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The Developer as Philosopher

By Les Standiford

The humorist Dave Barry once quipped that in Coral Gables, “most human activity is illegal.”  He was referring to the city’s rigorous building and zoning regulations, which continue to be rigorously enforced nearly a century after the first lot in the city was sold in 1921.  To some, it seems an infringement of one’s inalienable rights as an American not to be permitted to park a pickup truck in a driveway overnight, or to have to seek approval for a certain shade of paint with which to adorn one’s cupolas. 

Those troubled by such restrictions might want to lay the blame on “city hall.”  The truth is that the various government agencies are simply carrying out the mission delivered to posterity by the city’s founder, George E. Merrick.  Merrick was the son of a Congregationalist minister who brought his family from frigid Cape Cod to a 160-acre homestead in the pine barrens southwest of the then-hamlet of Miami in 1898.  Solomon Merrick named his new home “Guavonia” in honor of the half-acre of productive guava trees planted on the property, and soon added avocadoes, orange and grapefruit trees to what grew into a 1,200-acre plantation.  He sent his son off to Columbia to study law, but when the elder Merrick fell ill and died in 1911, George left his schoolwork behind and came back to Florida to manage what became one of the most successful citrus and agricultural operations in South Florida.

By 1918, George Merrick, by then 32, and newly married to Eunice Isabella Peacock, descended from a pioneering Coconut Grove family, had begun to dabble in real estate as well, motivated by his father’s oft-stated intention to sell off a few five-acre parcels of his estate to fellow ministers and other professionals looking to retire in paradise.  George Merrick had participated in the subdivision of such communities as Goulds and Riverside Heights, and was a rare amalgam of pragmatist and visionary.  He studied art and literature as an undergraduate at Rollins College, had won prizes for his poetry and short stories, and was stirred by his father’s penchant for equating agricultural plantings with the encouragement of spiritual and intellectual growth. 

Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, which had prompted the redevelopment of Washington D.C. and other American capitals during the first part of the 20th century, Merrick embarked upon planning a South Florida city “of distinction, character, and beauty, which compels the admiration of everyone who sees it … a monument to the creation of beauty and the bringing true of dreams.”

To ensure that his vision would endure through time, Merrick insisted that “every section of the suburb” would have “building restrictions which protect home-owners in every way.”  All houses would be built of “coral rock or stucco to ensure a high standard of building, which can never be secured without restrictions.” 

And lest anyone accuse him of pandering only to the wealthy, Merrick added, “There is nothing in the Coral Gables restrictions which will prevent the building of a modest home, providing it is of stucco.”  Who but the younger, less-fortunate set of the Three Little Pigs could argue with that?