The Biltmore Hotel: Old-World Glamour

Miami Daily News, Jan. 17, 1926 via Miami Archives
Just 2 days after opening! – Credit: Miami Daily News, January 17, 1926 via Miami Archives

On January 15, 2016, the Biltmore Hotel officially celebrated 90 years. The following is the chapter from Discovering Vintage Miami.

The Biltmore is unlike any other hotel in Miami. Located in the heart of the posh suburban city of Coral Gables, it stands as an example of old-world glamour in the otherwise bustling City Beautiful. The alluring building set in the architectural style of Mediterranean Revival entices visitors long before they event step foot through its doors. The hotel’s centerpiece, its center tower, modeled after the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain, once stood as the tallest building in Coral Gables and teases passersby with its peak that looms above the old banyan trees that cover the city’s roads.

Credit: State Archives of Florida/Fishbaugh - Construction of the Miami Biltmore Hotel
Credit: State Archives of Florida/Fishbaugh – Construction of the Miami Biltmore Hotel

Coral Gables was the dream of George Merrick, and the hotel was his masterpiece, the one thing that tied all of the Mediterranean influences together, offering not only lodging, but also a central entertainment hub. It is a timeless dream, with hand-painted ceilings, lush courtyards, fountains, balconies, marble columns, terrazzo and travertine floors, and luxurious seating options and a massive 8-foot birdcage with precious birds chirping away.

miami biltmore crest

The hotel opened in January of 1926 to great fanfare in the middle of the Prohibition era. Opening night was the social event of the year, attracting socialites from all over the country, especially those from the Northeast, riding down on special trains marked “Miami Biltmore Special” to attend the party. An estimated 1,500 guests attended the magnificent event, which included booze, the foxtrot, and a lavish menu of turtle soup, veal with foie gras, and Strawberries Romanoff. This would set the tone for the hotel, which quickly became a regular spot for Al Capone, Bin Crosby, Judy Garland, and the Vanderbilt family, along with presidents, dignitaries, dukes, and duchesses.

The Everglades Suite, less formally known as the Al Capone Suite, was named after the notorious gangster. It is said that Capone owned the suite for a period of time. In 1929 another mobster, Thomas “Fatty” Walsh, was murdered at the hotel. The Biltmore always managed to stay in the limelight, whether for its beauty or its murders.

In the twenties, thirties, and early forties, it was for hotels to offer a robust schedule of events, as they served as the entertainment hubs for the city. The Biltmore hosted a mixture of galas, fashion shows, aquatic shows, big band variety shows, and alligator wrestlers, a local favorite. More unique were the gondola rides, fox hunting, and private helicopter rides. Gondola rides, you ask? Gondoliers would transport guests to the hotel’s private beach down the canals of Coral Gables. But those were gauche times, and that private beach no longer exists.

State Archives of Florida - Water sports at Miami Biltmore swimming pool
Credit: State Archives of Florida – Water sports at Miami Biltmore swimming pool

Like the Raleigh Hotel, the Biltmore has an iconic pool that is one of the largest in the country. In the twenties and thirties, a lot of synchronized swimming took place in the pool. Even Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller, swam in Coral Gables, not only did he hang out at the public Venetian Pool, he was also a swimming instructor at the Biltmore pool.

The Nat Gubbins is a popular cocktail¬†[learn how to make a proper Nat Gubbins cocktail¬†here] originally featured in Helen Muir‘s book The Biltmore: Beacon for Miami, which captures the detailed history of one of Miami’s most famous hotels. The Nat Gubbins is a lost cocktail that was birthed at the hotel’s Cascades Bar and named after a London columnist who traveled to the Biltmore for a writing assignment shortly after its opening. The aperitif drink is half port, half brandy, served with a twist of lemon and no ice. Unfortunately, the drink died off with its inventor; it has not been served since those early decades and lives on only in memory.

golf postcardWhen the hotel first opened, it claimed two golf courses, but now there is only one (the other became the nearby Riviera Country Club). The Biltmore Golf Course is one of the best in the country and popular with golfers of all kinds. According to historians, celebrities like Babe Ruth, Johnny Weissmuller, Bill Clinton, and Tiger Woods have played on the greens. The famous Donald Ross designed the impressive course.

Like many other hotels in the city, the Biltmore was used as an infirmary and training facility for soldiers during World War II. It was formally known as the Army Air Forces Regional Hospital and then remained an arm of the nearby University of Miami School of Medicine. The hotel sat empty between 1968 and 1983, which preserved its integrity, its features, and possibly its ghosts. Many visitors to the hotel note that it is haunted, mainly from the era when it served as a hospital.

After a big push and lots of elbow grease, the eighties brought renewed hope and brilliance to the Biltmore, with a massive restoration project that took four years and millions of dollars. In 1987, sixty-one years after it originally opened, a historic dinner was held to commemorate the reopening of the hotel. The dinner was a true nod to history, as the hotel served items from the original opening decades prior, but this time the booze was legal. Like its past, the event was the social highlight of the season, but drew much less crowds than the first time around, at around 600 individuals.

The restaurants are as much of an attraction as the hotel itself, the most famous being Palme d’Or, helmed by award-winning chef Philippe Ruiz. The hotel’s Sunday brunch is a one-of-a-kind experience out of a foodie’s dreams, including everything from caviar and sushi to prime aged meats and international cheeses, with an abundance of stations and options. Afternoon high tea accompanied by a harpist is also offered in the lobby.

Credit: Biltmore Hotel
The Biltmore today. Credit: Biltmore Hotel

Learn how to make a proper Nat Gubbins…

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