The history of the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, and the University of Miami are as intertwined as the roots of Bayan trees seen across town and campus. The Biltmore, like the University of Miami, was an essential part of land developer George Merrick’s vision of a “City Beautiful” in Coral Gables. Merrick’s vision included Mediterranean Revival architecture, parks, golf courses, a walkable downtown business district, tree canopy roads, a university, and a great hotel.
Present-day Coral Gables sits on land settled by Solomon Merrick, George’s father, in 1899. The city’s name derives from the coral rock and tile-gabled roofing used to construct the buildings on the Merricks’ citrus farm. It wasn’t until the 1920s, during the Florida land boom, that Coral Gables as we know it today took shape. It was then that George Merrick began to develop his dream of a planned city that epitomized the contemporary City Beautiful movement. City Beautiful, an urban planning and architectural reaction to disordered growth in American cities, emphasized beauty as the path to social harmony and order. The beauty Merrick envisioned was to be found in the tree-lined boulevards, winding roadways, dazzling urban parks, and ornate monumental buildings that can be seen in Coral Gables today. One such building is the Biltmore Hotel, with its mix of architectural styles, which was a meeting place for the city’s elite as they sought to fulfill Merrick’s dream.
Arguably Merrick’s biggest dream and his lasting legacy is the University of Miami, which he helped to found with land and monetary donations in 1925. The University, since its founding, has played an integral role in the community. The Great Outdoor University, as the school was called by Merrick, was to be the capstone of his perfect city, attracting visitors from around the world. Merrick’s vision for the university was never fully realized, but his impact on the school was indeed profound, from his use of the school’s nickname, “The U,” to his emphasis on the school’s integration with Coral Gables.
Hurricanes and financial difficulties ultimately derailed Merrick’s full vision for a utopian city. However, his dedication helped to shape the area we know today as Coral Gables. Though winding roads such as Granada Boulevard, originally intended to confer beauty and stately leisure, have frustrated many a motorist in traffic, visitors and citizens alike can still enjoy the beauty that Merrick envisioned in Coral Gables. And in that, Merrick’s dreams were not dashed, but live on.
–Jay Sylvestre, Special Collections Librarian, Richter Library, University of Miami