Of the many legacies left to us by George Merrick, perhaps one of the most significant is the Biltmore Hotel, a monument of both local and national significance. Merrick’s vision of a resort that would serve as both a hotel and as a center of recreation and fashion became a reality in 1924, when he convinced John McEntee Bowman of Bowman-Biltmore Hotels to locate a $10 million hotel in Coral Gables. Originally named the Miami-Biltmore Hotel, the resort was designed by Bowman’s architects, Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver, who fulfilled Merrick’s dream of incorporating a replica of the Giralda Tower as its focal point.
The Miami-Biltmore Hotel’s official opening in January 1926 was a lavish and impressive event. Socialites and celebrities such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. and Eddie Rickenbacker joined the 5,000 guests that traveled from as far as New York to attend the opening dinner dance. More than 25,000 people arrived for tours the following day.
Throughout its history, The Biltmore served the community in many ways. The most glamorous resort of its kind at its January opening, by September it was operating as a community shelter, housing about 2,200 people left homeless after the 1926 hurricane. But despite the crash of the Coral Gables Corporation in 1929, it continued to flourish well into the 1930s. During that time one of its most notorious guests was Al Capone, who often hosted legendary parties on the 13th floor, in what is still sometimes referred to as the “Capone Suite.” Other noteworthy guests during the 1930s included Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby.
In 1942, the U.S. War Department commandeered the Biltmore to use as a dormitory for army recruits and later as Pratt General Hospital. As a result, the interior was gutted and converted for government use. After World War II, it was turned over to the Veteran’s Administration and served as a VA facility for more than 20 years.
In 1971, Coral Gables voters passed a $3 million bond issue intended for the purchase of the hotel from the government. But in 1973, the Biltmore was granted back to the City of Coral Gables as part of the Richard Nixon’s Legacy of Parks Program and the Historic Monument Act. Though the City had its hotel back, it was in ruins, and estimates for its renovation began at $8 million. It wasn’t until 1985 that the City was able to reach a public/private partnership agreement with a developer for the $50 million restoration. It is fortunate that when the building was converted to government use during the war, drop ceilings were placed under the decorative wood beams, causing minimal damage to the elaborately painted coffered ceilings.
Though the building closed again for a two-year period in 1990, it reopened under new management in 1992. Currently operated by the Seaway Hotels Corporation, but still owned by the City, the Biltmore received its due recognition in 1996, when it was designated as National Landmark.
The Biltmore Hotel has long been a beacon to passengers arriving at Miami International Airport, welcoming people back to the City Beautiful. Presiding majestically over the Florida landscape, it serves also as a tribute to Merrick’s vision of the Mediterranean of the Tropics.