A Historical Overview of a Miami Neighborhood
By Paul S. George
The Silver Bluff neighborhood is named for one of Mother Nature’s most stunning gifts to Greater Miami, a silver bluff running for miles along or near the crystalline waters of Biscayne Bay. Thousands of years ago, a ridge of gray limestone was exposed and eroded by the waters of Biscayne Bay, then a sea without a name, and at a time when, it is believed, the sea stood several feet above its present levels. This limestone escarpment constituted an ancient shoreline in that area. Today’s Silver Bluff extends along South Bay Shore Drive far south to Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Tropical Garden and even farther in that direction along Old Cutler Road to Snapper Creek and beyond. In some places, the bluff lies a half-mile west of the present shoreline, the result of grading on the part of developers whose subdivisions sprouted from a lower level base and extended east to the sparkling waters of the bay.
Some parts of the ridge still evidence old wave cuts so noticeable that it is obvious that the sea washed against the shore in those areas. One of the most prominent sections of the geologically modern bluff appears at 1653 South Bayshore Drive where an observer will see the wave cuts in the limestone. The ridge at the edge of today’s Ransom Everglades Middle School offers another good example of wave-washed limestone. In 1771, Bernard Romans, a British surveyor, at the time England controlled Florida (1763-1783), observed the “rocky bluff,” corresponding to the silver bluff of today on a map he created from his survey.
Fifty years later, South Florida remained a wilderness when, in 1821, the future Sunshine State became an American possession following its sale by Spain to the United States. It remained a wilderness for much of the 19th century. One federal measure that led to a slight population spurt was the passage by the U.S. government in 1862 of the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of public land to any adult citizen who improved it and lived on it for five years. After that, the landholder paid a reasonable “proving up” fee to take title to the land.
J. William Ewan, an early homesteader in the area, claimed land in 1876 that later hosted today’s Kampong, the home of Dr. David Fairchild, a renowned horticulturalist, in south Coconut Grove. Even before Ewan claimed the land, John Thomas Peacock, a colorful Englishman, known universally as “Jolly Jack,” had been living on that property. Jolly Jack and his wife, Martha Snipes Peacock, became the parents, over the final decades of the 19th century, of eleven children.
In 1884, Jack Peacock filed his homestead, consisting of the southeast quarter of Section 15 in Township 54 South, Range 41 East, an area described as “rocky pine land fit only for fruit trees,” with “a frame dwelling, fruit grove, clearing, etc.” Part of this property would later become the Silver Bluff Subdivision.
The City of Miami was incorporated in 1896, while Coconut Grove continued its growth as a community blending farming with many residents from elsewhere who settled within its attractive ambiance. In 1901, Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, whose entry into Miami in April 1896, birthed the City of Miami three months later, extended his train across the Miami River and south into Coconut Grove and beyond. These developments made the area around today’s Coconut Grove and Silver Bluff more accessible and valuable. Consequently, new subdivisions began to appear in the area known broadly then, and now, as Silver Bluff.
The Silver Bluff Subdivision was filed on June 13, 1911. It is described in a Plat book as “part of the East 1/2 of the Southeast 1/4 of Section 15 in 54/41,” and it comprised all of Lots H and J, and parts of Lots 1 through 10 of the John T. Peacock estate. The streets that run thru this subdivision are named for Seminole warriors Secoffee, Osceola, Coacoochee, Micanopy, and Tiger Tail Avenue.
In July 1912, the Sunshine Fruits Company, prominent developers of early Coconut Grove, filed the plat for a Resubdivision of this Silver Bluff Subdivision. Where it had ended before at the Miami Road (today’s South Bayshore Drive), the subdivision now extended all the way east to the Bay. Another amendment was made on July 15, 1913 resulting in the Silver Bluff Resubdivision with re-configured Lots 5-16, 37-40, and 45 and 46 of the original Silver Bluff plat.
In that era, a small number of structures had risen in that subdivision, including homes at 1779 and 1794 Micanopy. They are notable for the designs and building materials common to that era. Built in 1910, even before the Silver Bluff Subdivision was platted, the one-story frame (Dade County Pine) bungalow at 1779 Micanopy was the home of onetime pioneer Edward C. Sanders. Its original pine floors survive under later inside flooring. The interior also possesses an oolitic limestone fireplace. Built in 1913, the home at 1794 Micanopy was the longtime residence of Kate L. McClure, a retired school teacher from Colorado.
Other subdivisions comprising Silver Bluff continued to appear, reflecting the rapid growth of the Miami area. In 1917, Walter T. and Kathryn P. Carter platted the Woodside Subdvision-5- 28, which only stretched from S.W. 16th to 17th Avenues and S.W. 22nd to 24th Streets. The area was part of a large tract of land awarded the family of Jonathan Lewis, white Bahamians, by the Spanish government during the Second Spanish Period, referencing another era in the lengthy history of Florida, stretching from 1783-1821. The award was known as the Jonathan Lewis Donation covering more than 600 acres of land from the vicinity of the Miami River into Silver Bluff.
These and other homes comprised the new Town of Silver Bluff, which was incorporated April 22, 1921. The incorporation followed a tug of war between the municipalities of Miami and Coconut Grove, which incorporated as a town in 1919, for an area, which was the future municipality of Silver Bluff, but then considered “a no-man’s land” since it sat between the aforementioned municipalities. What is surprising is that this new municipality, which followed legal procedures in its move to incorporate, possessed hazy boundaries. On the north, the town was bounded by Coral Way, which is also S.W. 22nd Street, from S.W. 12th to 34th Avenues. The southern border ran along Bird Road, or S.W. 40th Street, and Day Avenue. On the southeast, Silver Bluff’s boundary with Miami was ill defined, but was settled by a survey in 1922 that found both the property of William Jennings Bryan, between Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Bay and James Deering’s Villa Vizcaya, lying immediately south of Bryan’s property, and consisting of 180 acres located between U.S. One/ Dixie Highway and the Bay, and, approximately S.W. 32nd Road south to almost S.W. 17th Avenue, straddled the line, or, in a written summary of the problem, “numerous lots lie partly in one municipality and partly in the other.” The municipalities referenced here were, of course, the City of Miami and the Town of Silver Bluff.
Estimates of the population of the newly-incorporated town of Silver Bluff ranged from several hundred to 1,000 or more. The first mayor of the Town of Silver Bluff was realtor E.E. Wooley. A town hall arose near today’s Silver Bluff Elementary School, itself a product of the mid-1920s, at S.W. 26th Avenue and 25th Street.
Following its incorporation, development accelerated in Silver Bluff, as well as elsewhere in Greater Miami, presaging the great real estate boom of the mid-1920s, which transformed the area into an emerging metropolitan region. In 1922, J.D. Stuart platted the Stuart Terrace Subdivision from land that was earlier part of the Charles J. Rose homestead. Rose was a Union soldier in the Civil War who moved from Ohio to the Miami area in 1892 and homesteaded 160 acres of land around today’s Coral Way and S.W. 22nd Avenue. The Stuart Terrace Subdivision stretched along S.W. 25 Terrace while reaching in an east-west direction from S.W. 22nd Avenue past 25th Avenue. The Shenandoah Development Company created, in 1924, the New Shenandoah Subdivision, from land formerly part of the homestead of Jackson Peacock, a son of Jolly Jack Peacock. Its parameters ran from S.W. 17th Avenue to S.W. 21st Avenue and from S.W. 22nd/23rd Streets to S.W. 24th Street.
In 1925, at the height of the Boom, the Miami Bank and Trust Company created the Silver Bluff Estates Subdivision, which stretched throughout the 2600 block of S.W. 24th Terrace. The bank was also responsible for the Kensington Park Subdivision 16-2, in 1926, which became almost instantly notable for four similar homes in the 1700 block of S.W. 24th Terrace, bearing elements of the popular Mission style of architecture.
That nineteen-twenty-five was the peak year of the boom is reflected in the number of subdivisions platted that year. Their names include Silver Bluff Amended, Silver Bluff-re-sub-3- 4, and the John T. Peacock estate-2-12. Additional subdivisions from that era included New Biscayne, Biscayne Park Terrace, James Deering-Second Amended, Wood Side, Biscayne R1, and View Heights, enhancing the development of Silver Bluff east to the waters of Biscayne Bay and north along S.W. 3rd Avenue to the vicinity of S.W. 12th Avenue. As with most of the subdivisions of that era, the most intense period of development within these plats occurred not at the time of their creation, but more than two decades later since the boom collapsed in 1926 and was followed by a lengthy economic downturn, corresponding to the era of the Great Depression. That financial crisis was followed by America’s entry, in 1941, into World War Il, which was a period of minimal residential development.
The expansiveness of the mid-1920s was also a time of changing fortunes for Silver Bluff since it led to the town’s annexation by an ambitious City of Miami in September 1925. In 1905, the Florida Legislature passed an annexation bill overthrowing an earlier law calling for a two-thirds majority vote in both the annexing city and the territory proposed for annexation for annexation to take place. The new bill specified only that a two-thirds majority of voters in the entire district was necessary for annexation to occur, “including alike the voters within the then existing corporate limits of the (annexing) city or town, and those to be included (by the election) within the corporate limits.” The law also specified that voters must be specifically registered for the annexation vote. In 1923, the City of Miami moved forward with an ordinance of annexation directed at Coconut Grove, Silver Bluff and other areas before rescinding the ordinance. But the city of Miami returned to this issue in 1925 during the heady period when the boom was peaking. Those neighborhoods and municipalities targeted for this time for annexation to the City of Miami included Little River, Buena Vista, and Allapattah, as well as Silver Bluff and Coconut Grove. Coconut Grove, which by then had risen from town to city status resulting from its growing population, was staunchly opposed to annexation while the Town of Silver Bluff, with Councilman Robert Potter leading the way, assured representatives of the Grove that he, and by implication the town he represented, would join the fight to remain outside of the purview of the City of Miami.
Despite this strong show of opposition, the better-organized annexation champions for the City of Miami carried the day as voters in each of the affected areas, along with voters within the City of Miami, voted overwhelmingly (88%) for annexation. In Silver Bluff, the vote was much closer, with 51 for annexation and 36 against.
The annexation of both Silver Bluff and Coconut Grove not only eliminated their status as municipalities, but also spawned an enduring uncertainty over what to call the area stretching along the Bayfront west to U.S.1, from S.W. 27th Avenue to S.W. 12th Avenue. The Coconut Grove neighborhood and the City of Miami still, today, refer to the area as the “Northern Grove” or “Coconut Grove.” There is no way to affirm or debunk that claim since, of course, neither the Grove or Silver Bluff exist as incorporated entities. Thus, the claim is subjective, while it minimizes the scale of today’s Silver Bluff neighborhood, which, partly because of the above claim, is viewed by most observers as a significantly smaller version of the Town of Silver Bluff. The enduring version of Silver Bluff, from the period following its annexation to the city of Miami in 1925 to the present delimits its borders, defining it as a neighborhood stretching, east-west between U.S.1 and Coral Way, and, in the other direction, between S.W. 17th and 27th Avenues. This study focuses on the corporate borders established with the creation of the Town of Silver Bluff in 1921.
Soon after its annexation to the City of Miami, the financial fortunes of Silver Bluff, as well as other areas of the city and state declined precipitously with the collapse of the real estate boom followed, in 1929 by the beginning of the Great Depression, which lingered nationally for much of the 1930s. Residential construction dropped sharply as did business activity. An examination of the Miami City Directory for the year 1932 indicates that no structures stood on the south side of Coral Way, which would become Silver Bluff’s most important retail street S.W. 23rd Avenue and a sizable portion of S.W. 26th Avenue. The east, or Silver Bluff, side of S.W. 27th Avenue evidenced some business activity by the early 1940s, an era of significant financial recovery, with the presence of a restaurant, realtor, and dental laboratory. By then, too, Silver Bluff’s showcase street, South Bayshore Drive, was developing as a posh residential community with beautiful homes on large lots located atop the ridge. Even earlier, Frank B. Shutts, Henry M. Flagler’s personal attorney and founder of the Miami Herald Publishing Company was residing there. Additional residents included George Whitten, a Burdine’s department store executive, Judge George Worley, famed attorney, Mitchell Price, and Bowman Ashe, the first president of the University of Miami. Elsewhere was the residence of County Commissioner Charles Crandon, a political power broker and the namesake for Crandon Park, and others. Increasingly, businesses, including apartments, barber shop, cleaners, a lumber yard, automotive garage, and sundry, were employing the name “Silver Bluff.”
The expansive period following World War II would bring a level of national prosperity not seen before. This period also unleashed an unprecedented period of housing development in Silver Bluff, particularly in those subdivisions west of US1, platted during the heady days of the mid- 1920s boom. Homes bearing the Florida Ranch style of design, as well as others with a more bland style, appeared up and down these streets of these subdivisions filling the empty lots that had stood there since the boom’s collapse. Intermixed with the newer homes were the quaint Mediterannean-styled strucutres of the 1920s as well as rare, but occasionally stunning Streamline Moderne/Art Deco homes from the Depression era.
In the booming post war era, Silver Bluff would claim as residents former Miami Mayor Charles D. Leffler, businessman Frank J. Pepper, J.W. Pearson and Henry King Stanford, second and third presidents of the University of Miami, Judge Frank Blanton, Dr. Thomas J. Zaydon, surgeon, four time city of Miami police chief and commissioner, H. Leslie Quigg, City of Miami mayor, William Wolfarth and Robert King High, George E. Nolan, Jr., scion of a banking family.
The postwar era also saw the south side of Coral Way, reaching from S.W. 17th Avenue to S.W. 27th Avenue in the Silver Bluff neighborhood fill with businesses, like Saunders Hardware, restaurants, and professional offices, while S.W. 27th Avenue from Coral Way to US1 and beyond, filled with additional businesses and institutions, including giant Shell Lumber and Southside Baptist Church. The growing number of Jewish residents was apparent with the opening of a small synagogue.
By the 1960s, increasing numbers of Cubans and other Hispanics had located in Silver Bluff. A look at the population census tracts from the U.S. Census for 2010, the most recent and detailed population survey available, provides informative insights into the size and composition of the population of Silver Bluff, both the area usually regarded today as comprising the neighborhood, as well as that representing the original, more expansive borders, of the incorporated community.
Three census tracts are involved here: Tract 68.01, 68.02, and 69, which, together, comprise the original Town of Silver Bluff. Tract 68.01 encompasses the area from S.W. 27th Avenue to S.W. 22nd Avenue, from Biscayne Bay to US1. Two thousand-eight hundred and thirty-seven residents were there with Hispanics and White “not Hispanic” (1,682 and 979, in that order) comprising the largest ethnic blocs. Tract 68.02 reaches from S.W. 22nd Avenue to the entrance to the Rickenbacker Causeway at S.W. 26th Road, from Biscayne Bay west to US1. That tract claimed 3,681 residents in 2010. Again, White “not Hispanic” and Hispanic ethnicities (2,040 and 1,503, in that order) comprising the largest ethnic categories. Tract 69 reaching from S.W. 27th Avenue to S.W. 12th Avenue, from Coral Way to US1 and S.W. 3rd Avenue to 12th Avenue, represents the area most people today associate with Silver Bluff. Therein resided the largest population of the three census tracts with 5,780 residents, of whom 4,755 were Hispanic and just 863 were White “not Hispanic.”
While the ethnicity of Silver Bluff has changed dramatically in the past half-century and beyond, what remains unchanged after more than a century of development is the cozy residential neighborhood, whether it be that of the township era or of the period beyond, which most people define as a smaller entity, an understated enclave of uncluttered, tree-shaded streets that presents the appearance of a community insulated from, though very much a part of, one of the country’s most beguiling cities, Miami, a municipality with a twenty-four hour buzz, a city that represents a textbook example of multi-culturalism. In the view of many, Silver Bluff represents the steady hand in the tumult of modern Miami. May it remain that way!