Clearwater Beach will always have a place in my heart. Growing up in the Tampa Bay area it was the go-to public beach. I have fond memories of walking through the soft sugary sand to the harder wet tide line, covered with live coquinas as far up and down the beach as you could see. The multicolored tiny shells could be seen glistening and wiggling their way back under the sand by the thousands. Spanish settlers used them as a building material and locals cooked them up for a savory broth. Sadly today, there are none in sight.
We loved going into the historic wooden Palm Pavilion for hand-dipped chocolate ice cream cones so cold they had crystallized bits of ice. The best. As kids, we would dive under the warm gulf water and bring up large shells, and at night the family would take a walk and we’d fish off the small pier near the Pavilion. I loved the pier at night. We never caught much, but the salty old guys who were regulars would sit at the end, shark fishing. Our Abuelo would get them talking and we could count on some good stories. Seems like they caught more mean-looking catfish than anything else. It was always an adventure.
Besides reeling in the occasional fish, off that small pier, we accidentally caught a squid and saw lots of marine life, including sharks, stingrays, and one night – a huge manta ray.
A generation later, I would return to the beach for many summers with my daughter for a family girls’ trip. My mom, sister-in-law, and two nieces rounded out our gang of six. We choose the Old Clearwater Beach Hotel for its perfect location and beautiful beach. The beach was still quiet enough that the kids could feed the seagulls without retribution. Most things were as I remembered, but the coquinas were disappearing and the little pier covered more sand than water.
We just had a pandemic-delayed celebration for my mom’s 90th birthday, returning to the area where so many good memories were made. The good news is the beach-front Rockaway Grill and Palm Pavilion are still there. The 1926-era Pavilion barely resembles its former self, with former changing rooms gone to make way for a restaurant. The Old Clearwater Beach Hotel faded away long ago and was demolished to make way for a new resort, the Sandpearl. Choosing that hotel for our stay guaranteed at least we had the same nice beach, great location, wonderful memories to recall, and incredible gulf coast sunsets. The little pier is gone, overshadowed by its much grander sister-pier (Pier 60) farther down the beach.
I tried to find out what happened to the little pier and it’s like it never existed. I was beginning to doubt my own memory. I finally found a YouTube clip from 2012, explaining the final removal of what they called the Mandalay Pier, which was partially removed and only over sand at that point. Progress?
I miss that pier.
Even many South Florida locals don’t know about the international housing styles planned almost a hundred years ago, helping make Coral Gables one of the most distinctive cities in Florida.
Today Coral Gables is the Latin American headquarters for hundreds of multinational firms and internationally known for its beautiful Mediterranean Revival architecture. Dating from the early 1920s, the community was carefully planned by George Merrick and drew heavily on inspiration from Spain, with many streets in the original sections – like Castile, Alhambra Circle, and Granada – graced with Spanish names. Dubbed the “Miami Riviera” Coral Gables featured lush tropical landscaping, plazas, parks, and grand entrances. Plans included areas for shopping, manufacturing, and business as well as for churches, clubs, medical care, hotels, and leisure pursuits such as golf, horseback riding, and swimming. The architectural style was designated as “Spanish, Venetian, Moorish, Italian or other similarly harmonious types . . .”
Much less known are the thematic villages that Merrick commissioned to be built beginning in 1925 when Coral Gables incorporated as a city. New architects were recruited to join the existing team and design some of the 14 styles planned for 1,000+ homes. The impact of the 1926 hurricane and declining U.S. economy took their toll and construction of the Villages ended in 1927 with only 80 completed in half of the thematic styles. Planned but never built Villages were African Bazaar, Japanese, Mexican Hacienda, Neopolitan Baroque, Persian Canal, Tangier, and Venetian Town/Canal.
Fortunately, today we can still see homes in the Chinese Compound, Dutch South African, Florida Pioneer (Colonial), French City, French Country, French Normandy, and Italian Country/Venetian Villages.
The Chinese Compound is the most unusual and distinctive of the group. The properties are colorful with distinctive moon-doorways, lattice features, faux bamboo inserts, and up-curving roof lines.
Dutch South African homes feature gabled and dormered roofs adapted from farmhouses of the Boers. A Dutch East India Compound was also planned and walls around some of the homes look like they might have been a part of the “compound” design, which tied together individual properties with a surrounding wall.
The Florida Pioneer Village is a name that has always confused me. It was used to identify Colonial two-story homes with balconies and spacious, elegant surroundings.
French City homes were inspired by 17th and 18th-century design. Although both sides of the street are lined with beautiful classical and formal homes, those on the south side are more rustic in design. Each side of the street was designed by a different architect.
A provincial, more rural flair with half-timbering, towers, and steeply pitched cross-gabled roofs can be seen in the charming 18th century-inspired French Country Village.
Just prior to WW2, the French Normandy Village housed five fraternities from the University of Miami and during the war was a home-away-from-home for soldiers. The closest Village to downtown Coral Gables, just off busy Le Jeune Rd, thousands of daily drivers probably don’t realize what’s just around the corner in this small, cozy enclave.
Seventeen homes make up what is known as the Italian (Venetian) Village, inspired by rural farmhouses. This is a larger area and the homes are spread over several blocks. Even with the most complete homes and a bigger area, this is the least known of the Villages. I lived a stone’s throw away for many years and never knew its history. A Miami Herald report from 1927 mentions the completion of a Venetian Waterway house I think must also be (or have been) near this area.
It’s good news these homes have been painstakingly repaired and updated through the years. As of this writing, major work is once again in progress on quite a few.