Stiltsville, an aquatic neighborhood of seven houses in a National Park, will survive.
By Jeff Schlegel | Online Only | Feb. 4, 2005
Seven houses perched above the blue-green water of Florida's Biscayne Bay are all that's left of Stiltsville, a colorful 70-year-old offshore community that has dwindled over the years after a series of hurricanes. Rising from the bay like an aquatic sculpture park, the houses on pilings seem to float above the water, which at low tide recedes to three feet deep.
But until recently, it looked like the National Park Service was about to do what the destructive fury of hurricanes couldn't accomplish—deliver the final knockout blow to this Miami-area landmark.
The park service inherited the houses in 1980, after Biscayne National Park's northern expansion, and created a stir with plans to demolish them after their leases expired in 1999. After several years of public meetings, petitions, and legal wrangling, the Department of the Interior last summer approved the formation of a 15-member nonprofit trust charged with raising money to preserve the houses and determining how to convert them to public use.
Stiltsville is saved. Now what? "It's an evolving process," says Becky Matkov, Stiltsville Trust board member and executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, which helped lead preservation efforts. "It's sort of tricky."
At the heart of the matter is how to preserve the overall concept of Stiltsville, which represents a South Florida fun-in-the-sun aesthetic of easy living and simpler times.
Stiltsville began with "Crawfish" Eddie Walker, who in the 1930s built a shack on stilts, where he entertained his fishing buddies and fed them chilau, a chowder he made with local crawfish. Three of his pals built the second shack in 1937, and by 1945 there were 12 houses and two private clubs built on stilts or floating on grounded barges about a mile off Key Biscayne. The Quarterdeck Club was featured in a 1941 Life magazine spread that described Stiltsville as "an extraordinary American community dedicated solely to sunlight, salt water, and the well-being of the human spirit."
Despite its rustic appearance, Stiltsville was party central for lawyers, bankers, politicians, and other well-connected Miamians. Later, some of the hoi polloi grabbed their piece of Stiltsville. Police occasionally raided the area looking for gambling and other vices.
Slowly, Stiltsville style morphed from ramshackle to respectable, its houses built in a vernacular style with bungalow elements. One house sports a Mansard roof. Another—the oldest, constructed in the 1950s—is appropriately called the A-frame house. All are built on steel-reinforced concrete or wood pilings.
At its peak in 1960, Stiltsville numbered 27 buildings, but Hurricanes Donna (1960) and Betsy (1965) inflicted significant damage; the latter ushered in the end of Stiltsville's frontier era. The month before Betsy struck, the state made owners pay $100 annually to lease their quarter-acre circular "campsites." After Betsy, no new construction permits were allowed, building codes were implemented, and houses that sustained more than 50 percent damage from storms couldn't be rebuilt. Later, the state banned commercial operations there.
Like sentinels on spindly legs, Stiltsville houses serve as outsized navigational markers in the finger-like channels of shallow northern Biscayne Bay. But their role as fishing holes, watering holes, and bastions of sea-based culture made them iconic images of greater Miami. They were featured during the opening scenes of the television show "Miami Vice," served as movie backdrops, and hosted important events in people's lives.
Gail Baldwin, a Miami architect and longtime Stiltsville leaseholder, says he once opened his house to a stranger who wanted to propose marriage to his girlfriend in Stiltsville. Another time, he played host to someone who wanted to hold a family memorial service for his wife in Stiltsville, where they met. "This place is part of the makeup of the bay community and a big part of the bay experience," says Baldwin, chairman of the Stiltsville Trust.
Nonetheless, Stiltsville's future dimmed in 1976 when the state, which owned the bay's submerged land, renewed its leases for $300 annually and included an expiration of July 1, 1999, after which the houses would be removed at owner's expense. The leases came under federal control after the area became part of the expanded Biscayne National Park, and in the mid-1990s the park service told leaseholders it lacked the authority to renew leases and suggested they seek listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite the efforts of preservation groups, Stiltsville twice failed to earn National Register status, primarily because the surviving houses aren't 50 years old. Time was running out for Stiltsville, which was trimmed by half to its existing seven houses after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Without National Register eligibility, the park had no compelling grounds to alter its general management plan that mandated the end of private residences within its confines. The park service also expressed concern that the campsites may disturb the sea grass on Biscayne's shoals, a vital feeding ground and nursery for fish and invertebrates.
But after more than 75,000 people signed a petition asking that Stiltsville be spared, the park service had a change of heart and announced in August 2000 that it wouldn't remove the houses. It extended the leases—a move that several environmental groups challenged—while both sides worked on a preservation plan for Stiltsville. Created last summer, the Stiltsville Trust comprises all seven leaseholders—now called caretakers—and eight community members.
Meanwhile, the caretakers still perform basic maintenance on their weekend retreats, and the park service is adding hurricane strapping to keep the houses from flying away in major storms. Plans are forming for the project's budget, transportation arrangements to the houses, and possible building uses. Options include community meeting space, research facilities, artist-in-residence programs, and a park interpretive center. These functions must be economically self-sustaining to ensure the maintenance of Stiltsville.
The park service sees the houses as a drawing card for a national park that's 95 percent water and essentially inaccessible to non-boaters. "A lot of people hear about Biscayne National Park because of Stiltsville," says park superintendent Linda Canzanelli. "It can be a wonderful educational tool if we can get people out there so we can talk about the local history and marine environment."
Jeff Schlegel is a freelance writer in Yardley, Pa.
This story was originally published on Preservation Online on February 27, 2004.
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