Set on the edge of sea grass flats where the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay meet the Atlantic Ocean live a cluster of seven wooden shacks with a history as wild as they come.
As night falls over Miami, music and laughter travel over the water. Boats head south toward the sound, away from city, to a spot a mile off the mainland – but seemingly a world away – where a collection of pastel-colored stilted buildings perch like long-legged birds over the sand flats. The waters between the structures are unmarked and treacherous, and, as the moon rises, a yacht runs aground. From across the channel, the Nichols family piles into their boat and spends the next few hours ferrying people from the beached yacht to their intended destination: the infamous Quarterdeck Club.
At least, that how John Nichols remembers that night in the 1950s when he tells the story on the PBS documentary, Stiltsville: Generations on the Flats. He was just a child then – no more than 11 – and his family, headed by his famous Miami architect father Perry Nichols, was one of the many affluent households who owned houses out on the bay. He talks with a fondness about his childhood spent in “Stiltsville,” and he laughs when the subject turns to the rumors of just what went on in the “couple’s cubicles” of the Quarterdeck Club. While his family’s own home didn’t survive Hurricane Donna in 1960, he was more than happy to take part in protecting these landmarks almost 40 years later alongside the Stiltsville Trust, an organization made up of the last Stiltsville residents that maintains the remaining houses. Here, we take a look inside the history of how this Miami landmark came to be, in addition to its state today after surviving Hurricane Irma, plus how you can visit the stubborn relic by way of your own boat or kayak or a guided boat tour.
The Beginning of an Old Miami Legend
In 1932, Miami was a quickly growing city – and that included the Bay. “Crawfish” Eddy was the first to build out on the sand flats. Officially, his “building” was a little barge that served a bait and tackle shop, as well as selling the occasional chowder and sandwich. Unofficially, it was a hotbed for rum running and illegal gambling, making Crawfish a mythological figure in Miami crime lore. It’s also how the following first structures of Stiltsville came to be: They weren’t set on stilts at all, but rather they were barges and boats run aground that people used as platforms to build their houses upon (talk about a foundation that is not up to code). Originally, the area was known as “The Shacks” and remained a largely residential area until the Calvert Club opened in the late 1930s. The popularity of the club lead to other entrepreneurial spirits to look to the open water as a way to make money without too much interference by the law. The result? Miami’s very on red light district…but on water.
Debauchery on the Bay
In its prime years, before Hurricane Donna, Stiltsville consisted of 27 residential and commercial structures. While the homes were often full of young families looking to escape the crowds and bustle of the city, the clubs were known for throwing the kind of raucous parties (the Miami Police often trolled and raided the area looking for gambling and prostitution rings) that would make Gatsby proud.
The most popular of these hotspots was the aforementioned Quarterdeck Club, a member’s only location that drew nightly crowds in the hundreds after LIFE Magazine ran an article on it as the premier place to see and be seen in Miami. Rumors of gambling and prostitution constantly circulated about the club, which lead to a raid in 1949. That raid turned up no evidence of any kind of illegal activity, but a following one on the junior Chamber of Commerce party a few years later found not only gambling but “lewd literature.” It was the event that cemented the reputation of Stiltsville as a community of sin shacks in the minds of the conservative middle class families moving into nearby Biscayne Key, who put pressure on the city to regulate the building and activities of the area. So when Hurricane Betsy swept through in ’65, the pressure was too great and few of the buildings were given the necessary permits to rebuild. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, only seven buildings remained standing on their spindly legs.
In the ’80s, that part of the bay home to the remaining structures was incorporated into the Biscayne National Park, creating a tension between the park and the Stiltsville residents. You see, public land can’t be used for private use but those houses had been there long before the park. Residents began receiving eviction notices and were told if they didn’t take down their homes and leave the area, the Park Services would do it for them. The remaining families banded together with those who had already lost there homes, like John Nichols, and enlisted the help of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to create the group Save Old Stiltsville (or SOS). They used legend and nostalgia to collect 75,000 signatures from South Florida residents and testified in front of congress more than five times. Despite the efforts, however, in 2003, it was finally decided that the buildings would be preserved and incorporated into the park as historical landmarks but they could no longer be used as private homes.
What’s There to See?
Stiltsville remains a popular destination for kayakers and boaters. If you don’t have your own means to get out there, however, HistoryMiami offers a two-hour cruise tour hosted by local historian, Dr. Paul George. The tours leave from Bayside and are chartered by Island Queen Boats. Just be sure to book early – this monthly tour fills up quick and is always a sold-out affair. But certainly, not as large as the crowds that once descended upon this watery and wild landmark set in the sea.