A Garden City: Green Acres

A Look at the Signature Garden Apartments of the North Ponce District

Coral Gables emerged when the Merrick family’s 1,200-acre citrus plantation was reimagined as a master-planned Garden City inspired by “City Beautiful” movements in northern communities like Tuxedo Park (New York), Forest Hills (New York), and Shaker Heights (Ohio). The City’s 1925 incorporation, along with George Merrick’s visionary approach to place-making, became the impetus for a hugely successful marketing campaign proclaiming Coral Gables “The Miami Riviera in The Heart of The American Tropics.” Suddenly, Coral Gables was not only tropical — it was topical. We were hot news.

But from the beginning, Coral Gables was also “The City Different,” made so by strict adherence to one of the Garden City’s core mandates: create a clear separation of districts according to their purpose. As such, the city as early as 1921 laid out distinct residential, business, industrial, and recreational sections. Significantly, according to the city’s 2018 Designation of The Coral Gables Historic City Plan, “homes built for modest incomes were built alongside grand palazzos, and a section of the city was devoted to multi-family housing, producing a truly democratic environment.”

Historic homes at 230 Phoenetia (left), 223 Menores (top right), and 222 Calabria (bottom right)

This democratization of Coral Gables was noticeably apparent in the city’s “Douglas Section,” located in the northeast portion of the Master Plan and roughly bounded by Alhambra Circle, Southwest 8th Street, and Douglas and Le Jeune Roads. It was, as described in the Designation of The Coral Gables Historic City Plan, “dedicated to multi-family residences targeted at middle-income families.”

Here, tree-lined streets and both public and private green spaces established the city’s design aesthetic as much as its celebrated Mediterranean Revival building style. This was place-making of both architectural and horticultural consequence. As the Chicago Tribune described Coral Gables in 1926, “Each home is delightfully placed among enchanting gardens in a city that is a brilliant garden in itself ” — one designed, it should be noted, by Florida’s first registered landscape architect, Frank M. Button.

Today known simply as the North Ponce area, the former Douglas Section has evolved into a mixed-use neighborhood with many of its original greenspaces and garden apartments still extant. As renowned architect, educator, and author Robert A.M. Stern has observed about the city: “Coral Gables deserves consideration as one of the world’s preeminent garden villages.” That small-town quality can still be found in the North Ponce area, which continues to provide a welcome respite from encroaching urbanization.

Historic homes at 1314 Salzedo (left) and 902 Salzedo (right)

Recently, a Historic District Designation Study of the North Ponce area has been green-lighted by Coral Gables city officials. This study could formally recognize the area for its contribution to our built environment, instead of its present diminution into 10-story “luxury” apartment complexes that are erasing the character of the area.

Modest in scale and surrounded by lawns bordered by lush tropical vegetation, our Garden Apartments represent a 20th-century lifestyle ideal that still resonates. “How fair is a garden,” Disraeli famously proclaimed, “amid the trials and passions of existence.” It’s not unrealistic to imagine that George Merrick was listening.

Story written by Karelia Martinez Carbonell, the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, and Bruce Fitzgerald. Photographs by Vicki Cerda. 

One thought on “A Garden City: Green Acres

  • October 4, 2023 at 10:05 am

    Bless you for this Kare. If not protected, the history and character of the Gables will be demolished.

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