Stiltsville: Miami's Treasure Island
by tom austin
Each Stiltsville structure is unique; the Leshaw House, built in the 1950s, features a distinctive mansard roof
|Two of Stiltsville’s remaining seven structures atop the grass flats of Biscayne Bay|
|Fishing off the Quarterdeck Club circa 1940|
|Commodore Edward Turner, creator of Stiltsville’s famed Quarterdeck Club, fishing in bed during its 1940s heyday|
Miami is forever casting itself as a land of misfits that needs to be hijacked by the future, as if some fantastical neo-Noah’s Ark— baseball stadium, overreaching museum, or a casino or two—will save the city from a lesser fate. Despite all that bold new civic monument rhetoric, the accidents of architecture, the small unassuming pockets of taste, balance, and proportion, have the most enduring allure, and nothing is more profoundly Miami—or alluring—than Stiltsville, a collection of seven brightly painted Caribbean-style shacks on the flats off the tip of Key Biscayne.
Our least expensive design wonder, built by Regular Joes from plywood, found materials, and the inalienable American right to have a beer and a good time on the weekend, has outperformed $500 million constructions in town as a promotional precept. Stiltsville was featured in the circa-1960 series Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges, 1981’s Absence of Malice with Paul Newman, Miami Vice, and nearly every other television show filmed here, as well as a WLRN documentary, Stiltsville: Generations on the Flats. It has been chronicled in Time magazine, among countless other publications, and in the literary realm incorporated into Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight and Naked Came the Manatee, as well as Les Standiford’s Done Deal.
Aside from the aesthetic merits, the houses, which sit on shallow grass flats between aquamarine finger channels draining lower Biscayne Bay, are great navigational markers, fishing spots, and shelter for boaters when a storm kicks up. And on a beautiful day, with a soft breeze floating over the water, an afternoon in Stiltsville brings the kind of well-being that only comes from the natural world.
The cult of Stiltsville, called “The Shacks” or “Shack Colony” in the ’20s and ’30s, began to ratchet up with such 1930s salty-dog characters as Captain Eddie “Crawfish” Walker, who sold beer, bait, and crawfish chowder out of his shack. By the late 1950s, the flats contained some 27 houses. Jimmy Ellenburg, the unofficial mayor of Stiltsville, used to host LeRoy Collins, then the governor of Florida. In 1959, Collins made a photo album of his visits, writing to Ellenburg, “I hope the great beyond seems a lot like your cabin in the sea.”
But from the beginning, Stiltsville has also served as a semiotic codeword for pleasure without rules or limits, the let-the-good-times-roll roadhouse on the outskirts of town. In the 1930s, the Calvert Club there had a loyal following and issued its own commemorative postcard, like some mainland joint. In 1940, Commodore Edward Turner created the private Quarterdeck Club, which was featured in Life magazine. It evolved into a reputed gambling establishment, before the structure was eventually destroyed by a fire in 1961. A year later, a 150-foot yacht was grounded on the flats and turned into the Bikini Club: Owner Harry Churchville had a nude sunbathing deck and gave free drinks to girls in bikinis—no one ever said Stiltsville was politically correct—but was shut down three years later by the State Beverage Department.
As with the rest of Florida, hurricanes also marked the course of Stiltsville. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the surviving homes were hoisted on concrete pilings and rebuilt according to local construction codes; only seven homes survived 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The legal noose began to tighten in 1980, when the boundaries of Biscayne National Park were expanded to encompass Stiltsville. The Florida Department of Natural Resources declared that all Stiltsville leases would end in 1999. In an effort to save their properties, house owners formed the Save Old Stiltsville group and futilely lobbied for historic protection status. The legal wrangling ended in 2000, when Biscayne National Park finally agreed to keep the houses intact. They insisted the houses be accessible to the public on a permitted basis, and a group was formed that is now the Stiltsville Trust. The Trust and Biscayne National Park share stewardship of the houses, which are open to promotional parties, photo shoots, charitable organizations, conferences, and artists-in-residence programs. Individuals can also rent houses, up to 10 in a unit, for a daily fee of $50 a head.
In the end, everything worked out just fine. Stiltsville is our local equivalent of the weekend cabin on the lake or the ski lodge, the refuge that ties into a universal yearning for escape, a reprieve from the workaday world and freedom from judgment. And that particular experience should be open to anyone and everyone. For information on renting a house at Stiltsville, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
photograph by brian call (opener); Martin Brewster (biscayne bay flats)