Saturday, January 11, 2014

Stiltsville: Poor man's paradise, party central, millionaires' retreat and ...

By Jane Feehan

Stiltsville, a community of fishing shacks in Biscayne Bay that morphed into a millionaire’s retreat, was legendary among those who grew up in Miami during the mid-20th century as a party destination. But it was more than that.  For others it promised good fishing, solitude without the modern-day intrusion of television and telephone, or a place to reconnect with family.

Fishing shacks on stilts went up as early as 1922 in the shallow blue-green Biscayne Bay tidal flats off Cape Florida. Famed fisherman and lighthouse tender, Eddie “Crawfish” Walker, built a shack that served as center of a growing colony he set mangrove pilings for in the 1930s. Among those shacks was the first social center, the Calvert Club. The Quarterdeck Club, built by Ed Turner in 1940, added to the community’s party reputation.

That reputation catapulted among the “smart set” after Life Magazine (Feb. 10, 1941) featured the Quarterdeck as a celebrity magnet. The club went through a series of owners after it was destroyed by the 1945 hurricane. One owner, Harold Clark, developed the site as an exclusive yacht club and employed a French chef who specialized in local seafood plucked from the waters beneath the building.

Crawfish Eddie’s shack was also swept away by the 1945 storm. He died in 1949 (at his residence on NW 69th Street) but not before seeing the Biscayne Bay shack colony grow to 20 wooden houses after World War II.

Quarterdeck remained party central but was damaged in a 1950 storm. It reopened in 1951 with 300 guests in attendance. The “amazing club on stilts” offered 20 slips for yachts, several luxury hotel rooms, a swimming pool, a live fish pen and a lounge designed by Chris Jones. Good times, if not good business, lasted at the Quarterdeck until 1961 (owned then by Karl Mongelluzzo) when it burned to the water’s edge.

Stiltsville drew politicians, including Florida Gov. Leroy Collins, lawyers, stag party aficionados, and a host of other pleasure seekers, including bachelor Ted Kennedy, for decades. By the 1960s, the notorious Bikini Club opened on a shipwrecked yacht, Jeff.  Known for serving free drinks to women in bikinis, it was shuttered in 1965 for selling liquor without a license.

Complaints also rolled in about the shacks serving as blight on Biscayne Bay. But Stiltsville became a community of millionaires. Many of them were lawyers and politicians whose weekend retreats built for $20, 000 to $80,000, helped redeem a blighted appearance. But hurricanes continued to take their toll, defining the community’s history. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, new pilings were to be constructed with concrete.  

The 1980s brought changes as well as national attention to Stiltsville. The water colony (by then 14 houses) served as backdrop to several episodes of TV’s Miami Vice. The community was also featured in a Pittsburgh Paint national ad campaign. Perhaps the most significant event of that decade was the establishment of Biscayne National Park in 1980.  Boundaries of this 173,000-acre park include Stiltsville.

The state transferred the $1000 yearly leases (at one time a dollar) to Biscayne National Park.   Hurricane Andrew (1992) took seven more houses down. Today, seven structures remain but they are not privately owned; they are co-managed by the park and the Stiltsville Trust.

What remains of the historic village can be viewed by private boat or on a tour boat operated by Miami History and narrated by area historian Paul George, PhD (see:

I shall treasure memories of a party or two in Stiltsville; there will never be another place like it in those waters off Miami. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

Miami News, Feb. 16, 1949
Miami News, Dec. 8, 1951
Spokesman Review, Aug. 25, 1971
Boca Raton News, Dec. 17, 1989
The News, Aug. 17, 1995

Tags: Miami history, film researcher, party places in Miami

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