Historic Stiltsville part of Biscayne park

STILTSVILLE, Fla..— The pillars of Stiltsville shook on the day of March 18, 1999.

On this day, the National Register of Historic Places declared that the houses, which are collectively referred to as Stiltsville, were less than 50 years old and invalid for consideration to be a historical place. They were to be immediately demolished. However Stiltsville and it supporters had no desire to become Biscayne Bay’s latest version of Atlantis.

Stiltsville is said to have its beginnings in the early 1930s when a local fisherman named “Crawfish” Eddie Walker sold beer and bait from stilted shack looming in the flats of Biscayne Bay. Crawfish Eddie got his first neighbors in 1937 when fishing buddies Thomas Grady and Leo Edward erected their own shacks.

Stiltsville is located in the northern-most corner of Biscayne National Park (Map courtesy of the National Park Service).

What had begun as a humble fisherman’s hang out was inevitably destined to become a recognizable historical icon in the Miami skyline.

Stiltsville earned its first national recognition in 1940 when Commodore Edward Turner built a house on a barge and pilings near Crawfish Eddie’s. He called the new establishment the Quarterdeck Club.

The Quarterdeck Club quickly became a popular Miami hot spot for celebrities and sporting events. Its popularity grew even more when an article appearing in Life Magazine in 1941 noted the Club and other 12 houses in the flats were a “city on stilts.”

The Quarterdeck Club prospered until the hurricane of 1950 inflicted serious damage to the Quarterdeck Club and swept away Crawfish Eddie’s entirely. Stiltsville’s resilience was tested but not destroyed. By the end of the decade, Stiltsville sustained it presence in Biscayne Bay with a total of 27 houses.

The Miami Springs Power Boat Club arrived onto the Stiltsville scene when twelve blue collar men purchased a sunken barge for $1, re-floated it and towed it to Stiltsville where the barge was grounded on a mud flat.

Over the years, several television commercials have been filmed at house while thousands of children including Boys Scouts and Optimists Clubs have visited the structure. The house also hosted disabled Vietnam War veterans to a day of fishing and fun in the sun.

After a series of hurricanes took their tool on the structures, Stiltsville saw a resurgence of interest in 1962 when the Bikini Club cruised onto the scene. The Bikini Club, owned by Harry Churchill, was a 150 foot yacht grounded on the flats of Biscayne Bay. The yacht was converted into a social club where Churchill offered free drinks and a nude sunbathing deck to bikini clad women for the “hefty” fee of one dollar.

The 1,300 member Bikini Club was blanketed in media attention and often appeared in the headlines of The Miami Herald. One particular headline read, “Bikini Babies bound in Stiltsville.”

Stiltsville again met resistance in 1965. The Bikini Club was raided and closed down for operating without a liquor license and for the possession of 40, undersized, out of season crawfish.

Hurricane Betsy with her 120 m.p.h. winds and 11-foot storm surge plowed through Stiltsville, leaving the shacks, houses and barges in shambles.

With only 17 structures remaining, the future of Stiltsville was in question. Could the Stiltsville faithful muster the effort to repair the damages inflicted by Hurricane Betsey and plan for new structures?

The answer was a resounding “yes.” Stiltsville supporters flocked to flats and build eight new homes while salvaging many of homes that were damaged. Stiltsville proved it wasn’t ready to be taken off the map.

As Miami continued to grow and high rise building popped up, residents complained that the Stiltsville structures would lower their beach front property value. What resulted was 30 years of squabbles between angry Key Biscayne residents and Stiltsville faithful.

Some, such as former Florida Secretary of State Bruce Smathers, characterized the community as a “blight on Biscayne Bay” and called for its removal by 1986. Others disagreed taking great pride in Miami stilted city on sea. The rift of opinions endured, and so did Stiltsville.

Bob Bleiss is the regional director for the National Park Service Southeast branch. His office’s role is to provide the best advice and to interpret national register status.

“There were some very vocal members not in favor of having Stiltsville demolished. They believe it had achieved folk status,” he said. “There is a real understanding that Stiltsville is a part of what makes Miami recognizable.”

In 1985, the bottom land on which Stiltsville rested was deeded by the State of Florida to the Federal Government as part of Biscayne National Park. Though the submerged lands now belonged to the American people, the National Park Service agreed to honor the building-owner’s leases until they expired in July, 1999.

National disaster again struck in 1992 in the form of Hurricane Andrew. Andrew, which was the strongest hurricane since 1926, left only seven housing standing. True, the destruction was devastating, but none the less a testament to quality and craftsmanship of the structures.

In the 70 years of Stiltsville existence, houses and shacks have come and gone; but the loyalty of Stiltsville supporters remains the same since Crawfish Eddie opened in 1937. A group has since developed with a mission to “Save Old Stiltsville” (SOS).

Linda Canzanelli is superintendent of Biscayne National Park and has worked with the Stiltsville Trust in deciding the future of Stiltsville. And, in summer 2003, a public access plan for Stiltsville was announced. It will be supervised by the Stiltsville Trust.

“We are excited about this new chapter in the history of Stiltsville,” Canzanelli said when the access plan was announced in summer 2003.

“The NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) offered a range of alternatives for Stiltsville. What resulted was a formal agreement with the Stiltsville Trust to maintain public access.”

Stiltsville supporters are frequently seen at rallies promoting the preservation and public use of Stiltsville. In part due to their efforts, the National Park Service issued a General Management Plan Amendment and Final Environmental Impact Statement for Stiltsville. A Record of Decision on Stiltsville was made last June granting public use of the structures.

There is no single event or structure in Stiltsville history that would make it identifiable. Instead it is the combination of events and structures that serve as a representation of Miami’s cultural history. There is a certain aurora about Stiltsville. Stiltsville has been mysterious for so many years. We now have reason to believe, there are many more years to come.

“Many of the classic old hotel have built or toppled over, but Stiltsville has become something that, when people see it, they know that it’s Miami,” Canzanelli said.

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