Coral Gables Architecture—Mediterranean Elements

Coral Gables Architecture—Mediterranean Elements

The Mediterranean style developed in Coral Gables combined disparate visual elements from architectural traditions across the sea. Within this diversity, however, there was a unified set of forms that characterized Mediterranean structures: distinct architectural features, an emphasis on ornamental detail, and the integration of the built and natural environment. The similarity of climate and landscape made south Florida the ideal setting to deploy Mediterranean architectural features, and the architects of Coral Gables incorporated both practical and decorative borrowings from traditional structures into their creative adaptations of a Mediterranean style. The distinctive architectural features that Merrick’s design team employed in Coral Gables public monuments and private residences highlighted the importance of courtyards and loggias, elaborate facades and entrances, and imposing towers with panoramic views.

Mediterranean Architectural Features

Courtyards and loggias

The central courtyard surrounded by an open walkway or loggia has comprised an essential element in Mediterranean architecture from antiquity to the present day. The courtyard was the focal point of the structure, providing privacy and a garden-like space that allowed for the circulation of air in a warm climate. The arched or colonnaded loggia forming a covered walkway that encircled the courtyard provided a cool sheltered area that bridged interior and exterior spaces and defined a communal area that could be enjoyed year-round.

Open courtyard and covered walkways in the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia
Atrium leading into the Cathedral of Salerno (Campania, Italy)

The courtyard and loggia form seen in ancient Greek and Roman structures was perpetuated in Coral Gables because of its beauty and practicality. Monumental and more intimate examples of this form can be seen in the Colonnade Building with its grandiose colonnade that leads into a large covered space with a fountain at its center.

The Colonnade Building in a 1950s postcard (Florida Postcard Collection, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries, Coral Gables, Florida)

The Coral Gables Preparatory Academy is organized around two large courtyards that provide a protected space for the students while opening up the school to the lush exterior landscape.

Coral Gables Preparatory Academy interior courtyard

The Coco Plum Woman’s Club features an open courtyard flanked by a covered loggia reminiscent of a medieval monastic cloister, and even the small open space in front of the Fink Studio works within the Mediterranean tradition of an open court surrounded by architectural structures and complemented by lush gardens.

Coco Plum Woman’s Club with interior courtyard and colonnaded walkway

Mediterranean architecture also places great emphasis on entrances, symbolic spaces that announce the presence of a structure and signal a transition from exterior to interior space.

Palacio de San Telmo, Seville, Spain

In religious structures the entrance marked the boundary between the sacred and the profane and highlighted the importance of a building through its size and elaborate decoration. The portal’s ornamentation could also indicate the function of the structure and provide information about the institution the structure served.

Church of Saint-Trophîme, Arles, France

In historic Mediterranean architecture, city gates demonstrated the wealth and strength of the city and the grand entrances to Coral Gables designed by Denman Fink served the same purpose.

Porta Soprana, Genoa, Italy

Elaborate facades and entrances

Douglas Entrance from the interior looking out onto Douglas Avenue

Like magnificent churches from the Baroque period, the Congregational Church and the Church of the Little Flower have ornate entrance portals that invite visitors to enter the church and create a transition from the outside world and the sacred space within.

Façade of the Congregational Church of Christ

The Colonnade Building has one of the most monumental and ornamental doorways in all Coral Gables, reflecting the role the structure played as the central sales office for George Merrick’s Coral Gables Corporation. Other buildings announce their function in a more subtle manner, like the Coral Gables Preparatory Academy with its inscription above door and the Coco Plum Woman’s Club highlighting the significance of its library for the community on its entrance.

Coco Plum Woman’s Club main entrance

Imposing towers with views

Towers and the views to and from them created landmarks in the city and integrated elements of the urban design into coherent whole. The most imposing tower in all Coral Gables is the 315-foot tower of the Biltmore Hotel, modeled on the famous bell tower (previously a mosque minaret) of the Cathedral of Seville in Spain.

The Biltmore Hotel tower
La Giralda, bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville, Spain

To the present day the Biltmore tower is readily visible from a great distance. In the 1920s, before modern highrises towered over the cityscape, the tower of the Biltmore dominated the city, incorporated into vistas from other monuments and creating a dialogue with other towers like that of the Miami News Building (now the Freedom Tower) and the no-longer extant tower of the Roney Plaza Hotel.

Freedom Tower, Miami, Florida

Mediterranean Ornament

Emphasis on color and pattern

Color and pattern played an essential role in the Mediterranean aesthetic of Coral Gables, and both were applied enthusiastically to the interior and exterior of buildings. Merrick and his design team were obsessed with color and its varied and subtle effects, and Denman Fink (a painter in his own right) and Phineas Paist (the city’s Supervisor of Color) were tasked with the formulation of a harmonious integration of colorful buildings into the semi-tropical landscape. Texture played a role as well, and colored stucco combined with the local coral rock to make the brand new buildings of Coral Gables look as if they possessed the warm patina of ancient structures. Residents of Coral Gables were shocked by the bright terracotta color used to paint the Biltmore during its restoration in the 1980s, a rich tone that corresponded to its original color. The small Fink Studio demonstrated this great interest in pattern, with its ornamented main door surmounted by gargoyles, while the Coral Gables Preparatory Academy features relief decoration with sea creatures on the main towers and entrances to the school.

Fink Studio main entrance

Wooden ceilings

Another defining characteristic of Mediterranean structures incorporated consistently into Coral Gables buildings was the profusion of architectural ornament. Where Italian or French architectural styles might be characterized as more reserved, adhering to visual canons that emphasized decorum and restraint, Spanish architecture was distinct in its exuberance and boldness. Islamic architectural traditions that were so significant in Spain highlighted texture, pattern, and color, and it was these Spanish decorative forms that predominated in the eclectic style of early Coral Gables structures. Indeed, authors writing about the Mediterranean style in the city noted that only this ornate, colorful, and adventuresome type of decoration could match the bright foliage, blue skies, and aqua water of south Florida. Such a bold and bright landscape required an equally vivid and visually arresting built environment, as art imitated nature.

Early buildings in Coral Gables make extensive use of stained glass, exploiting Florida’s ample sunlight to heighten the colorful effects of a structure’s windows, seen especially in the Church of the Little Flower.

Stained glass window from the Church of the Little Flower with scenes from the life of Thérèse of Lisieux

A Spanish ornamental detail applied consistently in early Coral Gables architecture is the painted wooden ceiling. This was a form that developed as a synthesis of Christian and Muslim decorative traditions known as the Mudéjar style. A Mudéjar ceiling could be flat or pitched, but it was always constructed of sculpted and painted wood, rich in color, texture, and pattern.

Mudéjar ceiling, Cathedral of Teruel, Aragón, Spain (photo courtesy of Francisco Javier Domingo Bríngola)

The Grand Ballroom of the Biltmore Country Club (now the conference center) has one of the most impressive and lavish of these painted ceilings.

Grand Ballroom, Biltmore Hotel Conference Center

But wooden ceilings of varying degrees of ornateness adorn the Coco Plum Woman’s Club, the Douglas Entrance, the Congregational Church, and the Church of the Little Flower. In spite of its small size, the Fink Studio has one of the most elaborate ceilings with painted decoration on the beams that end in sculpted, grimacing heads along the side walls.

Sculpted wooden decoration on the Fink Studio ceiling

Terracotta and glazed tiles

The extensive use of tile and decorative ironwork also derived from Mediterranean craft traditions, with Spain and Italy predominating particularly in ceramic production. Terracotta barrel tiles cover the roofs of many structures in the city, and the quest for authenticity took the city’s architects to Cuba from where they exported tiles from the Spanish Colonial period to ornament buildings in Coral Gables. Brightly colored tile covers the lower walls of the Biltmore Hotel courtyard and decorates the risers of the staircase and the floors of the Fink Studio.

Biltmore courtyard tiles
Fink Studio staircase with decorative tiles

The color schemes follow those of traditional Spanish and Italian ceramics, known as maiolica, with blue, gold, orange, and green patterns on a white background.

Italian maiolica (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Mosaic tile decoration, Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain

Ironwork

Ironwork ornamented various elements in these historical structures, including windows, doors, gates, stairs, and ceilings, but featured most dramatically in the chandeliers that illuminated interior spaces. The dark, rich metalwork complemented the bright colors of walls and ceilings, seen in the chandeliers and the window grilles of the Douglas Entrance and Biltmore Hotel.

Window grille on the Douglas Entrance
Chandelier in the Biltmore Grand Ballroom

Synthesis of the Built and Natural Environment

In his comprehensive urban design, George Merrick was insistent upon the importance of the integration of architecture and landscape, hiring the landscape architect Frank Button to accomplish this task. Merrick selected the Mediterranean style because of its suitability for south Florida and the symbiosis it exhibited between nature and architecture. The open courtyard could be an outdoor living room or an indoor garden, creating a seamless transition between interior and exterior space. Historic buildings like ancient Roman houses, Islamic palaces, and monastery cloisters served as models, characterized by their careful selection of plants, the use of water features, the creation of vistas and viewing areas, and the construction of the experience of nature.

Partal Palace within the Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Ancient Roman House of the Vettii, Pompeii, Italy (Wikimedia Commons)
Ancient Spanish Monastery, Miami, Florida

Landscaping

Traditional Mediterranean gardens employed plants selected for their fragrance, shade, practicality, and beauty, and Coral Gables designers used the same principles in the city’s urban fabric. The Prado Entrance especially manifested this integration of structure and landscape, combining fountains, pergolas, and plantings to be experienced up close by the pedestrian or at a distance from the road.

Prado Entrance

Vistas

Originally the Congregational Church of Christ and the Biltmore Hotel were to be connected by the Columbus Esplanade, a 1,000 foot long plaza with a massive pool and fountain. The church was built on a north-south axis rather than the standard eastern orientation of a Christian sanctuary so that it could form part of this urban ensemble and highlight the view to the grand hotel. Sightlines and viewing points connected spaces within the city to highlight the cohesiveness of Merrick's city plan; the Douglas Entrance was oriented so that one could have an unobstructed view of the Biltmore Hotel from the room over the archway. Such planned vistas also extended beyond Coral Gables to Miami, integrating the new city into a larger and more established urban landscape.

Water features

Fountains and water features in Mediterranean architecture were both practical and symbolic; they collected and provided water for the inhabitants, but they also symbolized abundance, power, and the beauty of paradise. Water played a major role in Coral Gables' urban design as the extensive canal system created a conceptual and physical link between important sites and attractions. Gondolas conveyed guests from the Biltmore to Tahiti Beach, and students could ride in these Venetian vessels (imported from Italy along with gondoliers to guide them) to their classes at the University of Miami. Numerous Coral Gables buildings have fountains as their central decorative component as well, including the Colonnade Building, the Biltmore Hotel, and the Coco Plum Woman’s Club.

Colonnade Building interior fountain
Fountain at the Conference Center of the Biltmore Hotel

Constructing the experience of nature

The aim in the landscape design of Coral Gables was not to tame nature but to celebrate the luxuriant, exuberant tropical landscape that brought so many people to Florida in the first place. Nature was meant to take center stage, with architectural forms complementing the vivid natural backdrop with distinctive rooflines, bright colors, and profuse decoration. The city’s planners strove to synthesize the natural and built environment, creating a beautiful garden city that emphasized the importance of health, well-being, recreation, and relaxation for inhabitants and visitors alike.