Mangroves to Mansions. By Audrey Ross 2004

May 15, 2004

Chapter 1 – Our Founder: Arthur Vining Davis

            The magnificent homes, deep waterways, secure atmosphere and beautiful bayfront location of Gables Estates are the direct result of Arthur Vining Davis’ vision.  One of the wealthiest men in Florida in the 1950s, Mr. Davis saw the potential for this 200+ Coral Gables neighborhood and built his personal home just to the south at Journey’s End.  Considering that Mr. Davis at that time owned hundreds of thousands of acres throughout Florida – including an estimated 1/8th of Dade County – his decision to spend his final days near Biscayne Bay reflects the quality and prestige of our community.

            Mr. Davis was born on May 30, 1867, in Sharon, Massachusetts. He was the son of a Congregational minister who attended Roxbury Latin School in Boston and graduated from Amherst College. In 1888, Mr. Davis moved to Pittsburg to take a job at $14 a week with a new company that was planning to manufacture products made from aluminum. At the time, no one could have foreseen the dramatic future of this metal. Aluminum is the most abundant element in the earth’s crust, but it is one of the most difficult to separate from the soil and turn into useful material. Pure aluminum is three times lighter than steel, but not nearly as strong. ALCOA pioneered the use of alloys that approach the strength of steel with very little gain in weight. Today, aircrafts are made of an alloy of aluminum, copper, magnesium, silicon, and zinc, while spacecraft use a light and more expensive alloy of aluminum and lithium. Mr. Davis was “at the right place, at the right time.”

            Applying his soon-to-become legendary business skills, Mr. Davis quickly moved up the ranks to general manager, and in 1910 became president of the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). For the next 40 years, Mr. Davis led ALCOA through two wartime booms, serving as Chairman of the Board for many years. One of his many accomplishments was building the world’s largest aluminum smelter on the Saguenay River in Quebec in 1925. Both the city and the town that resulted were named “Arvida” from the initials of his name – Arthur Vining Davis.

            Through those decades, Mr. Davis’ business interests were centered in Pittsburgh and New York. Then, in 1949, he moved his residence to Florida and at the age of 82 launched a brand-new career as an investor. In Florida, Mr. Davis purchased large tracts of land throughout the state, as well as bank, airlines, shipping companies, hotels and other enterprises. Mr. Davis was heavily involved in The First National Bank of Miami, which later became Southeast Bank, First Union and, in turn, Wachovia.

            Mr. Davis’ primary land-holding company, Arvida, ultimately controlled acreage in southwestern Dade County, western Broward County, southern Palm BeachCounty. And the Florida Panhandle. At one point, Mr. Davis owned more than 100,000 acres of Dade County real estate, becoming the county’s largest landowner.

            Mr. Davis died in 1962 at the age of 95 as one of the best known and most respected businessmen in the Southeastern United States. After his death, Arvida became a primary developer of master-planned, residential and resort communities nationwide. In four decades, the Boca Raton company developed more than 60 planned communities, comprising more than 39,000 new homes in Florida, Georgia, Texas, California and North Carolina. In 1997, the St. Joe Company, based in Jacksonville purchased Arvida’s brand and its properties and began creating new residential neighborhoods in Tallahassee and along the Florida coast.

            Mr. Davis’ legacy also lives on in the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, based in Jacksonville. A national philanthropic organization, the foundation provides annual grants in the areas of private higher education, secondary education, graduate theological education, health care and public television.


Chapter 2 – The First Sales: 75 Cents an Acre!

            The documented history of the land that would become Gables Estates dates back to 1888. At that time, the trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund of the State of Florida sold 603.28 acres of land (including all of the land comprising Gables Estates) to Edward L. White and his wife Susie G. White for $452 – a price of just 75 cents per acre.

            Within a few years, demand for Florida land had increased sharply. In 1893, the Whites sold the same 603 acres to Henry Maddock and his wife Jeanie E. Maddock for $4,400 – an 875 percent profit in just five years. Three years later, the Maddocks sold 220 of those acres to Joseph Jennings; the price in unrecorded. Little happened to the bayfront tract of land in the early years of the 20th century. In 1927, Mr. A. Bates Curry (Miss Lamar Louise Curry’s father) bought a lot on Tahiti Beach RoadCoral Gables, Mr. Curry added a clause to the contract that he could get his money back if a road to the lot wasn’t built in four months. He got his money back because Merrick was losing money. from the city’s founder George Merrick. But because of the area’s remote location form downtown

            With the end of the Coral Gables land rush and the Great Depression, the bayfront area in 1934 was the subject of litigation between Miami Corporation, a Delaware company, and Coral Gables Securities Corporation, including defendants George and Eunice Merrick.

            In 1937, a special master approved the sale of a large tract of land, including the Gables Estate area, to Mimi Corporation for $100,000. A year later, the company began selling lots in Coral Gables’ new “Biscayne Bay Section.”

            The continuing depression and the outbreak of World War II limited residential sales in the area during the 1940s. In fact, plans for development languished until Arthur Vining Davis purchased 130.51 acres in southern Coral GablesCocoplum Beach on June 18, 1952. He soon organized the overall plat and called it property.

Chapter 3 – The Creation of Gables Estates

            In the early 1950s, Mr. Davis had big plans for Florida, buying undeveloped land as well as commercial buildings and properties like the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Demonstrating his life-long knack for putting words together, Mr. Davis named his new construction company “CALIF”, which was short for “come and live in Florida.” He also called his boat “ELDA,” the abbreviated version of Elizabeth Davis.

            Soon after his arrival in Florida, Mr. Davis retained Harry C. Schwebke as the consulting engineering firm to plan and develop Gables Estates. Working in this job was Richard Schuster, who developed the land planning for this area. At that time few people had the vision that Mr. Davis did. The area was literally “a mangrove swap”, inhabited primarily by Florida mosquitoes and water moccasins. Workmen literally killed the snakes as they went along, piling them three to four feet high “to clear area for development.”

            On July 21, 1955, Mr. Davis deeded the land that ultimately became Gables Estates and Journey’s End to Three Bay Properties, a Florida corporation. Two years later, he transferred more land to “Three Bays Properties #2” and “Three Bay Properties #3.” Noted Miami businessman Charles Babcock was named as president of Three Bays Properties.

            On March 30, 1956, Gables Estates received its name and was officially platted. At that time, Coral Gables was a city without any other exclusive subdivisions. Thus, Mr. Davis’s choice of the name “Gables Estates” proved to be very attractive to the city leaders. They envisioned that this first “gated” community would attract the upper echelon of homeowners, increasing the revenue to the city through a special taxing district and enhancing the overall stature of the municipality.

            In the mid 1950s, the city’s records began to reflect the dredging taking place throughout Gables Estates in order to prepare the lots for sale. Widely known for his frugality, Mr. Davis did not want to spend any more than necessary to fill the lots and raise them to an elevation suitable for sale. He directed his engineer, Mr. Schuster, to calculate the amount of fill that was required and dredge only that amount from the canals.

            Mr. Davis owned most of Kendall at the time, where there were ample supplies of dirt that could be extracted and transported to the site. However, he declined this opportunity as “too expensive” – a decision that ultimately benefited Gables Estates residents. As a result, the canals that wind though Gables Estates were dug deep and wide, because of amount of fill that was necessary to complete the lots.

            In addition, the community’s sea walls, which residents now treasure and view as a major amenity, to Mr. Davis were on a bare “necessity expenditure” to keep the fill from sliding back into the water. Even so, Mr. Davis spent $543,000 putting in four miles of seawalls on his southeastern Gables property. In 1957, the covenants were established to govern the type and size of residences that could be built in Gables Estates. Another step forward occurred that year when a sewer agreement was reached with the City of Coral Gables covering 2,700 acres of land in the southeast section. Gables Estates property owners were assessed at $310 per acre over 10 years for this improvement.

            One of the first houses in Gables Estates was 8802 Arvida Drive, built for Mr. Deutschbeins, heir to the Budweiser fortune. Because the area around Arvida Drive was higher ground with beautiful flora and fauna, this section of Gables Estates was developed first. While all lots in the subdivision were offered simultaneously, this street proved the most popular in the beginning.

            It was Arvida Drive that Miss Lamar Louise Curry and her mother settled at 8815. Another early home was 8805 Arvida Drive, which Mr. Davis built for his secretary, Evelyn Mitchell. Miss Mitchell came to Miami in 1949 and soon became indispensable in managing Mr. Davis’ business matters. When he died, she inherited $1 million in cash, his Journey’s End estate at 9555 Old cutler Road and life benefits from a trust fund. Soon known as “the secretary worth a million dollars,” Miss Mitchell married real estate salesman Terence Campbell in 1965, but divorced after only two years. “I’ve worked all my life, and now I’m having fun,” said Miss Mitchell in a 1971 Miami Herald interview. “And I’m not going to leave a dime!” She passed away in 1973, still with a considerable estate.

            Meanwhile, after Mr. Davis death in 1962, sales were slow at Gables Estates, where the original sales office was the home now owned by noted businessman Charles Babcock became the agent of record for sales in an effort to sell out the development. To get the ball rolling, Mr. Babcock sold two lots on Arvida Parkway for $1.00 each to Mr. Schuster, the engineer who had done the work for the subdivision. That way, Mr. Babcock could put those lots in the “sold” column when talking to other buyers. Unfortunately, the deal required Mr. Schuster to sell the two lots back for $1.00 each, if called upon to do so. As sales began to roll in, Mr. Babcock put that provision into effect, and Mr. Schuster had to sell his lots back for the original $2.00 price – undoubtedly the cheapest sale in modern Coral Gables history.

Chapter 4 – Organizing the Subdivision 

        Gables Estates began filling up in the early 1960s. Among the early residents still active in the community today are Miss Lamar Louise Curry, 8815 Arvida Drive, and Bernard and Gerda Janis. A Gables Estates price list from 1965 noted that lots were available from $17,000 to $65,000. All potential buyers needed to be approved in the Gables Estates Club prior to purchase. On the financial side, all cash was required at closing, or 25 percent down with the balance covered by a 6 percent mortgage. A detailed 1966 report by John D. McKee, Jr. Finance Chairman, Gables Estates Club, provided an in-depth look at Gables Estates in the mid 1960s. At that time, 41 lots remained to be sold. The developer was preparing to turn over the subdivision to its residents in June, and assessments – which had been $200 per year per lot – were expected to rise to $350 per year.

Other expected costs included:

  • A security guard and a car at a price of $2.50 per hour ($21,900 per year)
  • Construction of two gate houses at $20,000 to $100,000
  • $2,000 a month to Gables Estates’ landscaping
  • $87,000 to complete the sea wall near the road sides

Three years later, on February 13, 1969 all rights of each of the Three Bays Properties were assigned to The Gables Estates Club, Inc. At that time, all new homes needed approval by the city’s Architectural Board. The three members of the review board received $25 each on the final inspection of a home. While it had been suggested that residents Ed Grafton and Al Parker, both architects, might help the review board, McKee recommended against the practice of having Gables Estates residents approve or disapprove their neighbors’ homes.

            In the early 1970s, longtime Miami builder H. V. “Hank” Green presented plans for 18 home sites in the 40-acre Journey’s End subdivision just to the south of Gables Estates. At that time, lots sold from $200,000 on up. During that decade, prices for Gables Estates homes continued to rise steadily. For instance, when Phillip Levitz and his wife decided not to build on their lot at One Casuarina Concourse in 1976, they put it on the market for $475,000. The 80’s and 90’s only served to advance the prices. The early 21st century prices, in many instances doubled, and today the march of value increases continues, with no ceiling in sight as waterfront land in Florida shrinks in the amount of available and the number of new residents seeking the ultimate in luxury property increases.

Chapter 5 – A Prestigious Community

            For the past 25 years, the homes of Gables Estates have grown in both beauty and in value. The maturing of the community’s landscaping adds to the region’s visual appeal, along with the sailboats, sea birds, cloud formations and all the other aspects of the Biscayne Bay “waterscape.” Many residents’ homes have been featured in regional and national architecture and interior design publications. As on example, a striking Leucadendra Drive contemporary home was displayed on the over of a 1981 issue of Homes International magazine. This stunning home, designed by Donald Charles Rider, constituted a “state of the art” home in its day. Like many homes in Gables Estates, this particular house has been timeless in its design, sits proudly today on a lagoon lot and has been enjoyed by three different families who have updated it following each successive sale.

            In a 1986 letter to residents, Anna Mae Esslinger, Allen C. Harper and Ronald A. Shuffield, of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell (EWM) Realtors called Gables Estates “A World Apart, but not Away.” They cited the community’s deep waterways, bayfront views, contemporary design and formal tradition as key elements in attracting buyers with discriminating taste.


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