Teen angel rescues tiles. Returns them 50 years later.

By Dr. Karelia Martinez Carbonell, President Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables

In 1974, teens helped renovate the 1920s era country club ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel, in time to celebrate their senior prom. One teen, Bob Dallas, wise beyond his years, saw treasure amongst the trash — thankfully. His story is below but first a short excerpt from a 1994 Miami Herald article by the late Bea Moss commemorating the Class of 1974’s 20-year reunion: 

“Socially conscious Gables students of the ’70s helped restore the Biltmore Country Club building after it was left in disrepair when the Veterans Administration Hospital moved out in 1968. The restoration took nearly a year and was finished at prom time. The Class of 1974 prom’s Great Gatsby theme was in keeping with the era the Biltmore opened. ‘We thought at the time of renovation we were doing something pretty good for the Gables, lending a small hand in bringing the Biltmore back to life,’ observed one of the reunion members. They cleaned up the old building from floor to ceiling, breathing dirt for a whole year.. More than 200 students spent almost 16,000 hours over nearly a year. Some students had grandparents that were founding members of the Biltmore Country Club, Some help came from professionals, but the students did most of the demolition work, the plastering and the painting.” 

Victoria Strauss Nunez, Class of ’74, who helped her class with the renovations, recently observed “soon after the prom, my mom [who was a founding member of the city’s Historic Preservation Board] and others promoted the reopening/renovation of The Biltmore.” 

Bob Dallas. In his own words. 

The Time. It was a changin’

In many respects Coral Gables in 1974 looks the same as today; but times then were much different.  We had no cell phones, and the internet and social media did not exist.  

But as Coral Gables High School students graduating in 1974, we did have an idea that brought us together: renovate the shuttered Biltmore Hotel ballroom and host our senior prom there. 

The idea was born of the times; the Vietnam War had ended two years earlier and The Great Gatsby movie was ushering in a statelier era.  Debutante parties were held almost monthly and the four service clubs Key, Alexia, Interact and Anchor brought together students of many backgrounds.  An active Student Government worked together with the service clubs to develop the Biltmore renovation plan.  Key Club president Chris Moore and Student Government president Tom Pepper were successful in getting the City and Rotary Club leaders to allow the students to spend almost two years renovating the ballroom, all with student-led weekend volunteer help. 

At the time, the Biltmore ballroom was converted into small offices that had a ceiling height about half that of the ballroom itself.  The job entailed knocking down the ceiling, walls and fixtures and carting them outside to be hauled away.  Then came painting the walls and making the ballroom wood floor usable.  Thankfully for the looming prom date, the work was timely completed. 

Of course, the prom’s theme was The Great Gatsby!  And most dressed to mimic its movie characters and capture a memorable moment.  Looking back at that time, we can hope Coral Gables High School students of today can have their “movie” moment so they too can look back with fond memories fifty years from now.

The Tiles. We may never pass this way again. 

As part of the renovation, the Biltmore ballroom was gutted.  This meant anything in the way had to go.   As students, our appreciation for the building’s artistic features was not, to say it kindly, fully developed.  The tiles appeared to be destined for the landfill.  It only takes a glance at the tiles to see their beauty and a few minutes of thought to understand their provenance connected to the stately Biltmore Hotel.

With the tiles’ fate looming, I secured Borden milk crates and loaded them up for some unknown future.  My hope was to display them in an indoor or outdoor setting.  But like many ideas, they were set aside as more pressing events entered life.  For over fifty years the tiles have been carted to garages, basements, and occasional outdoor locations.  The tiles’ temporary homes have included the cities of Jupiter, Ft. Lauderdale, and Atlanta.

For the past twenty years and innumerable trips back home to Coral Gables, it has been my hope to reunite the tiles with the Biltmore Hotel.  But given their weight and bulk—and many kid passengers—this opportunity never presented itself; until now. If the tiles were to make it home, then what better time than the Class of 1974 Fifty Year High School Reunion!  

I am grateful for the assistance of Karelia Carbonell, President of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables for making this happen.  More importantly, I am grateful for having been fortunate to have grown up in and graduated from Coral Gables during an incredible time. 

“A treasure trove” Original tile rescued from the Biltmore Country Club by Bob Dallas, circa 1974. [Photo courtesy of BDallas]


The provenance.

Modeled after a Spanish castle, the sprawling Biltmore was the first building that went up in Coral Gables and, at that time, the tallest one in Florida. Its distinct tower was modeled after the Giralda in Seville. Its ceilings and walls bore Moorish frescoes. Spanish tiles lined the terraces. The tiles, salvaged from the Biltmore ballroom, were patterned from the 16th century tiles of the outer parietal panels of the Arbor of Charles V, in the Alcazar of Seville.  These tiles were crafted using a technique known as Mudejar art. This style of ornamentation and decoration was prevalent in the iberian Christian kingdoms during the 13th and 16th centuries. The tiles were made from a particular clay. See similar samples below.  

Dallas, the precocious teen, who saw the historical significance of the Biltmore tiles, took the initiative to save them, keep them, steward them, and today, return them.  If not for him and his appreciation for beauty, there would be no story to tell. Thank you Bob Dallas and happy 50th high school *reunion!

     “Ornamentation and Decoration” colored glazes and geometric designs inspired by the arabesque. The Biltmore tiles were patterned from these designs.  Photo courtesy of KM Carbonell


The reunion. 

*The Coral Gables High School 50th reunion is on June 8th at the historic Cocoplum Women’s Club. 


9 thoughts on “Teen angel rescues tiles. Returns them 50 years later.

  1. Chris Moore, Key Club president. In his own words.

    On July 24, 1973 I accompanied Tom Pepper [Student Government president] to the regular meeting of the Coral Gables City Commission. Tom had arranged to have his name placed into the new business place of order for the meeting. Tom presented his proposal to renovate the Country Club Ballroom for the purpose of using it for the 1974 Coral Gables High School prom.

    I have shared with Dr. Martinez Carbonell [Historic Preservation Association president] a copy of the applicable minutes showing the proposal, resolution, and approval of the plan for the 1974 prom. I believe this approval pre-dates any other effort to save the Biltmore. Cost concerns and Highest and Best Use issues were leaning towards demolition. Movements to save historic properties were in their early stages. Several of the city’s department heads were aware of the size of the project and they were extremely skeptical of our success. Tom’s proposal was going against the tide, however, we hoped that if we could save this one part of the Biltmore then more people could see the unique character of this magnificent building, and new energy would be placed in the effort to same the whole property.

    It should be noted that the date of the meeting is 07/24/1973. This gave us only nine months to complete the project. The working crew were High School students, so the work could only take place on Saturdays. Excluding major holidays, that gave us about 30 actual “working days” before the prom. Labor and organization were both important.

    Tom Pepper deserves 90% of the credit for the Biltmore renovation project. It was his vision that started the project, and his ability to carry through on that vision with the many parties that were necessary to complete the renovation on time. However, Tom had no practical source for labor. It was up to the members of the four CGHS service clubs to make this project happen. I can’t say enough good things about my fellow students and friends that were willing to give up their free time in order to put in hard labor in an un-air conditioned relic for no compensation.

    In the beginning stages of the renovation the view of the interior of the ballroom was completely blocked by the walls and ceiling of the “building” that had been built within the ballroom. Everyone worked on faith in the unseen beauty of the ballroom. After a couple of weekends of heavy work we eventually removed enough of the interior “building” so that we could see the original walls and the fantastic ceiling of the ornate ballroom. The effect was similar to when Howard Carter first opened King Tut’s tomb and said “I can see wonderful things”. Everyone working on the project came through that space to see what we were actually working toward. Motivation was not a problem.

  2. Historic treasures (like these seemingly lost tiles) are what make the preservationist’s heart beat
    faster. Aside from their artistry and originality, they remind us that details mattered to Merrick and
    his team, and that remnants of their extraordinary vision are still out there, waiting to be rediscovered. Kudos to Bob Dallas and Karelia Carbonell for their adventurous spirit that brought
    these beauties to light once again.

  3. This is a stunning story!! What a cool thing that this senior class from 1974 banded together to help clean up and restore a space in the Biltmore for their prom. And then to bring these wondrous tiles back at their 50th reunion? There’s a great movie/book in here waiting to be developed! Thanks for bringing this bit of fantastic local history to light! 💜

  4. What a great story! Thank you, Bob Dallas, for your keen insight and steadfast devotion to the tiles’ safekeeping over all the years. And thank you, Karelia, for your dedication to Coral Gables’ history and historic preservation…not easy to come by these days!

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