Stiltsville makes its last stand

SUN JOURNAL

Houses: A group of shacks resting on Biscayne Bay, hangouts of the wild and wealthy of Miami, is to disappear in July, by order of the National Park Service.

May 15, 1999|By Jenny Staletovich | Jenny Staletovich,WEST PALM BEACH POST

BISCAYNE BAY, Fla. -- It's just after 6 p.m. on a Thursday, and while the rest of Miami descends into traffic hell on U.S. 1 or the Palmetto Expressway, Chris Knight glides toward his little yellow house in the bay.

Above him, the sky glows orange, on the edge of twilight.

Underneath, the sea goes from green to blue to where you can see the stingrays flapping their wings and sharks grazing the sea grass. Pelicans and cormorants skim the water. Suddenly, on the horizon, a stand of old fishing cabins rises on stilts out of Biscayne Bay. Knight points. "Can you see them?" he shouts as the Cape Florida lighthouse comes into view.

It's as if he's commuting through time. It's not hard to imagine when sportsmen scouring the globe for game fish wound up here, sitting around Crawfish Eddie's beer-and-bait shack, telling tales of tarpon and bonefish. Or when a meal at the snazzy Quarterdeck Club cost as much as a night at a first-rate Miami Beach hotel, and yachts, drunkenly navigated, littered the flats. Or when Plucky Pierre opened the fab Bikini Club in the 1960s.

Stiltsville is almost gone now. Of the original 30, only Knight's Bay Chateau and six neighboring houses remain, desperately clinging to their leases on the flats in Biscayne National Park's 180,000 acres. Come July, unless it can be persuaded otherwise, the National Park Service will evict the "town" when its 25-year bay-bottom leases expire. Private residences, even if they are largely reserved for weekend use, have no place in a pristine, public place, the Park Service says.

Stiltsvillians are outraged. They believe they are a part of history, a revered relic routinely featured in tours, books and movies as an example of Miami's exotic past. They have sheltered, at least for a night, every governor through Lawton Chiles. And where else could the protagonist of a novel slay a man with the bill of a mounted marlin? When MGM needed a setting for "Around the World Under the Sea," Lloyd Bridges and Shirley Eaton came here. And those "Miami Vice" boat chases? What would they be without Stiltsville as a backdrop?

But the community battle for recognition by the National Register of Historic Places has so far failed. Without that listing, the Park Service says, it has no authority to renew leases.

Long before Miami's landscape was a canyon of high-rises, Stiltsville was born. Its heyday for bawdy socializing spanned nearly three decades, from the first shack erected by Crawfish Eddie Walker -- widely considered the founding father -- to the Bikini Club. The clubs came first, built on barges wedged onto the flats, and drew the wealthy and the wild.

"Any time [outboard-motor maker] Ralph Evinrude would come down, when he was between wives, he'd have big parties on his yacht, and the parties would kind of migrate between the yachts and the Quarterdeck Club," says Capt. Bill Curtis, a renowned guide who has been fishing the bay since 1949.

He remembers that after weekend parties, "boats would be strewn around the flats, five to 10. Guys would get drunk, and then they'd try to find their way back through the channels. I used to have people charter me to go out in their yachts just to have me navigate."

In the bar, an ode to the pirate life, trapdoors in the floor let patrons fish with a hand line. A talking parakeet strutted along the bar, while a caged treasure chest held parrots.

"Guys were always trying to teach it dirty words," Curtis says.

In 1950, a hurricane wiped out Crawfish Eddie's shack and nearly claimed the Quarterdeck. A new owner took over, but the place deteriorated. Instead of world-class food, hookers became the draw. Authorities took a grim view, and after a raid on a Miami Junior Chamber of Commerce party, the club kept a considerably lower profile. In 1951, fire destroyed it once and for all. In the early 1960s, Plucky Pierre opened his Bikini Club -- any woman in a bikini got a free drink. But within a year, the authorities shut it down.

Meanwhile, nearly 30 stilt cabins rose from the grassy flats. The full-time Stiltsvillians brought a new sense of morality, "a family-type colony," says former Dade Circuit Judge Francis Knuck.

In 1965, the colony was nearly destroyed when Hurricane Betsy blew through with 120-mph winds and an 11-foot storm surge. Sensing a chance to seize control, Dade County ordered homeowners to follow new building codes and prohibited reconstruction of houses more than half destroyed. Then, in 1980, Biscayne National Park expanded to include Stiltsville; it was the beginning of the end. Hurricane Andrew added another nail when it destroyed all but the last seven houses.

They don't merit a historic designation, the National Register decided, because while the community is older than 50 years, the surviving buildings are not.

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