The Tale of Tahiti Beach

The Dream of a South Seas Paradise for the City Beautiful

By John Allen

July/August 2019

As the popularity of his “City Beautiful” soared through the Roaring Twenties, Coral Gables founder George Merrick was always searching for something new and exotic. In 1925, already busy with construction of the Biltmore and finalizing plans for the University of Miami, Merrick turned his attention to an overgrown stretch of bayfront property, thick with mangroves, in a remote area of the Gables called Cocoplum. The property had been owned by the Deering family; they planned a beach there, but it never came to pass. Merrick saw through the dense overgrowth, and by December had secured the property. Under the management of the Biltmore, the great development work had begun, with small armies of workers carving out roadways, creating atolls, and clearing the beach.

Merrick’s advance publicity trumpeted the newly named Tahiti Beach as “a spot which will attract the best people from every part of the country.” More significantly, it would open Biscayne Bay to Coral Gables, connecting the Bay to the waterways of Coral Gables, linking the “old” section of the Gables with the ‘new’ section, which Merrick’s publicity mill confidently referred to as the “newest stretch of Millionaire’s Row.”

Work proceeded at Merrick’s typical breakneck pace. By January 1926, he was holding special events for Biltmore guests at Tahiti Beach, as the thatched roof Tiki huts went up, constructed by Seminole Indians from palm fronds, palmetto leaves and long grasses. “The Lure of the South Sea Isles” was in full tropical swing by March. Open from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m., guests could rent a bathing suit ($1.00), a desirable hut ($5.00 for the day), or splurge for dancing to the popular Jay Garber Orchestra. From opening until 2 p.m., the Biltmore orchestra played for dancers, breaking for a musical revue featuring Tahitian natives. At 10 p.m. the orchestra returned for moonlit dancing until 1 a.m. Tahiti Beach quickly became “The Place to See and Be Seen,” morning, noon or night (or all three).

Then on Sept. 18, 1926, the unthinkable happened when the Great Hurricane swept through Miami with a vengeance. While the devastation would bookmark the end of the frenetic Florida Land Boom, of more immediate effect was that Tahiti Beach, Merrick’s tropical oasis, was virtually leveled overnight.

Shell-shocked Florida watched the Boom turn to Bust as building ground to a halt. Nonetheless, newspapers proclaimed that Tahiti Beach would soon re-open. Newspapers also announced that the new Tahiti Beach would no longer be operated strictly by the Biltmore, but would be managed by the Coral Gables Hotels Corporation, a spin-off of the Venetian Pool, Tahiti Beach, the Antilla Hotel, the San Sebastian Apartments and other commercial properties from the mounting debt of the original Coral Gables Corporation. It was a sign that Merrick’s heady years of glory were coming to an end.

A 1926 ad for Tahiti Beach. That same year a great hurricane almost erased it.

Work proceeded rapidly on Tahiti Beach’s renovation, and the grand re opening took place on January 15, 1927, a mere four months after the Hurricane. Opening day was complimentary but going forward admission would be 50 cents, the equivalent of approximately $7.00 today. The rebuilt atoll extended approximately 250 yards into Biscayne Bay, a beautiful accent to the South Sea Island atmosphere. Everything that had been destroyed, and then some, had been restored. New bathhouses for changing were opened along with a new parking area that could accommodate several hundred autos.

Sadly, 1927 did not bode well for Tahiti Beach. By February admission was free, and instead of dancing there, the Antilla Hotel was promoting their own evening entertainment back in the City. By Labor Day, 1928, the pleas for guests were almost pitiful. “Free!” Free dancing, free vaudeville, free wiener roast, free parking – and everyone in Greater Miami was invited.

Then another blow came – the Stock Market Crash of October 1929. Tahiti Beach stoically soldiered on, promoting itself anew in June 1930, assuring tourists that Tahiti Beach was still a romantic dancing rendezvous. A damper on this comeback hit the following month when a 6-year-old boy drowned, making headlines when his body was found in four feet of water in the lagoon. Little was heard about the beach for the next few years.

In the ensuing decade, Tahiti Beach was marketed simply as a “salt water lagoon,” its dancing, dining and romantic aura having been erased by the grim reality of the Depression. Despite an occasional beach party or swimming classes, little was heard of Tahiti Beach from the ’30s and through the World War II years.

Later in the 1940s, efforts were made to create a yacht club at Tahiti Beach, but nothing came of it, and the slightly seedy Tahiti Beach lingered on for another 25 years, frayed at the edges, a shadow of what it had once been. In 1974, the developers of Cocoplum launched a plan for luxurious homes, a small marina – and the filling in of the once proud Tahiti Beach. For all intents and purposes, it disappeared from public view.

Today, some two dozen estates are majestically situated inside the private enclave named Tahiti Beach. Sitting on the terrace of one of the new great estates, one might imagine it is 1926 again, a soft breeze drifting over the Tiki Huts, a shell-shaped bandstand with a tuxedo-clad orchestra playing, the whispered swish of satin and silk across the dance floor.

John Allen is the executive director of the Coral Gables Museum

One thought on “The Tale of Tahiti Beach

  • July 31, 2019 at 2:49 pm

    I love seeing the stories about Coral Gables. I was raised there and will never forget the beauty!

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