Clearly Miami is an area rich in spectacle, glitz and notoriety, but few realize that it became the place it is today during the frenzied real estate boom of the 1920s. The prosperity of that era transformed a young frontier settlement into an emerging metropolitan area. The period offered larger-than-life developers like Carl Fisher, a brash entrepreneur with a surfeit of cash, the opportunity to create from swampland and mangroves the resort known internationally as Miami Beach. The boom also helped produce George Merrick, the visionary son of a Congregational minister, who gave us Coral Gables, a posh Mediterranean-styled community, known, for good reason, as the “City Beautiful.” Northwest of Coral Gables, Glen Curtiss, America’s preeminent early aviator, developed Hialeah, Miami Springs, and Opa Locka from former Everglades swampland.
The boom introduced cutting-edge marketing featuring celebrity pitchmen, like the politician and orator, William Jennings Bryan, and heavyweight boxing champion, Gene Tunney. It introduced alluring advertising that conjured Venice or Spain or even America’s picturesque Southwest in developments like Miami Shores, portions of Shenandoah, and Miami Springs, whose building designs showcased the architecture of other places and times. Coral Gables went even farther in the reach of its design with its thematic villages, which evoked, thru their architecture and building elements, Dutch South Africa, France’s Normandy region of an earlier time, and the China of Imperial times.
The era brought large developers to the Miami area eager to cash in on the passion for housing amid a soaring population and associated property prices. The boom also resulted from America’s entrepreneurial spirit, especially on display in the affluent, reckless 1920s, a time when it seemed anything was possible. This mindset spawned the “Binder Boys,” brash speculators who hailed from the northeast and descended on Miami in 1925, the boom’s peak year, to buy and sell property on margin at huge profits. Sensing the cooling-down of the boom by late summer of that year, these speculators exited Miami en masse, leaving the speculation to more established residents, including teenagers, who cast themselves in the same mold as they bought and sold real estate along the crowded confines of Flagler Street, Miami’s main downtown thoroughfare.
The boom was also about outrageous sums of money as new developments sold out within hours of going on the market, with millions of dollars changing hands and investors, and at least in one case, literally throwing money at developers. Developers grew wealthy—at least on paper. George Merrick was reportedly worth between $75 and $100 million, but was destitute a few years later following the boom’s collapse, the classic denouement for all bubbles.
Great festivals, parades, sports tournaments and celebrity-watching were characteristic of the era. Miami became a venue for film production with movie themes that were influenced by its subtropical ambiance and wild land speculation. Who can forget the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts, with its slick speculators selling land in boomtime Miami and elsewhere in Florida? The flouting of Prohibition along with the city’s proximity to the Bahamas and Cuba made it a prime entry point for illicit alcohol, bringing organized crime figures, like Al Capone, to its shores to oversee their operations there.
With the bust of 1926 and the Great Depression that followed three years later, the boom became for many a bitter memory. But while it was raging in the mid-1920s, it was a captivating phenomenon. Or as the colorful Wilson Mizner, whose brother Addison Mizner was an important boom-era architect and planner, recalled, it was “good fun while it lasted.”
Paul S. George, Ph.D., serves as Resident Historian, HistoryMiami Museum. He conducts history tours throughout the County and even beyond for HistoryMiami. Dr. George also leads Little Havana tours as part of Viernes Culturales, a monthly celebration of the culture and history of that quarter.