Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Sun is Setting on Hialeah's Race Track

Hialeah Race Track was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, and is eligible to be listed as a National Historic Landmark. However, the Hialeah city council just voted unanimously to permit the demolition of the historic stable buildings.

The track was a key element for attracting winter visitors to south Florida in the first half of the twentieth century. Tourists came to the tropics looking for glamour and excitement, and perhaps a touch of the illicit, all of which they found at the races.

The Miami Jockey Club opened in January 1925 on the edge of the Everglades. James Harrison Bright, a cattleman who had made money in with a laundry business in St. Louis, bought 17,000 acres in northwestern Dade County. His partner was Glenn Curtiss, the developer of Miami Springs and Opa-Locka, who ran also a flight school at the Curtiss-Bright Ranch. In 1907, Bright bought one square mile of frequently flooded land in what is now the Deer Park section of Hialeah. Everyone thought that he was crazy for wanting to live there, but he had heard that the area was to be drained.

To promote residential development, Bright donated land for school, churches, and municipal buildings. Rather than compete with the upper-class developments of Coral Gables and Miami Beach, Bright sought middle class homebuyers. Hialeah was incorporated in 1921, the same year Bright and Curtiss decided to build a horse track to attract more land buyers. Joseph Smoot agreed to build a track on Bright's land, and his investment paid off within 11 days of racing. The track's original landscaping was by James Donn, Sr., founder of Exotic Gardens florist and Gulfstream Park. Hurricanes in the late 1920s caused extensive damage in Hialeah, and it took some time for people to return even after things were rebuilt.

Despite the tremendous success of the Miami Jockey Club and despite the prevalence of betting at the track and other establishments, betting at horse racing was not legal in Florida until 1931. A 1927 Florida Supreme Court ban on betting suspended the Jockey Club's 1928 season, but in 1929, they had a new system called "buying option." To bet you bought a stock certificate (a postcard), and if the horse won you got a dividend. If the horse lost you were bankrupted.

Joseph E. Widener, a Philadelphia millionaire heir to a streetcar fortune, bought the Miami Jockey Club. The Widener family had been in horse racing since the 1890s. In 1931, the state legislature made it legal to bet on horse races, partly because it was a source of revenue for local governments struggling in the Great Depression. Widener hired Lester Giesler, architect, to rebuild the south Florida track, touring tracks across Europe and the United States to their best features into the Hialeah facility. Widener introduced turf racing from Europe and the Totalizer from Australia. The Totalizer was a mechanical way of calculating odds and payoffs and increased public confidence in the track's handling of bets. Widener, with the input of Bright, created Hialeah's famous infield lake with flamingos. The new Hialeah opened January 1932 after a $3 million rebuilding project.

Great horses, including Triple Crown winners Citation and Seattle Slew, raced here. A list of Hialeah stakes winners is a list of champion thoroughbreds. Although televised racing in the 1950s increased Hialeah's exposure and popularity, by the 1970s track management was threatening to close Hialeah and turn it into an industrial park. One of the track's major struggles during the late twentieth century was competition with Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course for the best racing dates and the best horses. The last race at Hialeah was May 22, 2001, and the track has since lost its racing and betting permits.

Since the spring of 2001, the park has been largely unused, with just a skeleton crew, a flock of flamingos, and the occasional wedding. Maintenance of the large, old buildings has been minimal, and recent hurricanes have added to the burden. What will happen to this south Florida landmark and thoroughbred racing legend? One proposal is to make this the site of a new baseball stadium. Another proposal involves condominiums. Because of current state laws regulating parimutuel betting and racing calendars, it is very unlikely that horses will ever run here again.


Source: John Crittenden, Hialeah Park: A Racing Legend. The Pickering Press, Miami, Florida, 1989.

The National Park Service's Historic American Building Collection includes 92 photographs of Hialeah race track.


UPDATE 1: Dec. 3, 2006 Miami Herald article, "Hialeah Stables Lose Historic Designation" (link no longer working; not on Herald's website any more)

UPDATE 2: Beth Dunlop's Architecture column in Miami Herald, Dec. 10, 2006 "High Stakes for Hialeah" (link no longer working; not on Herald's website any more)


Save Hialeah Park!

Hialeah Park Bites the Dust Unless Citizens Unite (from blog Eye on Miami)

Crumbling Hialeah from Cindy Pierson Dulay's

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Marjory Stoneman Douglas' House in Coconut Grove

Sunday Nov. 26, the Miami Herald reported that the Florida Division of State Lands plans to move Marjory Stoneman Douglas' Miami house three miles north to Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. The state would then auction the vacant lot, and the money would go towards maintenance of the 1926 structure.

The proposal to move the house is in response to conflict between the South Grove neighborhood and preservation and environmental groups interested in using the property as an educational center. While people on both sides of the issue agree that questions of traffic and appropriate land use need to be addressed, preservationists are also concerned (in the words of reporter Curtis Morgan) that a land auction would "raise the likelihood that the historic home of a woman often described as the environmental conscience of Florida would be replaced by a McMansion."

Marjory Stoneman Douglas led an incredible life, 108 years of it. Her book The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947, and in 1969 she founded Friends of the Everglades. Her autobiography, Voice of the River, is a favorite of mine. On pages 171 - 173, Douglas describes her Coconut Grove house.

I didn't need much of a house, just a workshop, a place of my own. All I wanted was one big room with living quarters tacked on. I knew an architect, George Hyde, who drew up some plans. He mostly built factories, which was fortunate, because I hoped my little house would be as stout and as sparse as a factory with not much to worry about.

As a 34-year-old divorced woman living with her father, buying her own house represented her independence: "The house was a great influence on my life, and so important that I often think of it more than the other things I was doing during those years."

Author John Rothchild, who edited the autobiography, describes on p. 16 his first visit to her house:

To get there, I had to drive through the middle of the business district, once a haven for beatniks and peyote-takers, now a fashionable stretch of liberal commerce. Beyond the business district are the residential subtropical jungles, and then among the ranchettes, Alhambras, and displaced plazzos is her mushroom-roofed cottage.

The house had no driveway, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas never learned to drive, and the house had no air conditioning, designed to be "open to breezes."

That the state is committed to preserving the house is admirable. That the house never truly fit into its neighborhood also seems apparent. But can the house remain true to the philosophy of its builder if it is moved, and something else built in its place?


Update on Marjory Stoneman Douglas House

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Fire Destroys Historic Building

Front-page news in Tampa this week is the Nov. 26 fire that destroyed an antiques store in the Ybor City National Historic Landmark District. The circa 1910 building at 2210 E Seventh Street burned so intensely that the historic Columbia Restaurant across the street was evacuated. Traffic still snarled Tuesday morning as commuters dealt with local street closings. The gutted building is scheduled to be demolished tomorrow.

Fire is a powerful source of change in historic districts. In Ybor City, the great fire of 1908 led to the construction of many of the district's brick buildings. But it was also fire that destroyed a Ybor city block in 2000, and it was fire that took another building this weekend. Owners of historic properties are well aware that their old buildings provide certain challenges when it comes to fire prevention. Building codes and construction methods have changed dramatically over the past 100 years. There's a reason why your insurance company doesn't think the original knob-and-tube wiring in your house is cute or quaint.

The current standard for fire protection in historic structures is "NFPA 914: Code for Fire Protection in Historic Structures" published by the National Fire Protection Authority. This is written as a building code that may be, and has been, adopted by many state and local authorities. Another source of information is the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and the 1000 Friends of Florida has an interesting report on disaster planning in general for Florida's historic resources.

Friday, November 24, 2006

In Small Places

This article in the Lakeland Ledger caught my eye ("After 51 Years, Bill Bell Shuts, the Door," Nov. 21, 2006). It's the story of a small commercial building in Winter Haven. This building has a strong pedigree, having been designed in the 1910s by Addison Mizner for J. Walker Pope, father of Dick Pope, who built Cypress Gardens. After a time as Pope Investments' office, the building became a bar owned by Bill Bell, who had previously worked at Cypress Gardens. The Hob Nob achieved a modicum of fame in the 1950s, but increased competition in the 1960s led Bell to close the bar and open a retail carpet store instead. The transformation was completed with the assistance of Gene Leedy, a prominent Winter Haven architect. The building served as a carpet store for 51 years, and is now awaiting its next incarnation.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Gobble Gobble

For Thanksgiving, enjoy these sites about the Florida Wild Turkey from the National Wild Turkey Federation and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Florida wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo osceola) are a subspecies of eastern wild turkeys, differentiated by coloration that better suits Florida habitats. Just this month, the National Wild Turkey Federation recognized Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Gregory "Todd" Hoyle as Florida Officer of the Year for his work to prevent illegal turkey hunting.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Go Gators and Pass the Chips

The Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching, which can mean only one thing:
the Florida - Florida State game! This year's renewal of the great college football rivalry will take place Saturday, November 25, 2006, at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

This is year is particularly special for the University of Florida, as 2006 is the 100th anniversary of the school's football program. Yes, it IS great to be a Florida Gator.

If any UF alumni find themselves in Tampa, head on over to Burrito Brothers on Dale Mabry in Carrollwood. It may not have the same ambience as the Gainesville original (there are tables and chairs, for one thing), but their guacamole is the best in town. If you can't make it to either Gainesville or Tampa, the Brothers can FedEx frozen burritos to your doorstep.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Eustis, Florida History, a Local History Blog

I've interested in whether or not blogs are an effective way of sharing historical research, or of raising public awareness and interest in local history.

One interesting site I've run across that suggests that blogs do have the potential to attain these goals is Eustis, Florida History Blog. According to the bloggers,"This was started by local researchers in an effort to disseminate some of the information about the historic town of Eustis, Florida." It is an image-rich site, and an interesting way to share local history with a world-wide audience.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Florida's State Fruit, The Orange

"The orange is Florida, and it made Florida, providing an authentic Fountain of Youth with its vitamin highs, supplying the legendary gold that the state's explorers and settlers lusted after." *

Symbolic of luxury, growth, and health, oranges suit Florida both culturally and agriculturally. Using the orange as an iconic symbol, early-twentieth-century promoters sold 10-acre lots to gentlemen farmers. If their advertisements are to be believed, diaphanous nymphs plucked ripe round fruit backlit by a glowing sunset. The reality of grubbing new groves, waiting years for the first crop, then lugging heavy bags of lumpy fruit to a packing house and on to a northern-bound train was quite another matter. But those early settlers persevered, making citrus a key element in Florida agriculture, as it still is today. The images live on as well. Counties, trains, football games -- what in Florida has not been named after the fruit?

It is no surprise that the orange is Florida's state fruit. The surprise is that it wasn't named so until 2005. The orange blossom was already the state flower, and orange juice had been the state beverage for years, but no state fruit. A group of Sarasota elementary school students made this discovery when they read about children in New Jersey campaigning to make blueberries their state fruit. So the Sarasota kids wrote letters, poems, and songs, and successfully lobbied the Florida legislature to pass a bill signed by Gov. Jeb Bush officially naming the orange as Florida's state fruit.

As a footnote, the Sarasota students' efforts in turn inspired New Hampshire students to convince their state legislators to name the pumpkin as the Granite State's official fruit.

For more information on Florida state symbols, click here.

(* Helen L. Kohen, "Perfume, Postcards, and Promises: The Orange in Art and Industry" Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol 23, 1998)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Weekly Florida history news round up

Statues Return as Bridge to History (Clearwater, Tampa Tribune, 11/11/06)

Babcock Cowboy Hangs Up His Hat (Arcadia, DeSoto Sun-Herald, 11/15/06)

A New Day on the Green (Pensacola golf course, Pensacola News Journal, 11/10/06)

Orlando Bank Tower Fetches Record Price (South Florida Sun Sentinel, 11/17/06)

Original Town Hall, Jail Sold (Rockledge, Florida Today , 11/14/06)

Orange-A-Fair Raises Funds for Historical Bank (Citra, Ocala Star Banner, 11/12/06)

Cleanup Yes, But Who Will Pay Cost? (St. Augustine, Ponce de Leon Golf Course, Florida Times Union, 11/11/06)

Brandon Bungalow Becomes Landmark (Tampa Tribune, 11/15/06)

Historic House Has New Home (Mims, Florida Today, 11/13/06)

Two Downtown Projects May Get Historic Renovation Grants (Jacksonville, Financial News & Daily Record, 11/14/06)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Monument of States

This month the National Trust announced the winners of the 2006 National Preservation Awards, including Hampton Inn's Save-A-Landmark program. According to the program's website, the goal is "to identify and help refurbish some of our nation's historical, fun and unique roadside attractions." Promoting cultural and heritage tourism seems appropriate for a nationwide hotel chain.

In Florida, the Save-A-Landmark program refurbished the Monument of States near Kissimmee. This is a World War II-era piece of commemorative folk art, the brain child of Dr. Charles Bressler-Pettis. Pettis solicited donations of rocks from every state, and assembled them into a 50-foot-tall tower symbolizing national unity. The pre-Disney roadside attraction was fading a bit when Hampton Inn, in conjunction with AAA South, cleaned it up in November 2001.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Weeki Wachee Mermaids Eating Watermelon

Here's an old Weeki Wachee postcard I found recently of mermaids eating watermelon under water.

(I find it oddly disturbing, but what do you think?)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sunken Gardens

After The Florida Show yesterday we headed over to Sunken Gardens. The day started out gloomy, but as we reached downtown St. Petersburg, the sky cleared. Just what you would expect from the Sunshine City. (The nickname was coined in the 1910s by the editor of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent, who promised to give papers away free any day the sun didn't shine. The paper was in business for 75 years or so, so you can tell that didn't happen too often.)

Sunken Gardens was one of many small roadside attractions that capitalized on the steady stream of middle-class tourists who drove to Florida in the early twentieth century. All that was needed was something to catch the eye, to tempt drivers to pull over for a quick stop. Some roadside attractions incorporated some part of the natural environment, since Florida's image was that of an exotic, tropical Garden of Eden. When plants alone were not enough of a draw, the attractions added birds or reptiles (good and evil) or water features (the Fountain of Youth). Whether or not it was intentionally done, the roadside attractions both took from and added to Florida's mythic identity.

But who's to say if all that crossed the mind of George Turner, Sr., a horticulturally inclined plumber who drained a small lake in his backyard and planted a few things? Eventually, enough people came to look, that he started charging admission. With more plants, a few reptiles, some parrots and flamingos, Turner's Sunken Gardens was on its way.

Next door to the Gardens was a large Mediterranean Revival building that housed the Sanitary Public Market. In the 1940s this became a Coca Cola bottling plant, and in the 1960s the Turner family bought it and turned it into "The World's Largest Gift Shop." I am still sorry that I never got to visit the gift shop, which closed in 1995, a few years before I moved to Tampa.

In 1998, the Turners put the Gardens up for sale. After rumors that a nudist colony would buy it, the property was purchased by the City of St. Petersburg. The city removed most of the animals and renovated the former public market building, which now holds a much smaller gift shop, offices, meeting rooms, a Carrabba's restaurant, a Coldstone Creamery ice cream shop, and Great Explorations (a children's science museum).

My favorite part of Sunken Gardens? The sidewalks (see the middle photograph above). They are concrete, with lines that look like they were drawn with a stick while the cement was still wet. Each section is painted a different color.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in America list included "Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods," recognizing the irreversible change the loss of original buildings brings to a community. A "teardown" is when an old house or building is demolished to make way for new construction. The old building may have been perceived as being too small, too dated, too deteriorated, or too modest. Change results from both what was lost and what is built in its place. Whether that change is for better or worse, is in the eye of the beholder (to mix a few metaphors).

The National Trust's website includes a section on teardowns, with useful information on protection of historic districts, planning and design tools, and a guide for community leaders. The National Trust recently looked at teardowns on a state-by-state level. It should be no surprise to Floridians that our state is a leader for this particular trend. The Trust's report identified several particularly hard-hit communities, most of which are in the central and southern parts of the state.

For a glimpse of the other side of this discussion, take a look at, a website that actually markets properties identified as potential teardowns. Florida is one of their target areas.

"Teardowns radically change the fabric of a community. Without proper safeguards, historic neighborhoods will lose the identities that drew residents to put down roots in the first place."
--- Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Historic Florida in the News

Here are some stories from the past week about Florida's historic places:

Miami: Renovation of historic Jackson's Soul Food Restaurant (Miami Herald, November 9, 2006)

Orlando: "When Smoke Clears, Go Visit Gatorland" (Orlando Sentinel, November 7, 2006)

Tallahassee: Preservation of Old City Waterworks? (Tallahassee Democrat, November 6, 2006)

Orlando: Morse Museum restores old signs (Orlando Sentinel, November 2, 2006)

Tampa: "Restoring Glory to the Heights" (St. Petersburg Times, November 3, 2006)

Punta Gorda: Planning for the future (Sun Herald, November 6, 2006)

St. Petersburg: 50th anniversary of Bringe Music Center (St. Petersburg Times, November 6, 2006)

The Florida Show

Sunday, I'm going to The Florida Show at the St. Petersburg Coliseum. It's worth the trip just to see the building, a St. Petersburg Historic Landmark, and imagine the balls and dancers and swing bands of the 1920s and 30s. But then there's the added bonus of perhaps finding the perfect piece of Florida memorabilia. Too early for Christmas shopping? Oh well, I'll just have to get it for myself.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Cigar City Magazine

Cigar City Magazine is one year old, proving that local history can be fun! Hats off to Marilyn Figueredo and her partners for creating a colorful magazine showcasing Tampa's heritage to a worldwide audience.

(Story in the St. Petersburg Times: Cigar Magazine Finds Audience)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Hemingway's Cats in Key West

A new book I read recently is Hemingway's Cats by Carlene Fredericka Brennen (Pineapple Press, 2006). Ernest Hemingway loved cats. And women. Brennen's book delves into his relationships with both.

A trip to would be incomplete without a visit to the Hemingway House and Museum on Whitehead Street, to pay your respects to its six-toed feline inhabitants. According to Brennen, these cats are not descended from Hemingway's pet cats, but are more likely the descendents of Hemingway's neighbor's pet cats. did, however, have many pet cats at his home in Havana, where he went so far as to build a tower -- a four-story building -- in his garden, just for the cats.

Some Florida Blogs I Read

Here's a few local and neighborhood blogs I read:

Sticks of Fire

Seminole Heights

Tampa Heights

West Side Stories

Save Our Sarasota

Save Riverview

St. Petersblog

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ochopee, Florida 34141

March 2001 photograph of the Ochopee post office on the Tamiami Trail.

Renowned as The Smallest Post Office in the United States, this small white building was originally a tool shed behind a general store. When the store burned down in the 1950s, the post office moved into the shed, where it has been ever since.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Florida-bred Miesque's Approval Wins Breeder's Cup Mile

Yesterday seven-year-old Florida-bred Miesque's Approval won the Breeder's Cup Mile at Churchill Downs. The Breeder's Cup is the annual championship for international thoroughbred racing, a day of the best competing against the best. Miesque's Approval is Florida through and through, based at Calder Race Course, owned by Live Oak Plantation, ridden by Eddie Castro, and trained by Marty Wolfson, son of Louis Wolfson, who in turn owned the Florida-bred Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Congratulations!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Farewell, Fine Feathered Friend

Flamingo lovers across the country are mourning. As of November 1, Union Products, Inc., the (surprisingly) New England manufacturers of the pink plastic lawn ornaments that define kitsch, has closed its factory doors due to rising production costs. Every year, for 49 years, Union Products turned out a quarter million of the leggy birds. For more information, try this article from the St. Petersburg Times, or this short history of the
pink flamingo.