The Rise of the David William

How Coral Gables’ First Downtown High-Rise Broke the Code and Changed the Game

Coral Gables in 1960 bore little to no resemblance to the thriving, multi- national business community we know today. There were no high-rise buildings. Texaco was the only major corporation with a Latin American Headquarters. Miracle Mile rolled up the streets at night from April to October because everyone was somewhere up north. It was a charming, seasonal, well planned, sleepy little “Southern” town.

The zoning code permitted nothing taller than three stories. There were no restaurants to speak of, just two cafeterias, a couple of coffee shops, Cookies Deli, Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, Hamburger Circus and three movie theaters. There were no bars or lounges, as there were no liquor licenses in the entire city. If you wanted dinner and drinks, you had to cross into Miami, where you could find a host of fine restaurants like The Pub, The Hasta, El Bolero and even a lounge, The Happy Hour, all just east of Miracle Mile. That was when 34-year-old Al Sakolsky, an ambitious real estate entrepreneur from Chicago, fell in love with the Gables. 

Like the city’s founder, George Merrick, he envisioned a bustling community with a healthy business environment located just seven miles from Wilcox Field,  which would surely become Miami International Airport. If the key to success is location, location, location, Sakolsky was sure that Coral Gables had it all. He set his sights on Biltmore Way, at that time mostly vacant land.

David William 1964
Archival photo taken in 1964 of the David William in the final stages of construction

His vision was that Biltmore Way could become a Park Avenue or Rodeo Drive for Coral Gables, a street full of beautiful buildings and exclusive shops, small hotels and unique restaurants. He was determined to start it off by building the first high rise, an apartment building with a hotel, a fine restaurant and a liquor license. “Coral Gables residents deserve this kind of luxury,” he said at the time. He never anticipated the small-town mentality he encountered.

The Saga Begins

Sakolsky hired architect Maurice Weintraub, son-in-law to the famous Morris Lapidus (Fontainebleau, Eden Roc), to design what would become the most hotly contested building in Coral Gables’ history. It was going to be a 12-story building with 200 apartments (some seasonal), 12 hotel rooms and a restaurant and lounge.

The building today on Biltmore Way.

Known for his tenacity as much as for his vision (The Miami Herald called him a man with a “Jut-Jawed Mind”), even Sakolsky was stunned by the resistance. Although the property was zoned for hotels and apartments, it took three years, from 1960 to 1963, to get the permits to build.

The dispute stemmed not from zoning, but from size. In the Gables, any building over three stories had to receive city commission approval. Gables officials labeled Sakolsky’s building a “monstrosity” that would destroy the city. Nearby residents protested that they would “no longer see the sun” and claimed the high rise would depreciate their property values. They also said that traffic and parking conditions would become serious problems. 

Tempers flared and voices grew loud at a hearing in December 1960, when the proposal for the 12-story “skyscraper” was aired at the city commission. More than 200 residents packed the commission chambers. Former Mayor Fred B. Hartnett gave an eloquent speech in favor of the building. Mayor John Montgomery and Commissioners Winston Wynn and Robert Searle voted in favor of the project. Albert Friedman of the Downtown Merchants and the Chamber of Commerce was also in favor of the project. In opposition were Commissioners Joe Murphy and Frank Kerdyk, along with the Woman’s Club, the Jaycees, the Apartment Owners Association and the Property Owners Association.

Al Sakolsky on the rooftop terrace of the David Williams
Al Sakolsky on the rooftop terrace of the David William.

The city commission voted 3-2 to approve the plan on Dec. 8, 1960. They then reversed themselves one week later, by the same vote, when James Hess, serving his first day on the commission, replaced Commissioner Winston Wynn, who joined the metro commission. The irony was that the city commission had already approved a 13-story high rise on Edgewater Drive some months before. So, there was a precedent in that vote, which had not been reversed. Apparently, however, the idea of a 13-story building on the edge of the city was less offensive than a 12-story one squarely in the center of town.

Sakolsky sued in Circuit Court to prevent the commission from revoking his building permit. He lost. He took it to the District Court of Appeals, where he lost again. Finally, he took it to the Florida Supreme Court, this time as his own attorney, writing his own brief. The court ruled in his favor early in 1963. Still, city officials dragged their feet on issuing a building permit, so Sakolsky went back to Circuit Court and got a contempt order directing city officials to comply with the higher court’s edict and issue “an unencumbered building permit” by 9 a.m. the following day. When they didn’t re-issue the permit, Mayor Joe Murphy and Commissioners Dressel, Philbrick, Wilson and Phillips were cited for contempt of court and taken to jail. Needless to say, the building permit was issued, and construction began in September 1963.

The Struggle Continues

Sakolsky now aimed for a September 1964 opening. But he hadn’t counted on a slew of impediments that included construction snafus, a national iron workers strike, more legal wars, resistance from Florida Power & Light, the Consumers Water Company and, finally, Hurricane Cleo.

To start with, the building was to have a 300-car underground parking garage, designed to go not only under the building, but also under the street in front and the alley out back. While excavating for the foundation, they hit an underground river. The site had to be pumped dry for months in order to pour concrete. Knowing the river would be problematic, engineers further strengthened the construction of the garage. This was fortuitous, because the city decided to have a July 4th parade on Biltmore Way in 1964 – that included six Sherman Tanks rolling down the street over the garage. Sakolsky thought it was another attempt to stop construction, hoping the garage would cave in. But it held.

Then there were the infrastructure challenges. Biltmore Way in the early 1960’s had a couple of small apartment buildings and a lot of vacant land, and the water service was inadequate to handle 212 apartments. Long and expensive negotiations ensued with the city-franchised water authority, Consumers Water, which could not provide sufficient water to protect the building from fire. They finally reached an undisclosed agreement that required Sakolksy to foot the upgrades. It cost him heavily, but progress continued.

Next came the issue of the power grid. The expense to connect the David William to the power grid, which included paying for street power lines, was so exorbitant that Sakolksy was driven to look for alternatives. His solution was a system he dubbed Total Energy, which would use natural gas from pipes that ran under the street to power generators in the hotel. The system was designed specifically for the David William by Garret Air Research of California, which built gas turbines to power aircraft carriers. With the GAR system, the David William became the first building of its kind in the world to manufacture its own electricity.

The power generated also ran the hotel’s air conditioning, which was a waste-heat system. The heat produced by the building’s AC manufactured enough hot water to supply not only the hotel, but reportedly the entire city. And so it appeared that natural gas turbines were the future of power. But not in Coral Gables. The city passed a “Smoke, Smell and Noise Ordinance” to stop the operation of the turbine, citing noise from the ground-level turbines and air conditioner unit. Sakolsky simply moved the system to the rooftop, 130 feet up.

Even nature seemed to conspire against Sakolsky. Construction was again interrupted by Hurricane Cleo on Aug. 27, 1964. The bathtubs and the windows had yet to be set, and Sakolsky spent the entire storm holed up in the fire stairs, listening to the bathtubs blow around the concrete building. Many of them ended up on the street below, some blown as far as the Granada Golf Course. After that experience, he canceled the windows on order and searched until he found a company in Canada that could custom make heavy gauge panes, able to withstand high winds (impact glass didn’t yet exist).

The final Sakolsky-Gables clash was triggered in June 1965, just a month before the building’s scheduled opening. The City held up issuing the final certificate of occupancy because Sakolsky planned to serve liquor on premise, something not permitted in restaurants in the city. But Sakolsky won the issue by complying with a law on the books in Florida since 1947. The law said that a hotel with 100 rooms could have a liquor license, provided it was a service for the building, with the entrance inside the building. The county required 200 seats to grant a liquor license. Chez Vendome, the high-end restaurant of the David William, fulfilled both requirements.

At Long Last, Luxury

The David William opened with a blow out, black-tie gala on July 14, 1965. Guests were bedazzled by artifacts and decorative elements from around the world. Magnificent crystal chandeliers in the lobby and in Chez Vendome were handmade in Mexico. All the wrought iron work was from a foundry there as well. The original lobby decor included walls of Brazilian rosewood, and floors of Italian white Carrera marble and black granite. Handmade glass tiles were set into the floors, elevators, bathrooms and inside the swimming pool. Sakolsky scoured antique stores for original artworks, furniture and wood cuts from the French Napoleonic era; he wanted everything to be authentic.

David William Lobby
The lobby featured Italian marble and granite floors with walls of Brazilian rosewood.

For those great works of art out of Sakolsky’s price range – or because they were in museums like the Louvre – his wife Eileen, a very accomplished artist, recreated them. She painted exquisite copies of famous works like Cortona’s Rape of the Sabine Women, David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps and Goya’s Family of Charles IV.

Chez Vendome, the five-star, Michelin Award-winning restaurant (reachable only from the lobby), was also copied – in this case from the Beverly Rodeo Hotel’s Chez Voltaire, a 1963 Los Angeles “hot spot.” Not only did Sakolsky emulate the model (using its designer, Howard Hirsch), he even recruited its executive chef, Erik Jorgensen.

David William - The Chez Vendome Bar
The Chez Vendome Bar were lavish with rosewood paneled walls and luxury furnishings.

As Chez Vendome grew in popularity, Sakolsky added a private men’s club on the roof, adjacent to the swimming pool: The 700 Club. These were the “Playboy Club” years, so the club included a rooftop spa with outdoor massage, nude sunbathing and six discrete hotel rooms on the roof adjacent to the pool. The city called it a “massage parlor” and, not surprisingly, attempted to shut it down. But those efforts failed, partly because the 700 Club was more than that. At night, it became the city’s only jazz club. It was a dark room, with ebony wood, rich leather walls and four tables on the outdoor terrace, overlooking Coral Gables. The bar sat eight, the piano sat three and the restaurant sat 44. The menu was small, the food was great and the music wasn’t found anywhere else in Miami. It was a little bit of Manhattan high above Coral Gables. Sakolsky, as usual, recruited the best; after hearing him perform at Mother’s Bar on LeJeune Road, he installed blind pianist Herbie Brock, a modest legend in the jazz world who had played with greats like Art Tatum, Stan Getz, and Ray Charles.

David William restaurant
Chez Vendome restaurant

The result was that the David William became the hottest ticket in town. It wasn’t unusual to find movie stars and heads of state dining at Chez Vendome or staying in the hotel. The list included such luminaries as the Duke & Duchess of Windsor, Richard Nixon, Edwin Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, Charlton Heston, Victor Borge, Donald O’Connor, Ann Southern, Joan Fontaine and others. Within a few years, what began as 212 luxury, rental apartments and 12 hotel rooms became 120 transient hotel rooms and suites, leaving 90 year-round apartments for the “old guard” of Coral Gables. By 1975 the hotel boasted 120 corporate accounts with Latin American Headquarters companies, by then proliferating in the city’s downtown.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor arriving for lunch. 


Today the David William, the building that started the high-rise cluster of buildings in the city’s core, is a quiet condominium at the end of Biltmore Way. No more Hotel, Chez Vendome or 700 Club. Al Sakolsky’s vision of the Coral Gables’ Rodeo Drive or Park Avenue never quite happened.

His vision of a city powered by natural gas didn’t pan out, either – though it got great press in September 1965, when Hurricane Betsy hit South Florida and the hotel sold out. The American Gas Association ran full page ads nationally with a picture of the city in the dark and the David William lit up like a party, with a headline: “The Lights Betsy Couldn’t Blow Out!” The building was open, the restaurants were serving, and everyone in residence had lights and air conditioning during and after the storm.

Things went sour in 1970, however, when Sakolsky sued the gas company for breach of contract when they insisted on higher rates and cut the pressure to the building at ground level, making it impossible to turn the turbines at 130 feet. So, in the end, the building was connected to the FPL power grid.

Actors and politicians such as Charlton Heston attend Chez Vendome.

Also, in the early 1970s the feminist movement was sweeping the nation, and the idea of a “private men’s club” became anachronistic. Coral Gables was not exempted. In 1972 the 700 Club opened to the general public after several local activists – Roxcy Bolton, Rebyl Zain and Betsy Adams – “stormed” the restaurant with a Channel 7 News crew in tow, demanding to be served, equally and at lunch, without a male escort.

By the late ’80s the David William needed a face lift and a reboot. By then, The Biltmore Hotel had reopened. The Hyatt and Omni each added 150+ rooms in downtown Coral Gables. The David William, the place that started it all, became an “also ran.” So, in 1989 the building was converted to a condominium/hotel.

The apartments were sold to owners who had the option to rent them out as hotel suites to compliment the 75 hotel rooms that remained under hotel control, along with Chez Vendome and the banquet facilities. The unsold apartments and the hotel were sold off to a Panamanian investor who went bankrupt in 1992, and Banco Bilbao stepped in as receiver after Hurricane Andrew, operating it for five years. The hotel and unsold apartments were acquired by Seaway Corporation (The Biltmore Hotel) in 1997, which later sold them.

Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey at Chez Vendome.

Sakolsky went on to create other iconic buildings in the Gables and beyond. Besides dabbling in residential real estate projects in Miami and Miami Beach, he built the Coconut Grove Hotel in 1971, and a dozen years later the 550 Biltmore Way “Lion Building” and the 565 Biltmore Way Northern Trust building.

But Sakolsky, who passed away in 2011, will always be remembered as the man who broke the downtown skyline and brought a global level of sophistication to Coral Gables’ hospitality and entertainment scene with the David William. The building was named for his father, David William Sakolsky, who died during the years of court cases, never living to see the groundbreaking. But his name lives on, in the edifice built by his son. 

One thought on “The Rise of the David William

  • December 7, 2020 at 6:14 pm

    As an original tenant, your excellent article about the David William brought back many fond memories of living there. My relationship with the “Jut-Jawed Mind” of Al Sakolsky began as a mortgage broker with the procurement of a mortgage to refinance an existing apartment complex he had purchased in Miami. What he did in Coral Gables to build a high-rise with a roof-top swimming pool, and energy producing natural gas turbine, plus extending under-ground parking garage to the property-line at the center of the street it fronted was, to say the least, incredible for the times. That he argued his own case, and won, the right to do so before the State Supreme Court is the kind of stuff no one would believe in a movie.
    I moved there in March, 1965, and arranged the permanent financing a few months later. When applying for the mortgage all the units that became hotel rooms were considered efficiency apartments. Hotel was added to the name after the mortgage commitment was issued and accepted. Across the hall from my apartment was a unit that housed the star actors appearing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
    While a tough businessman, Al had many sides that he allowed very few others to see. In September, 1965, Hurricane Betsy decided to park itself north of Miami for 12 hours and pound the Florida East Coast with torrential rain and 100+ miles per hour wind. My 12th floor apartment faced north with a balcony and living room that had floor to ceiling glass walls. The balcony flooded and water started to enter the living room. My future wife was there, and Al came to see how we were doing and helped move the furniture and roll up the carpet. He then stayed for a while and regaled us by quoting from memory several speeches made by President Lincoln. A couple of hours later the rain and wind were so vicious that water was leaking through the wall underneath the windowsill in the bedroom.
    Another time, I delivered some papers to his home and evidently interrupted a personal pleasure of playing his grand piano. He resumed playing until satisfied, before turning to the business at hand. That he named the David William after his father also says a lot about a talented, complicated, man.

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