Don’s Rambles: Junior League of Miami

An Adventure in Which a Former Mayor Continues to Seek the ‘Soul’ of His Hometown

This month’s ramble takes me to Biltmore Way, originally planned to be part of a thoroughfare bisecting the center of the city from the Douglas Entrance past City Hall to the Biltmore Hotel (three structures highlighting Merrick’s vision of a model Mediterranean village that his advertising team characterized as the “Miami Riviera”). This street was paved wide enough to handle railway tracks for an extension of the streetcar system that carried riders from Miami to the Gables — a plan that was never realized.

Biltmore Way is now the home of some of our most sought-after condominium residences. But nestled amongst those towering structures sits a historic two-story structure designed in 1923 by H. George Fink as a miniature Venetian Palace. Completed in 1925, over time it has housed a haberdashery, a liquor store, a restaurant, a hotel, and possibly a brothel(!).

In the 1970s, funeral director and city commissioner W.L. Philbrick acquired the property to serve as his library and repository of the hearse that carried George Merrick to his final resting place. (Yes, this is the same man who saved the nearby Merrick family home “Coral Gables” from demolition.) He later donated the building to the Miami Chapter of the Sons of the American Legion, which, in 1995, sold it to the Junior League of Miami for use as that organization’s headquarters. 

The Junior League has spent large sums of money raised by its members to renovate and restore the building to its earlier grandeur. The League’s efforts were recognized when the building was presented with a “City Beautiful Award” for historic preservation. How appropriate to have such an important community organization located in the heart of the city.

The Junior League (which, like the Gables, will proudly celebrate its 100th birthday next year) focuses on advancing women’s roles in projects and causes that will have a meaningful impact in our community through volunteer action, collaboration with other civic organizations, and leadership training. The League now claims over 600 members county-wide (many of whom are from Coral Gables) — women who come together around a shared passion for making our city a better place in which to live, work, and raise families.

The Junior League has been an incubator for organizations which serve critical societal roles throughout Miami-Dade such as The Children’s Home Society and INN Transition (helping survivors of domestic abuse). It partners on projects with Food Rescue US, Miami Diaper Bank, and ICU Baby. In 1949, the League established Miami’s first science museum, which, over many years, evolved into the Frost Museum of Science.

The Junior League has produced many community leaders such as Amanda Altman, CEO of Kristi House; Debbie Koch, executive director of the American Red Cross Greater Miami and the Keys; and Kadie Black, president and CEO of Voices for Children. Public officials that entered politics after gaining experience in the League include Coral Gables Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson, Palmetto Bay Vice Mayor Leanne Tellam, and the late Coral Gables Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick.

Junior League President Laura Van Gorden offers us a good closing thought: “Our organization offers so many different opportunities for women in our community — from giving back through hands-on volunteer work to leadership assignment to meeting other like-minded women who will become life-long partners in finding ways to serve their fellow citizens.”

It seems clear that we have successfully found another important “piece” of our City Beautiful’s soul. 

This column appears monthly by Don Slesnick, who served as mayor of Coral Gables from 2001 to 2011. If you wish to reach him with suggestions on where he should next meander in search of the city’s soul, email Read more of his rambles.