Karelia Martinez Carbonell
Martinez Carbonell is the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables
On June 3rd, our city celebrates the second annual Founder’s Day in commemoration of Merrick’s birth anniversary. The date was officially recognized by unanimous resolution this year.
G.-9. 22-3968 A Resolution of the City Commission recognizing June 3rd as “Founder’s Day in Coral Gables” in honor of Coral Gables Founder George E. Merrick.
Coral Gables founder George Edgar Merrick was born on June 3, 1886, less than 15 years before the turn of the century. He grew into the “modern renaissance man” of the 20th century—an entrepreneur and visionary; a millionaire who gave away most of his fortune before he lost the rest of it; a public servant and civic leader; an author and a poet. And in honor of Merrick’s love of poetry, selected readings from his 1920 book, Songs of the Wind on a Southern Shore, and other Poems of Florida will be presented this year as part of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables celebration.
Building a city did not define him, poetry did. On June 3, 1925, during a newspaper interview, Merrick was asked what he wanted to do after he accomplished his “monumental city,” and he responded, “After that I may be able to sit down and do what I have always wanted to do–write.”
He was a patron of education and founded schools as part of his new planned city. He was altruistic. The University of Miami solely exists because of George E. Merrick. In 1925, he not only donated 160 acres of land but also committed to a $5 million [$90 million today] personal donation. Two years earlier in 1923, he commissioned Coral Gables Elementary School.
He was an advocate of the working people. The late historian Arva Parks was Merrick’s greatest cheerleader. Parks said that Merrick was “adored as a human being” by most, even the postmen who worked for him. And one of his first moves as postmaster was to give equal pay to women. Her final book on Merrick, George Merrick, Son of the South Wind, is testament to her esteem for the man. Her words help underscore Merrick’s true legacy including his affinity for the Bahamian laborers and his many works helping that community. Also in her book, Parks mentions that “Many years later, Merrick would honor these Bahamians in a series of stories he entitled ‘Men of the Magical Isles’.” One line in the story highlights Merrick’s praise and admiration for them, when he writes, “Very few realize today how much our Bay country owes, in its very foundation, to the Bahamian [laborers].”
A mostly overlooked gesture is Merrick’s establishment of the MacFarlane subdivision [today a nationally recognized historic district.] In 1925, Flora MacFarlane sold 20 acres to Merrick’s construction company. The purchase established a Coral Gables subdivision named after MacFarlane. Many Bahamian immigrant laborers, particularly Afro-Bahamians, subsequently built homes there. St. Mary’s Baptist Church, a focal point of the community and the first and only African American church in Coral Gables, was built in 1927. In one of Merrick’s articles in Tequesta [an annual publication of HistoryMiami], he credits the Bahamians for “having a most distinct and important influence…and brought inspiration…and other valuable knowledge and experience” when building with natural resources such as coral rock and other tropical materials. Apart from the MacFarlane District, Merrick also developed Golden Gate for the Black community. Here he again donated land and his own money to build several Mediterranean-style buildings designed by his team of architects including Fink and DeGarmo. The Ponce de Leon High School was part of that development.
In fact, Merrick wrote in his personal notes that “when our true pioneers are fittingly monumented, there must surely be an inspiring one for our Black Bahamians.”
In 1927, Merrick was decorated by King Alfonso XIII of Spain with the honorary title of “Don of the Order of Isabel la Catolica.” At last year’s inaugural Founder’s Day ceremony in commemoration of Merrick’s 135th anniversary of his birth, Spanish Consul Cremades observed, “Not too many people can boast about that honor and it is a wonderful history that binds both Spain and Coral Gables.”
He was only active in Coral Gables for less than a decade from 1920 to 1928 and look at what he accomplished—The City Beautiful–soon to turn 100.
Apart from attaining a royal title, and establishing a new city, George Edgar Merrick was above all a good man. Merrick died at 55. Indeed the good die young.