Sunday, May 17, 2015

Venetian Pool...the early years

Miami Daily News, Dec. 13, 1925.
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Venetian Pool under construction, Sept. 1923.
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Venetian Pool under construction, Nov. 1924.

Young swimmer at Venetian Pool, 1925.

Politician William Jennings Bryan at Venetian Pool, Jan. 14, 1925.

Children at Venetian Pool, Aug. 1925.

From the Miami Daily News, June 1, 1926.

Miami Herald, August 17, 2000

The Venetian , as much as any landmark in Coral Gables, captures the essence of Merrick's vision of idyllic life under the subtropical sun.

An advertisement in The Herald, trumpeting the Dec. 13, 1924, opening of the Venetian Casino and Pool , described the new attraction as ``the foremost example of the Coral Gables ideal of rendering practical needs in terms of harmonious beauty.''

Highfalutin' words for a converted rock pit. But ones that have weathered seven-plus decades well. The Venetian was a design decades ahead of its time - a Disney-like theme creation begun in 1923, five years before Walt even drew that cartoon mouse named Mickey.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Miami's pioneers called the Venetian area Guavonia, after a stand of guava trees. The land was settled by the Rev. Solomon Merrick. His son George, along with his cousins Denman and George Fink, drew up the dream of ``City Beautiful,'' Coral Gables.

The coral in reference was oolitic limestone hard under a scratch of surface soil. Many of the earliest Gables homes, including Merrick's own, were built from blocks cut from the rock pit. Through a combination of talents - Merrick's marketing sense and designer-illustrator Denman Fink's visual sense - they saw in an ugly scar the future Shangri-La of South Florida.

``It's amazing they had the foresight to do this, to start with a rock quarry and make it into a picture of old Venice,'' says Dona Lubin, historic preservation director for Coral Gables.

Fink gave sinuous shape to the gnarled pit, sculpting a 185- by 220-foot lagoon complete with small grottos and rocky precipices. He dressed it in vines, palms and exotic flora and erected a post-card Mediterranean villa at its edge - complete with stairs descending into the drink, fairy tale towers topped by Spanish barrel tiles shipped in from Havana, exposed beams of rare pecky cypress, weathered stucco and exposed bricks.

All of it, Lubin says, was carefully crafted to appear old and firmly established, even when spanking new.

Prospective land buyers were supposed to step off the bus from chilly Northern towns and forget that what they were looking at was really a risky real estate venture.

And, says Miami-Dade County historian Arva Moore Parks, who is writing a biography of Merrick, for a short time, it worked like a charm.

``As you can imagine, if you were trying to wow somebody, the Venetian Pool would do a good job of it,'' she says.

The pool quickly surpassed the nearby Coral Gables Country Club as sales and social center of the booming town, she says.

The casino, a name referring to fine summerhouses, not gambling dens, hosted a run of promotional events - swimming and diving exhibitions, beauty pageants, tea dances and a variety of publicity stunts.

At one point, the pool was drained to sit 900 patrons for the debut of the Miami Grand Opera Company. Another musical ensemble, the Paul Whiteman orchestra, once donned swimsuits for an aquatic serenade.

To deliver his sales pitch, Merrick even hired erstwhile presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who was paid $50,000 cash and $50,000 in land for a year of extolling the virtues of Coral Gables poolside.

Swimming great Johnny Weismuller appeared as did other celebs, though Parks can find no evidence swimming sensation Esther Williams, often cited as a famous guest, ever stuck a toe in.

The killer hurricane of 1926 cooled the nation's Florida fever and cost Merrick his fortune. He sold the Venetian site to the city the following year for the whopping sum of $12,600.

The pool , though it has had its ups and down, never lost its luster. It was a social mecca for soldiers and their families during World War II and became a family ritual for decades.

Parks learned to swim there, as did many of her children. Kids learned other important life lessons as well.

``People always come back with some story of how they got their first kiss in the back of the cave,'' says Jane Schmitt, who has managed the Venetian for 19 years.

Things in the grotto, judging by a recent swim through an adolescent gaggle, haven't changed much.

``It's one of those places that has generations of people with similar stories, which is wonderful to have in a place of constant change,'' says Parks. ``The boys still chase the girls in the caves or these days maybe the girls chase the boys, I don't know.''

venetian pool, coral gables, florida

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