By Lloyd Miller

When the boundaries of Biscayne National Park were expanded in 1980 they encompassed a collection of “get-away” homes called Stiltsville built on pilings on the flats of the north end of the Park, just south of the tip of Key Biscayne. Most of the houses border Biscayne Channel which was the most frequently used access to the bay before Government Cut was dug. Some historians believe there were about twelve “shacks” on the flats as early as 1922.

Captain Eddie “Crawfish” Walker built his shack in the early 1930’s and sold bait and beer. He was known for his “chilau,” a crawfish chowder. By the late 1930’s more houses were built, including the Calvert Club. In 1940 Commodore Edwin Turner built a house on a barge on pilings and called it the Quarterdeck Club. It was quite popular and was featured in a Life magazine article in 1941. After World War II it reputedly became a gambling club and was destroyed by fire in 1961.

A hurricane in 1950 swept away “Crawfish” Eddie’s shack and damaged the Quarterdeck Club but Stiltsville grew to 27 houses by late 1959. Jimmy Ellenburg put a barge on the flats in 1939 and Governor Leroy Collins was a frequent visitor. In 1960 Hurricane Donna took down twenty houses, of which eight were rebuilt. The Miami Springs Powerboat Club was built in the late 1950’s by twelve blue collar working men. In 1962 the 150 foot yacht JEFF was grounded on the flats and turned into a social club called the Bikini Club. Women wearing those skimpy suits were offered free drinks by owner Harry Churchville. There was also a nude sunbathing deck. The club was raided in 1965 and closed by the State Beverage Department. The club didn’t have a license but did have some undersized crawfish, plus crawfish were out of season.

Labor Day weekend in 1965 welcomed Hurricane Betsy with her winds of 120 miles per hour and an eleven foot storm surge. Only seventeen structures remained after Betsy departed. However, the State only allowed those with less than fifty percent damage to remain. Those that did were hoisted onto pilings in accordance with local building codes. Eight new homes were constructed bringing the total to twenty-five.

In 1967 a radio tower was constructed on the south side of Biscayne Channel and became Channel WRHC.

Judge Frank Knuck, of Dade Circuit Court, built a home at Stilts ville. He said, “We’re a family type colony – not a scruffy bunch of squatters.”

In 1976, probably at the request of the National Park Service, the Florida Department of Natural Resources examined a phased withdrawal of the Stiltsville leases. On the first of April they proposed terminating all leases by 1999 and a week later the State Cabinet renewed 23-year leases for the remaining fifteen houses to be vacated by 1999.

On August 25, 1983 the National Park Service confirmed that all remaining Stiltsville houses will be removed after 1999 and in 1985 the State transferred the bay bottom leases to the National Park Service. The houses continued as weekend retreats for their owners and some hosted parties, including the Dade County Bar’s Young Lawyers. One of the homes collapsed under the weight of 150 party goers on June 24, 1992, two months before Category 5 Hurricane Andrew arrived and only seven houses survived Andrew. Three years later Biscayne National Park hired Engineer Control Systems Corp. to clean up the debris in the Stiltsville area.

In August 1998 the owners of the Stiltsville homes thought they would have a better chance of saving the structures from demolition in 1999 if they could persuade the National Register of Historic Places to include Stiltsville on the list of historic properties. The State Historic Board voted to recommend the status but in April 1999 they were notified by the Federal Agency the request was denied. A Miami Herald editorial supported the removal of the Stiltsville houses and proposed including the Miami Circle Tequesta Indian ceremonial site) near downtown Miami be preserved. Park officials again notified Stiltsville home owners the houses would be removed after the leases expired on July 1, 1999 and the leaseholders would need to remove the structures at their own expense. That announcement created considerable civic and political activity. Some groups wanted the structures to stay, others wanted them gone and by June Stiltsville got a six month extension of the leases. Key Biscayne proposed a study to see if they could annex Stiltsville. Congressional Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), working with the Save Old Stiltsville group, became involved and there were discussions with the National Park Service and the State about swapping the Stiltsville land for other State lands and a bill was introduced in Congress to do that. A Miami Herald editorial wanted the structures removed. In November Federal authorities agreed to extend the Stiltsville negotiations for another year.

In late May 2000 Stiltsville home owners urged Congress to save the houses and a Miami Herald article criticized a Congressional proposal to remove 3900 acres around Stiltsville from Biscayne National Park. In early June the House Resources Committee approved a bill to swap land with Biscayne National Park to save the Stiltsville houses. On June 16 a new superintendent was appointed to head the park. In August the Park agreed to keep the Stiltsville houses and open them to the public. A Miami Herald editorial supported the plan. Not everyone in the area was happy about the plan to save the houses. Some folks thought they were an intrusion in the Park.

Stiltsville owners were not satisfied with the Park taking the houses and protested. Senator Bob Graham approved the Park ownership plan. Stiltsville owners asked again for continuation oftheir leases and on November 18 the National Park Service issued eviction orders to the former owners. Government inspectors found the structures in bad condition. The owners sought a restraining order to stop their eviction and a judge extended the eviction deadline to December 18. A Stiltsville lease extension was attached to a Congressional appropriations bill and on December 16, 1999 the eviction was delayed until March 31, 2000.

On February 6, 2001 Superintendent Linda Canzanelli of Biscayne National Park established a team to look into the possibility of maintaining the structures and to operate them on some basis which would make them more available to the public. By March 22 Interior Secretary Gale Norton considered a one year extension of the Stiltsville leases. It was opposed by a Miami Herald editorial. During this period there were dozens of letters to the local newspapers expressing both opposition to and support of the continuation of the leases.

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. Much ado about who decides what is 50 percent but since the Park owned the houses they felt that was their decision. Actually that condition is really no different than the same rule applied by the State in 1965.

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.