Imagine a Club with free drinks and nude sunbathing for $1 per year – Stiltsville in the 1960’s !

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‘Stiltsville’ in Biscayne Bay

Stiltsville: so unassuming now with just a few structures left, but did you know it was THE place to go 5 decades ago if you were a member of the high society and liked to party?!

A $1 yearly membership got you free drinks and nude sunbathing in the early 1960’s, in Stiltsville’s illustrious past which started with one crab shack. See it now, before a storm will destroy the few remaining structures forever.

width=On the boat


How To Get There

Trips to Stiltsville, unless you have your own boat, are not easy to come by. They are occasionally offered by Island Queen Cruises www.islandqueencruises.com, in downtown Miami (Bayside Marketplace), in conjunction with ‘History Miami’ www.historymiami.org . At this time it seems an only once or twice yearly event.

By far the best way to see Stiltsville is by small private boat, which if you are a local and know the way to maneuver the flats (especially hairy at low tide), is fine. If you are thinking of renting a boat, make sure you have a good captain/navigator on board who knows these waters. There is a deep boating channel that passes right through Stiltsville, but as I know from experience, having been a passenger on a yacht that nearly scraped the bottom there once, one needs to pay close attention to the depth at all times. The water around the houses is from 1 to 3 feet deep at low tide. You will see stony outcrops. Be warned!

SAMSUNG CSCOn the way


What And Where Is Stiltsville?

 At present, Stiltsville consists of 7 houses, most of them along the ‘Biscayne Channel’ just south of Key Biscayne. None of them, except for the A-Frame house, which I believe was built in the 1950’s, are ‘original’ and were around in the heyday of Stiltsville in the 1950’s/60’s.

This part of Biscayne Bay is a very exposed area, and every time a storm or hurricane passes through there, the structures either get completely destroyed or at least greatly damaged.

These days, they are part of Biscayne Bay National Park, and there has been a long-standing dispute as to whether they should even be allowed to be maintained. As far as I know, this has not yet been resolved with complete certainty, but there is an agreement to which I am referring at the end of this article.

Stiltsville A Frame House
A-Frame house


The Beginnings of Stiltsville

The story of Stiltsville begins with ‘Crawfish’ Eddie Walker in the early 1930’s, who reportedly sold bait and beer to passing fishermen as early as 1922 from a simple shack erected on the flats.

In 1937 friends of Eddie (Thomas Grady and Leo Edward) built their own shacks. The area began to be named ‘the shacks’ or ‘shack colony’ by locals.

By 1940, there were 12 houses on the flats in Biscayne Bay, one of which, the the Quarterdeck Club, turned into one of the most popular spots in Miami.

Although I was unable to find any pictorial evidence of Eddie Walker’s shack, or those of his friends, I did dig up a picture of the Quarterdeck Club:

5459913_orig
(Image credit to My Old Florida and Florida Archives)

When I look at this wonderful old picture, what strikes me is the attire, everybody is in their best Sunday dress and suits – I am thinking that if this was at the height of the summer, they must have been expiring!


An Ever-Changing Landscape 

Hurricanes came and went, for example one in 1950, and Hurricane Donna in 1960. The storms left behind and ebb and flow of destruction, as well as rebuilding.

Regardless of the difficulty and impermanence of any structures on the ‘flats’, as well as being accessible only by water, the area quickly became the place to be for the high society of Miami and visitors who stayed at winter resorts in Miami.


A Favorite Party Spot for the Gambling, Boozing and Naughty High Society of Miami

Illegal alcohol and gambling in Stiltsville led to several police raids on the Bikini Club and Quarterdeck Club (www.stiltsvilletrust.org). The bikini club opened by Harry Churchville aka ‘Pierre’ in 1962, as a 150 foot grounded yacht (named Jeff), offering a nude sunbathing deck and free drinks to women in bikinis, all for a $1 membership!

jeffJeff the Yacht
(Image credit: www.stiltsville.org)

To expand his business, Pierre purchased a military surplus WWII patrol boat and ran it a ground next to the yacht Jeff. The club was receiving plenty of publicity, including the banner headline that read “Bikini Babies bound in Stiltsville” in The Miami Herald. Reportedly, Pierre loved the attention. He claimed to have 1300 members (www.stiltsville.org).

The bikini club was raided in 1965 and closed by the State Beverage Department. There was no licence and adding to this, undersized out-of-season crawfish were found on the premises.


A Declining Legacy

At Stiltsville’s heyday in 1960, there were 27 structures on the flats. After Hurricane Betsy in 1965, those numbers were reduced to 17, and the State decided that only those with less than 50% damage were allowed to remain in the bay. Those structures that remained, were having to comply with building codes and were hoisted onto pilings. In addition to the 17 remaining, 8 new homes were constructed, thus totaling 25 structures altogether.

 In the years that followed, Stiltsville had pretty much lost its raunchy reputation and began to be more of a family excursion spot. By 1980, there were 14 houses and a radio tower.

Also, opposition to the structures, which had always been there, now began to grow further. Nearby residents referred to them as an eyesore, and Florida’s Secretary of State, Bruce Smathers, characterized the community as a ” blight on Biscayne Bay,” and called for it’s end to existence by 1986 (www.stiltsville.org).

Hurricane Andrew then destroyed most of the houses in 1992 and this seemed to spell the end of Stiltsville. Since then, there have been only 7 remaining structures.

Stiltsville House

Still Standing!

Happily. Andrew was not to be the ‘end of Stiltsville’. Not only are the remaining 7 structures still standing, no, I was particularly pleased to see that they looked maintained and USED by the general public.

After a little research I found out that you can actually rent the structures for private use. Details are here! This is a major success after the structures were actually due to be removed in 1999.

This from the Stiltsville Trust website, a Trust that was established after years of debate what should happen with the houses:

“On August 1,2003 Superintendent Canzanelli formed a group with the responsibility to maintain the structures and make them available to the public on a permitted basis. The owners of most of the houses had taken scout, school and church groups to the houses so they could enjoy the splendor of the bay. The group is now the Stiltsville Trust, a 50 1(c)(3) tax exempt corporation. There are fifteen Trustees, of which seven represent the houses and the other eight represent the public.

It took about two years for the Stiltsville Trust and Biscayne National Park to reach an agreement on how the joint custody arrangement would work. There were many details to be ironed out, including the speculation what would happen in the event of another hurricane.The rules now stipulate that houses damaged more than 50 percent would be removed.

Anyone interested in using Stiltsville for camera shoots, artists-in-residence, small conferences or whatever should contact the Biscayne National Park Office, (305) 230-1144.”

Stiltsville Miami

The Last Word

Personally, I believe it was a great idea to preserve the structures and make them accessible to the public, even if the price is pretty high (minimum rental $1000 even just for one day). I would have been sad to see them demolished. What do you think?

Stiltsville Houses

13 Comment

  1. Mickie Leonard says: Reply

    Great article! Too bad government had to interfere in private lives & confenscate. I HAVE A STORY FOR YOU… I own nearby Ragged Key # 2.

    Back in the ’60s the DOI decided it would take these 5 Ragged Keys, too. But the owners, lead by South Miami Realtor, Jack Pyms, fought the taking. A panel of 3 judges & 3 attorneys were in paneled to hear the case & set a fair value for the taking by DOI. At the conclusion of the hearings, with both side submitting appraisals & a parade of witnesses, including input by the Army Corp of Engineers, a just price was set for all. Our value was set in the low 6 figures.

    The DOI walked away from all purchases Our Note: Ragged Key # 2 had been puchased in the ’50s @ $58k, It what was an arm’s length private party transaction.

    In the ’70s DOI approached us again offering $13k, which was empathicaly turned down. Their parting comment to my father was, “We’ll get it in a few years. Once you die your heirs will get tired of paying property taxes on it.”

    Meanwhile, Miami Dade Co would not issue any permits to build or modify any of the Ragged Keys.

    Jack Pyms organized the City of Islandia to fight the inverse taking of our proprty rights. I became a commissioner. All efforts to control OUR Ragged Keys were thwarted by government interference. So all we got to do was pay our property taxes & hold on in hopes of a change in the gov’s actions , which mounted to an INVERSE CONDEMNATION or public taking by the DOI , which annex all of Biscayne Bay & promoted public use of our property.

    Distruction of seagrass from “possible” catwalk shading. Became the government’s chant. Meanwhile for some 30 years an FPL barge runs back & forth twice a day to Turkey Point, dredging up tons of seagrass each way. But that’s ok.

    Anyway shortly after my father died in 1988, the DOI came back & offered me $8k for the 89+ acres of Ragged Key #2. When I declined the offer again the rep laughed & said,, “Ok, keep paying those taxes. We’ll just wait for your heirs.”

    Can you imagine 89+ acres in Biscayne Bay declining in value & only being worth $8k? That’s what you get trying to fight with government agancies. The cost to fight the inverse condemnation would be more than the compensation.

    1. T says: Reply

      Wow Mickie, thank you so much for sharing your story with me! I would like to say ‘this is unbelievable’, but sadly I have been keeping up a little with what is going on (being an Archaeologist and outdoor lover), and some of it makes me very sad. Your story is a shocker. So what are you going to do?
      On another note, I would love to see pictures of ragged key #2 – I had not heard of them, and am going to read up on it!
      Thank you so much again of making me aware of this!!
      All the best for you!
      Tamara

    2. I have such fond memories of that area – growing up in S Miami and living in Old Cutler Bay, we spent a ton of time in Stiltsville, Elliot Key, then Ocean Reef. Cool story about Ragged Key. I remember when Islandia was incorporated and they talked about developing Elliot Key, building a causeway from Key Biscayne IIRC. Good times.

      1. T says: Reply

        Thank you so much for your comments Jeffrey, yes, Islandia, I need to write a story about that one day but information is SO hard to find…and without a boat I have been unable to get out there so far. I wish they had built that causeway!!
        Do you still have pictures from those days? I would love to see them…
        Anyhow, thanks a million for sharing your memories, it means a lot to me!
        Tamara

    3. Candice says: Reply

      What an amazing story to hear! I am so sorry for the frustration, however I admire you and your father for holding on and sticking it to the “man”. I do hope to hear a continence of your story many years from now with a happy ending to it. P.s. Is you need an heir to continue this legends I am up for adoption and ready to carry out family tradition :0)

    4. Joe says: Reply

      Great article. I hope you’re only paying taxes on property worth $8K. Lol

      1. T says: Reply

        I know, right?!

  2. It was called The Bikini Club and I was there – pre Betsy. The A frame house was owned by our Khory league coach – he took the team there several times for the weekend. It’s still there I think.

    1. T says: Reply

      You went to the Bikini club, the one on the yacht ‘Jeff’? Yes, the A frame house is the oldest I believe, that still stands. I do have a picture of it on the post.

  3. the Bikini Club was lots of fun. Not as raunchy as people would have you believe, at least not as I ever saw but lots of drinking. It was taken out by Hurr. Betsy in 1965. The Quarter Deck Club was before my time. Stiltsville was and is the most happy place. The “A Frame House” built the triangles on the roof to discourage sea birds from landing & leaving their poops behind. The lovely house with the railings is managed by the Miami Sprins Boat Club. Often there are parties with 200 people and more. I watch and wonder why the poor bending railing doesn’t collapse as many use it to sit. Great fun to walk around under the house from boat to boat, wear sneakers! Has a generator. Also a glorious old dory used as a buffet for covered dishes, by addition of plywood. I believe the dory came from “The Purple House” in what is now sadly a very gentrified Coco Plum. The owner brought it down from L.I. Because she couldn’t bear to leave it behind and used it for growing flowers.

    1. T says: Reply

      Aw Debbie, thank you for your comments, hey, nothing has changed, lots of drinking is still popular here! 😉
      I did not know that the Miami Boat Club still has parties there!! Interesting also about the Dory, do you mean the women’s club ‘coco plum’?
      Do you have old photographs?
      Thanks so much for connecting, I love to hear these types of stories!
      Many thanks!!
      Tamara

  4. Autus Knox says: Reply

    My father purchased ragged key#5 in the early’50’s. I was in elementary school. There was a house over the water on pilings and a big long dock that ended with a T. We spent weekends and vacations there. Had an outside shower with water from a cistern. I have enjoyed fishing all my life, no doubt because of those days. He sold it when he decided you couldn’t beat city hall. Sold it to the gentleman who became the first mayor of Islandia. He fought a long fight to keep it, but eventually lost. A piece of paradise it was. A hurricane took the house.

    1. tamarascharf says: Reply

      Oh how interesting!!! You must know Mickie?! Her family had one of the other raged keys, I think it was number 2

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