One of the unique architectural elements of the city’s fabric are the seven themed ‘Villages’ planned — and partially executed — by city father George Merrick
They were building faster than anywhere else in America, sometimes getting houses under roof within two weeks of breaking ground, completing exotic and magnificent homes within six to 12 months. It was the beginning of the expansion of Coral Gables in 1925. The “Riviera Section” was planned to feature 1,000 thematically designed home styles of “most countries in the tropical belt around the world,” as reported in the 1929 Miami Herald. Only 80 would ever be built.
Builders and architects from around the country joined the Coral Gables design team led by artistic director Denman Fink, architect and color expert Phineas Paist, and designer Paul Chalfin of Vizcaya fame. Twelve architects were working on various styles planned to “harmonize with the Mediterranean styles now in use.”
Organized and very specific plans for the city were spelled out in warranty deeds during the ’20s. Overall building styles were restricted to those of “Spanish, Venetian, Moorish, Italian, or other similarly harmonious types.” The architectural exceptions were spelled out, block by block, lot by lot, to include 15 “types”: Italian Village, Javanese, Italian Country, Chinese Compound, Spanish Bazaar and Town, Neopolitan Baroque, Tangier Village, Persian Village, Dutch South African, Florida Pioneer, Mexican Village, Tangier Bazaar, (North) African Bazaar, French Eighteenth Century, and Persian Canal.
Details included how homes should be positioned on each lot with required dimensions for perimeter walls and fences (which were not allowed on regular homesites). In the deeds, three additional distinctive types, without specific boundaries, were identified: Venetian Country, French Country House, and Venetian Town or Canal homes. Homes in some of these styles do exist outside any Village boundaries, many with their own historic designation.
Advertising and news articles contributed to our current confusion about exactly how many thematic villages were planned and what they were called. Much of the publicity referred to 13 themes, which may have been due to combining styles such as Italian Country and Italian Village. The promotional effort also played loose with the thematic names using the more logical “Colonial” for “Florida Pioneer,” for example, or referring to “French Farmhouse and cottage types” as “Algerian” and “South Sea Isles” styles. Adding to the mash-up is the fact some of the designated historic district Villages have been renamed for clarity’s sake by more contemporary historians.
The plans in Coral Gables were not static. They evolved as the fortunes of the area, and the country, changed. A planned bayside hotel was never built, land in Key Biscayne was returned to the county, and plans to build islets just off Tahiti Beach (now in Cocoplum) and homes as far south as Chapman Field never came to pass.
What is a Florida Pioneer Home?
Among the first under construction were five stately “colonial” homes along the Biltmore Golf Course (now the Riviera Country Club course) on Santa Maria Street. Today, these homes comprise “The Florida Pioneer Village” designated a Historic District in 1989 by the City of Coral Gables. There is often confusion about this Village — anyone looking for small, traditional, cracker-style cabins is in for quite a surprise to discover these large, two-story Colonial and Greek Revival-style homes.
Designed by John and Coulton Skinner, grand porticos with commanding columns and picket fences are common features. Interiors were promoted as having vaulted ceilings, winding stairways, great arches, four to six bedrooms, servants’ quarters, guest suites, and many bathrooms. It made perfect sense that ads for this Village began using headlines announcing a “Colonial” style. They proclaimed that “visitors from New England, Virginia, or Georgia” would “find homes which reflect the beauty and charm of the best cultured life at home.”
A rendering of an Italian Country House under construction was featured in The Miami News in the fall of 1925, built by Meyers-Cooper Co. of Cincinnati and designed by architects Frank Wyatt Woods and John Tracey. Other architects who contributed to various Italian-style homes included Alfred L. Klingbeil, John and Coulton Skinner, R.F. Ware, and Robert Law Weed.
This area of the Gables, loosely defined by San Antonio and San Esteban Avenues, and Monserrate and Segovia Streets, is the largest and most undefined of the Villages. In 1992, Coral Gables designated the area containing 17 thematic homes, the Italian Village, as a Historic Landmark District. Sometimes also referred to as Italian Country and Tuscan-style, these freestanding homes vary from bungalows to villas, and are spread among various blocks with no common walls.
As with other styles, some of these homes are outside the historically designated area and may have historic designation on their own merits. Examples include Italian Country homes on Santa Maria and Pinta Court described in a 1927 Miami Herald article.
Dramatic Chinese Adaptation
The first of eight planned homes in the Chinese Village were quickly completed in 1926, and no others were ever built. The American Building Corporation from Cincinnati, the largest builder working in the Riviera District, brought in America’s foremost authority on Chinese architecture, Henry Killam Murphy, from New York. Murphy had spent considerable time in China, including as a visiting professor with the Yale-in-China program. His design is the most obvious and colorful of the Gables’ Villages, located just south of US-1 on Riviera Drive.
Having stood the test of time with thoughtful renovations throughout the years, it may be the only such architectural example in the country. With features more often associated with very ornate Chinese temples and public buildings, the compound also brings to mind the disappearing hutong courtyards once so common in multigenerational Chinese homes.
In this first Gables’ Village Historic District, established in 1986, the Chinese Village homes are bound together by an external wall broken up by openings featuring lattice and bamboo-style inserts, bright doorways, and two-car garages. Interiors feature ample living spaces, servants’ quarters on the first floor, and five bedrooms and two baths on the upper level. You can’t miss the richly glazed upturned rooftops in blue, green, and red, and with closer inspection you can spot Chinese guardian dogs watching from roof corners to protect the homes and residents.
Dutch South African Interpretation
Not as much has been written about “The Dutch South African Village” by architect Marion Syms Wyeth, designated a Historic District in 1987. Located between Le Jeune Road, San Vincent Street, and Maya Avenue, the five completed homes include four within a common walled compound and one free-standing.
Inspired by the Cape Dutch style of homes built by wealthy Boers who settled in South Africa in the 1600s, and still seen in the South African wine country, the homes have distinguishing scrollwork, ornately rounded gables, and steeply pitched gabled roofs. Their white-washed walls and distinctive spiral chimneys are easy to spot. Wyeth was also the architect who designed the never-built Persian Canal Village.
French, French, & More French
There are three French Villages in Coral Gables. Only one was ever described when built as simply the French Village, off Le Jeune Road on Viscaya Avenue. Somewhere over the years, but well after the Villages were built, the “Normandy” title became associated with this group as a way to distinguish it from the other French architectural styles.
“The French Normandy Village” was designated a Historic District in 1987, containing 11 original homes, of which two have currently been combined into one larger residence. The design was inspired by the intimate scale and cozy appearance of provincial European villages, complete with picturesque half-timbered ornamentation, gabled roofs, and dormers.
These townhouses were the smallest of the villages and were constructed with two bedrooms on the second floor and a bed-closet (a closet containing a pull-down bed) on the first. Eleven of the planned 71 were completed. The Skinner brothers, who designed the Colonial Village and some Italian-style homes, were the architects and focused on cross-ventilation, casement windows, and screened porches. Houses were built right up to the street with garages opened to the front and French-style gardens in the back.
The second batch was under construction after the devastating hurricane of 1926, and newspaper ads proclaimed, “They are built under Coral Gables’ new building code, with hollow tile walls, poured reinforced concrete foundations, lintels reinforced, and general construction in keeping with the demands of all tropical experience.” By 1930, the project was in foreclosure, after which it housed University of Miami fraternities in the mid-1930s and soldiers during World War II. The homes then returned to individual ownership.
French City & French Country Styles Clarified
Hardee Road is home to the other two French-inspired Villages. The original plan called for a “French 18th Century” Village to be built along Hardee Road and its surrounding streets. Eventually, 28 homes were built. Because the Village was never completed, and several blocks of non-conforming home styles broke up the concept, this area was designated as two historic districts, although with many architectural similarities.
Sixteen of the homes are in the more formally named French City Village, and can be found on the north side of the 1000 block with 11 homes behind a common wall featuring corner pavilions. Nine are free-standing, and two homes are described as a duplex with a shared wall. Originally, they were planned to share a manicured open courtyard with pique assiette mosaic paths, as well as private gardens.
The large homes were designed by Mott Schmidt as a reproduction of an 18th century townhome (not townhouse) community. They have extensive detailing and symmetry, with each residence having between four and seven bedrooms. Servants were accommodated with two additional bedrooms and a separate dining room. This group was the last Village to be named a Historic District by the city in 2002.
Across the street, on the south side, are five homes designed by Philip L. Goodwin, two resembling French farmhouses, with others in a more formal, classical style. Although appearing as a free-standing home, again, two share a wall and are technically a duplex.
Just down the road around the 500 block of Hardee Road and Caligula Avenue is the “French Country Village,” designated a Historic District in 1989, with 12 homes (including another duplex). Sometimes described as the French Farm Village, these homes were conceived as more rural country estates.
Historians began to call this section “Country” to distinguish it from the more formal homes in the 1000 block, but “Country” does not imply small or primitive, and in France a large country house is a château. These charming château-inspired properties are on both sides of the street and have a distinct appearance with gabled, steeply pitched slate roofs, carved wood, red brick, iron balconies, and round and square towers. Architect Goodwin was joined by Frank Forster and Edgar Albright in designing these homes.
A Miami Herald article just a few months shy of the 1929 stock market crash wrote about the architectural zones in Coral Gables and concluded, “Throughout this fascinating city on the fringe of Miami, you will find charming examples of many foreign types, yet all conforming to the general artistic plan.” For a free, self-guided driving/biking tour of the Seven Villages of Coral Gables, the author has put together a route for The Villagers historic preservation group.