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Key to the Kingdom

By Les Standiford

Any number of individuals of ambition and wealth have embarked upon visionary projects, believing they have the wisdom and the power to impose an individual will upon the natural world and the course of history.  The fragility of such thinking is nowhere better captured than in Shelley’s immortal poem, “Ozymandius,” in which the words chiseled into the base of a ruined statue of king of antiquity ask visitors to gaze about the surroundings and marvel at what has been stamped on the world by this potentate: “look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair” is the message from the past. The poem then continues from the point of view of a modern-day visitor to the wrecked image: 

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Those who visit and reside in Coral Gables can only give thanks that George Merrick was wiser than Ozymandius and those of his ilk.  When Merrick determined that he would transform his plantation into a planned city, one in his words, “of distinction, character and beauty, which compels the admiration of everyone who sees it,” he had the good sense to surround himself with a team of experts, men whose varied talents and ambition were the equal of his own.  “My uncle always had the last say, mind you,” says his nephew Donald Kuhn, “but he brought in the very best people there were.”

The “very best people” included as chief designer his mother’s brother Denman Fink, a member of the National Academy of Art and a regular illustrator for Harper’s and Scribner’s magazines; Frank M. Button, landscape architect and assistant engineer for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and, as chief architect, Phineas E. Paist, associate architect on James Deering’s monumental estate, Villa Vizcaya.  All three, along with Merrick himself, had been greatly influenced by the City Beautiful movement, first popularized among the American public by exhibitions at the Chicago Exposition.

Chief principles of this movement in city planning included consistent design in housing and public buildings: avoiding a grid pattern in laying out city streets; broad and winding boulevards; lushly planted medians; and incorporating public plaza and fountains to foster a sense of spaciousness and a constant reminder of the aesthetic and naturally beautiful within the course of everyday life. 

The concept of the “planned city” in America dates back to the 1790s, when the brilliant but troubled Pierre L’Enfant, a self-taught architect, laid out the blueprint for Washington, D.C., the world’s first capital city to spring from whole cloth. Merrick was well aware, however, that pragmatism had generally triumphed over principle in the U.S. Just as a few communities like Forest Hills, Mariemont, Shaker Heights, and New Haven had managed to stay the course of planned development, Merrick was absolutely committed that Coral Gables would be built “by the book.”  In Coral Gables, he would see to it that construction would never trump architecture.