  As many business travelers and vacationers attest, stepping into the Biltmore is like entering the gateway to a timeless world where splendor and grace reign supreme.