Friday, May 8, 2015

Henry Flagler's Royal Palm Hotel

Miami River and Royal Palm Hotel, circa 1907. (Click to enlarge)
Detail from first photo.
Royal Palm Hotel, 1912. (Click to enlarge)
Royal Palm Hotel and Brickell Point on the Miami River. (unknown date)
The view today. (Click to enlarge)


The Miami Herald - Sunday, January 21, 1996

It is as if a mythical Eden once occupied the place. Then, just 100 years ago, it began to disappear.

"I found Miami all woods," wrote John Sewell, recalling the day he stepped off the steamer Della onto ground that is now downtown Miami. It was March 3, 1896, and Sewell had come to build a hotel there.

His trip began in late February when Henry Flagler summoned Sewell to his Palm Beach office and told him to prepare a site on the north bank of the Miami River where the stream met Biscayne Bay.

Flagler said "he was ready to start work down there to build a city and the hotel Royal Palm and wanted me to go and make the start."

Sewell, only 27 but a veteran of Flagler 's projects, found "a perfect wilderness" with few inhabitants. There were only three permanent homes, each on a few hacked-out acres. Julia Tuttle lived in the only home on the north shore.

Also there, Sewell found "several little shacks and a few tents," on a crushed rock lane that ran up from the river.

Now South Miami Avenue, this was the center of commerce, a collection of raw, Wild West-style buildings. Sewell's mission was to strip a square mile of jungle and hammock, making way for a railroad station and resort hotel .

The first train arrived on April 13. Men and material began to follow quickly. By July, the hotel 's foundations were in. More than 500 workers were on the job, and housing was impossible to find.

Incredibly, a 350-room hotel -- which contained another 100 rooms for servants -- opened on Jan. 16, 1897, across from where the Dupont Plaza Hotel now sits. Estimated cost was $750,000. Sewell described the event as a "blaze of glory" and so it was.

The Royal Palm was a giant, standing five stories high -- six stories at its center -- and 700 feet long. It had a generator that created its own electric power, the first in Miami.

Fully illuminated, the vision must have been like a huge ship, a Titanic, rising from the darkness where just months before there was wilderness and panthers roamed.

Painted yellow with white trim, topped by a red mansard roof and sporting green shutters, the hotel had portico entrances lined by white columns. Guests took sea breezes in rocking chairs on the Royal Palm 's 578-foot-long veranda overlooking crystal-clear Biscayne Bay. There they might read Caroline Washburn Rockwood's hot novel, An East Florida Romance, published in 1897 with the Royal Palm as its setting.

For many years, the frontier village of Miami existed only because the railroad stopped there and because tourists came to stay at the hotel .

Open only during the winter season, January through mid- March, the high-point event at the hotel was the annual Washington's Birthday Ball on Feb. 22. The few people who lived in the town were not included.

"No one local was allowed in. It was very high-end social," said Miami historian Arva Parks Moore, author of Miami Memoirs, a Pictorial Edition of John Sewell's Own Story.

The Royal Palm lived a glamorous but short life. Declared a fire hazard, it was torn down in 1930. No structure has stood on that spot since, and some suggest it is haunted.


  1. Sewell arrived in Miami in 1996, the year of Miami's incorporation. He was accompanied by his brother, with whom he also started Sewell Brothers clothing store.

    John Sewell also developed the method of using crushed local rock -- coquina -- for street paving and building material, giving early Miami dazzling white streets and buildings.

    1. I'm sure you meant 1896..

      Thanks for the comment.


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