MIAMI – Stiltsville, a stubborn relic of Miami’s less-glitzy past as a sun-soaked outpost, survived Hurricane Irma’s brutal winds and waves, much to the surprise of the landmark’s caretakers and fans.
Perched at the edge of sea grass flats where the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay meet the dark and choppy Atlantic Ocean, the cluster of wooden shacks has no protection from killer storms. But when Irma’s clouds cleared in early September, Stiltsville emerged relatively intact, to the relief of the volunteers dedicated to maintaining this quirky slice of paradise.
First built by fishermen in an era when the city was pronounced with a Southern accent as “My-am-uh,” Stiltsville attracted lawyers, judges, architects, celebrities, politicians and other professionals looking for an exclusive getaway, said Paul George, HistoryMiami Museum’s resident historian.
Today, anyone can apply for daytime permits to boat out to Biscayne National Park and enjoy the remaining shacks, which stand on concrete pilings over open water, more than 5 miles from downtown Miami. But first, there are repairs to be made.
A hideaway for partiesThe Stiltsville community is almost as old as the city of Miami. The first shacks rose in the 1930s after a Miami pioneer nicknamed “Crawfish Eddie” started selling bait from a vessel stranded in the flats.
In its heyday, Stiltsville grew to about 30 shacks and social clubs, but that number dwindled to seven through nearly a century of hurricanes and legal challenges.
Along with being weekend homes or bases for fishing trips, the shacks were popular for hosting festivities far from scrutiny, such as the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s bachelor party, George said. Rumors of gambling, drinking and scandal fed a party code: Whatever happened in Stiltsville, stayed in Stiltsville.
At first, Stiltsville developed much like Miami had on dry land, with little formal planning or oversight. Hurricanes, law enforcement raids, fires and state regulations eventually curtailed construction. By the 1960s, the state began requiring the private owners pay for “campsite” leases.
Stiltsville became part of Biscayne National Park in 1980, which stirred a lengthy debate about their future. Congress was called upon to intervene before the park and the lease holders reached a deal that preserved the structures and opened them to the public. Some former Stiltsville owners remain as volunteer caretakers today.
All seven structures should be available again for daytime rentals early next year, said Kevin Mase, chairman of the Stiltsville Trust, which partners with the National Park Service to maintain Stiltsville.
This unique place now helps make visitors aware of environmental conditions in a park that is 95 percent water, said Carissa DeCramer, the park’s chief of staff.
“These are artificial structures in a natural environment, but these are iconic,” DeCramer said.
Caretakers keep cabins aliveFrom an approaching boat, Stiltsville appears delicate against a vast horizon. Each structure is essentially a wooden cabin, raised about 10 feet above the water when seas are calm. Most are painted in tropical orange, pink, yellow and blue and seem to brighten as the sun sets behind Miami’s skyline.
The deal that preserved Stiltsville years ago also spelled its eventual doom: The park only allows repairs after a storm if less than half a structure is damaged.
About two months after Irma’s landfall, it’s evident that the hurricane damaged every dock, washing away stairs and blowing away some roof shingles. But all the structures are clearly salvageable, Mase said.
“I did not expect at all to have anything left,” said Louis Chiavacci, caretaker of structure known as Hicks House. “There are parts of that house that are 50 years old, and there’s no protection out there for tidal surges and the direction of the wind.”
That said, the caretakers have done what they could to protect the structures as part of their normal maintenance, he said.
“It is unusual for us to be out there and not have to hammer in some new nails or replace a board that gets rotted or popped up. So, the preparation for Irma’s been going on literally since Wilma,” the hurricane that swept across Miami in 2005, Chiavacci said.
Chiavacci bought into the lease of the rustic Hicks House after Hurricane Andrew in 1992; the Category 5 storm destroyed six of 13 structures standing at the time. As Irma roared toward Miami, he worried he would lose the site of many happy memories with his family.
Any structure’s loss would sever a link to a Miami very different from the Latin American capital the city is now, he said: “We would have lost a little bit of Miami’s history – a little bit of the unique, kind of funky aspect of Miami.”
In November, he replaced the dock under the house that once was a family friend’s weekend home. For as long as Stiltsville stands, he hopes people enjoy the simple pleasures it offers: the glimpse of a ray gliding through sea grass, watching sunsets from over the water, or teaching environmental stewardship to a younger generation.
“Eventually, a storm is going to take Stiltsville away,” Chiavacci said. “Mother Nature is pretty brutal when she wants to be. A few hours of directional change in Irma heading this way sooner would have made a big difference for our entire community, including the exposed houses of Stiltsville.”