History Hidden in Plain “Site”

In a City Rich in History, There Are Some Places We Just Pass by

Most Gables residents have seen the iconic Venetian Pool, the colorful Alhambra Water Tower, and the Giralda-inspired tower of the majestic Biltmore Hotel. But much of the Gables historic legacy is unrecognized; we drive by it every day, none the wiser about the stories of the past. Here is a brief tour of some secret spots you may have passed by without a second glance.

Little House on the Prairie

Maud Black Cottage Started Life as a Barn in 1899

Heading south on Old Cutler, past Fairchild Botanic Gardens, have you ever noticed the cute little yellow cottage just north of the Snapper Creek entrance? That’s the Maud Black Cottage. Built as a barn in 1866 by Charles Siebold, it was converted to a home in 1899 when he married Maud. At that time, supplies still came to the area by schooner from Key West. Maud was widowed in 1910, eventually marrying Mr. Black. Her homestead became a popular last chance to stock up on supplies for anyone heading south. It also became an early tourist attraction for the Sausage Tree on the property. The tree was grown from a seed gifted by Dr. Richmond, who likely got it from his friend David Fairchild’s Egyptian stash. Today, the Cottage is privately owned and maintained, sharing property with the owner’s lovely contemporary home.

Das Boot

History Hidden - Coral Gables Waterway
Secret Boat Docks Built During World War II

Not too far away, in the Edgewater section of the Gables, is the privately owned Java Head estate. The three-acre property, the long-time home of preservationist Sallye Jude, is not accessible to the public. But the hidden treasure here is on the banks of the Coral Gables Waterway along the back of the property, just south of the Cocoplum bridge: two secret boat docks carved from the coral rock by the US Navy for their massive anti-sub program based in Miami during WWII. Designed to hold submarine chasers, the 100-foot long slips protected the boats until they were ready to head into the Atlantic in search of the German U-boats that regularly terrorized fuel shipping lanes along the South Florida coastline.

Ghosts of the Past

 the history hidden in the Gables

The oldest cemetery south of the Miami River is the Pinewood Cemetery, nestled in a leafy residential neighborhood on Erwin Road, a half block south of Sunset Drive. Founded in 1855, and known variously as Larkins, Cocoplum, and Pineywoods Cemetery, it eventually encompassed four acres and today is known by its final name, Pinewood. Early plots sold for as little as $10, and experts guess several hundred early settlers were buried there from 1898 through the 1940s. Over time, descendants moved away, records were lost, headstones eroded, and the property was left unattended and vandalized. In the early 1980s, local citizens got involved, cleaned up the property, found missing ancestors, and recovered lost records. Where possible, missing stones were restored and replaced.

Today a Florida Heritage site, Pinewood is open daily 9 am to 5 pm. Its grave markers offer an interesting snapshot into the early days of the Gables. Inscriptions and etched graphics reveal professions, birthplaces, and the cause of death for many. Among those buried here were a farmer, blacksmith, electrician, carpenter, librarian, sponge fisherman, and journalist. Many men were veterans of the Seminole, Spanish-American, and Civil War. Tragically, there are many children and babies. Among the causes of death are the 1926 hurricane, a boating accident, and one young mother who tragically died from “burns sustained while cooking supper.”

Signs of the Times

 the history hidden in the Gables

Sprinkled throughout the city are a slew of historic plaques, many hardly noticed. Not far from 1924 St. Mary First Missionary Baptist Church on Frow Avenue, in the MacFarlane historic district (home to the Bahamian workers hired by George Merrick to build Coral Gables), a historic marker erected in 1994 tells the story of George Allen and the renaming of Industrial Avenue in his honor. A native Bahamian, Allen arrived in the Gables in 1928 and went to work for George Merrick, quickly rising through the ranks to a supervisory position. He eventually left Merrick’s company and became a successful local businessman. “These markers and plaques are like little jewels in the city,” says Gay Bondurant, a long-time Gables resident who has volunteered to document the marked sites along with Merrick House’s Colette Worm, who began the process during the pandemic lockdown.

Some of the plaques are prominently placed. At the corner of Salzedo Street and Aragon Avenue, across from the original 1939 Phineas Paist-designed Fire House and Police Station (now the Coral Gables Museum) was the Coral Gables Riding Academy, opened in 1924. It was the longest continuously operating business in Coral Gables before it closed in 1953. Bridle paths were laid out on the median of Alhambra Circle and Country Club Prado, around the Granada and Biltmore golf courses, and next to the waterways. Today, you will find its marker in front of the entrance to Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Not every commemorative marker tells a happy story. A hard-to-find plaque in the median of Alhambra Plaza at Douglas Road memorializes the first fallen police officer “who gave his life to protect and serve.” On Christmas night in 1928, 41-year-old Sgt. Francis Cyril Guest was hit and killed by a drunk driver while directing traffic around a nearby fire. “Some markers were covered up with overgrowth and others badly damaged,” says Bondurant, with many now cleaned up and repaired. The city’s newly formed Landmarks Advisory Board will help keep tabs on future commemorations and markers, as well as existing monuments, lights, statues, entrances, plazas, and fountains.

Time Travel

 the history hidden in the Gables
Railroad Tracks Belonging to Coral Gables Rapid Transit System unearthed on the median of Segovia Street in 2011

On Segovia Street, north of Bird Road between Camilo and Aledo (right across from the Coral Gables Library), you might have no- ticed a set of railroad tracks on the median. These tracks belonged to the Coral Gables Rapid Transit System and were uncovered during work on the median of Segovia in 2011. The excavation revealed a piece of 1920s history, when pink 52-passenger rail cars emblazoned with prominent “Coral Gables” signage moved throughout the city and into downtown Miami. By 1932, only the Coral Way line was still in use, and all cars were shut down in 1935. Makes one wonder why city historians haven’t opted to paint the current trolleys pink with the same bold lettering. That would be a “site” to see.