By Carol Sorgen
What do I have in common with former President and First Lady Clinton … or Martha Stewart (and Rob Stewart for that matter) … or Oprah Winfrey? Unfortunately, not as much as I’d like, but at least I too was able to enjoy the stately elegance and grandeur of The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, one of the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America.
World leaders, television and movie stars, and music legends have all been guests of this beautiful retreat–and now, so have I!
Built at the height of Florida’s land boom in the 1920s, the Biltmore was the dream of Coral Gables developer George Merrick and Biltmore hotel magnate John McEntee Bowman. Merrick’s vision in developing the city of Coral Gables itself was to evoke the best of Mediterranean architecture. In planning for the Biltmore, Merrick’s idea was to build “a great hotel … which would not only serve as a hostelry to the crowds which were thronging to Coral Gables but also would serve as a center of sports and fashion.”
Bowman hired the renowned architect Leonard Schultze and contractor/developer S. Fullerton Weaver, both of whom had already paired up to design New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and the famed Miami Daily News Tower (known today as the Freedom Tower). (Through May 28, 2006, The Wolfsonian museum–1001 Washington Avenue in nearby Miami Beach, www.wolfsonianorg.com, is hosting the exhibition, “In Pursuit of Pleasure: Schultze & Weaver and the American Hotel.” This is a fascinating look at the hotels of Schultze and Weaver, including the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and the Breakers in Palm Beach and includes not only photographs and architectural renderings, but artifacts from the hotels themselves.)
On January 15, 1926, The Biltmore Hotel opened its massive doors for the first time; its Giralda Tower–modeled after the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain–was lit up for the festivities and could be seen from miles around. Some 1,500 guests attended the opening dinner dance that night.
The Biltmore’s long and storied history has continued since that time. During the Jazz Age, the Biltmore was one of the most fashionable resorts in the country, regularly hosting royalty–both the real thing and the Hollywood sort. Guests enjoyed fashion shows, gala balls, aquatic shows in the 23,000-square-foot grand pool (still considered one of, if not the, largest hotel pools in the country), elaborate weddings, and world-class golf tournaments.
Even during the economic downturns in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the Biltmore kept going, hosting aquatic galas on Sundays where visitors flocked to watch synchronized swimmers, bathing beauties, alligator wrestlers, and boy wonder Jackie Ott, whose act included diving into the immense pool from an 85-foot high platform. Before he became Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller was a Biltmore swimming instructor and later broke swimming records at the Biltmore pool.
During World War II, the Biltmore was converted by the War Department into an enormous hospital named the Army Air Forces Regional Hospital. The former hotel’s beautiful windows were sealed with concrete and its travertine floors covered with layers of government-issue linoleum. The hotel also became the early site of The University of Miami’s School of Medicine and remained a Veteran’s Administration hospital until 1968.
In 1973, however, the City of Coral Gables became the owners of the hotel through the Historic Monuments Act and Legacy of Parks program. But, undecided about what to do with the structure, the Biltmore remained empty for almost a decade when, in 1983, a $55 million restoration began in an effort to bring the Biltmore back to its glory days. It reopened in 1987, but just three years later, in the midst of another economic downturn, it closed yet again.
Fortunately, in 1992, the Biltmore was acquired by Seaway Hotels Corporation, which also owns The Alexander Hotel on Miami Beach and the Sheraton Sand Key in Clearwater Beach. A $40 million, 10-year renovation program has completely restored the Biltmore to the elegance for which it was once known.
The Biltmore’s centerpiece is once again the 93-foot copper-clad tower. The grand lobby, with its travertine pilasters and walls, and giant arches under a handpainted cobalt blue ceiling, displays an almost ecclesiastical feel. Checking in at the reception desk, you’re greeted with a glass of champagne (this I could get used to!).
As they did so many years ago, golfers are once again on the links at the adjacent 6,700-yard, 18-hole, par-71 championship golf course designed by the renowned golf course architect, Donald Ross. The pool is still a favorite stop for guests, and is used frequently as a backdrop for movies, fashion spreads, and video shoots. And the brand-new spa features 10 treatment rooms with views of Coral Gables, the golf course, and beyond.
The Biltmore offers a number of dining options as well, including its signature restaurant, Palme d’Or, with French nouvelle cuisine; the Italian-inspired 1200 Courtyard Grill; and casual snacks by the pool at Cascade. My favorite–the Sunday brunch offered in the courtyard–is an experience not to be missed.
If you can tear yourself away from the Biltmore, there’s also much to see in Coral Gables itself. Known as the “City Beautiful,” Coral Gables lives up to its moniker and also takes its historic preservation efforts seriously. Some of the sights to see:
* The Venetian Pool–Built in 1923, this former rock quarry was converted into a public pool that is reminiscent of old-world Venice.
* Residential villages–Seven themed villages (French country, Chinese, etc.), built between 1925-27, add diversity to the city’s predominantly Mediterranean character.
* Lowe Art Museum–Opened in 1952, this collection features 13,000-plus objects including Greco-Roman antiquities, Italian Renaissance and Baroque art, 17th-20th century art of the Americas and Europe; Asian, African, pre-Columbian and Native American Art.
* Coral Gables Merrick House–Constructed in 1907, this was the home to the Reverend Solomon and Althea Merrick, parents of Coral Gables founder George Merrick.
For shoppers, there is the upscale Village of Merrick Park, with such shops as Tiffany & Co., Gucci, and Burberry, as well as the city’s “Miracle Mile,” for strolling/shopping/dining (for some reason, Miracle Mile has also become a mecca for bridal salons, so if you’re in the market for a wedding gown, this is definitely the place to come).
Nearby Miami is within a short drive, but if you want to travel back in time to the heyday of America’s Riviera-style resorts, plan a trip to Coral Gables and The Biltmore. Even if you don’t see any real-life celebrities, you’ll feel as if you’re one yourself.
If You Go
Air Tran offers a number of flights to both Miami and nearby Ft. Lauderdale (a more manageable airport and the one I usually choose when I fly to Florida). Air Tran promotes its affordable business-class seats, and though the trip from Baltimore to Ft. Lauderdale is only about 2 hours, I enjoyed the added comfort. Why not set the tone for your vacation from the beginning!
The Biltmore is located at 1200 Anastasia Avenue in Coral Gables; 800-727-1926; www.biltmorehotel.com.