In Which a Former Mayor Continues to Seek the Soul of the City
Wandering back to Gumbo Grove from my last stop at Lamar Louise Curry Park, I determined that my early rambles would be incomplete without a stop at our founder’s family home — the house the Merricks named “Coral Gables.” This elegant little estate is now owned and operated by the city as a museum, which captures the early history of our municipality during its metamorphosis from a guava plantation to a garden community featuring houses designed in a style now known as “Mediterranean Revival.”
Much has been written about the history of Coral Gables and the details of its development — for example, the late Arva Moore Parks’ captivating book “George Merrick, Son of the South Wind.” It is not my intention to repeat that story, but to visit with some friends who have a role in protecting the house for posterity.
The first of these friends is Althea Fink Merrick, George’s mother, the “matriarch” of our community, and the inspiration behind this special coral rock house. Of course, when I first met Althea in 2010, she had long before departed this world and was then a bronze statue seated in her garden near her beloved home’s magnificent veranda. This tribute to Althea was the result of a project by the Coral Gables Garden Club.
Joining me on the lawn of the Merrick House is Evelyn Budde, who co-chaired with Betsy Adams the club’s committee to plan and execute the statue’s dedication ceremony entitled “Creating Yesterday’s History Today.” It was on a tour of palatial mansions in the Carolinas that Evelyn saw a garden bench adorned with a seated statue of that estate’s owners. Thus, the idea took root of honoring Althea in a similar manner. Evelyn’s fondest recollection is that during the design debate among club members, she got to choose the style of shoes that Althea would wear for eternity.
As I climb the stairs to the front porch of this impressive edifice from the early 1900’s, there in the doorway stands Gay Bondurant, Merrick House docent coordinator, ready to provide a guided tour. As she says, “The docents are trained to weave the tapestry of the challenges and triumphs the Merrick family faced while laying the foundation [out of raw Florida pine land] for a community which would come to be known as the ‘City Beautiful.’”
Gay is concerned that many of our residents are unaware that, were it not for the dedication, determination, and generosity of former City Commissioner W. L. Philbrick, this irreplaceable landmark would have been demolished and lost. (Docents are always in short supply, so anyone wishing to volunteer can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Entering the house, I encounter Joanne Meagher, Chair of the Merrick House Governing Board, who spends many hours each week working with city personnel to ensure that our community’s “Mount Vernon” is properly maintained, restored, and enhanced. At this moment, she is interacting with the AC repair crew, resolving performance issues with the five units which stabilize the home’s climate. Temperature and moisture control are critical for protecting the antique furniture and century-old Merrick family possessions that bring the museum to life.
Before ending our conversation, Joanne proudly shows me a recently discovered Merrick family treasure: Althea Fink Merrick’s personalized trunk that carried all her worldly belongings from New England to South Florida to begin a pioneer’s life.
A visit to Merrick House should be on every resident’s bucket list to learn about the life and times of the family that created the fabulous community where we live. The house is open daily and guided tours are offered at 1, 2, and 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. As I bid “adieu” to Althea (still sitting comfortably in the shade of her garden), I head off on my next adventure to wherever the “South Wind” carries me.
This column appears monthly by Don Slesnick, who served as mayor of Coral Gables from 2001 to 2011.