CARL FISHER’S SHADOWS: MIAMI BEACH MANSION AND MONTAUK POINT MANOR MATERIALS AT THE WOLFSONIAN
I have written in an earlier blog about Carl G. Fisher’s contribution to the early development of Miami Beach, but the visit last week of a gentleman who donated an archive of papers corresponding to Fisher’s promotion of a New York real estate has prompted me to turn once again to the subject.
It’s always great to get the chance to talk with the person who amassed and then donated an important collection to the museum and to learn a bit more about the provenance of such materials. Dan Rattiner and his wife visited the museum and in the course of a tour, I learned a great deal more about the Montauk, New York real estate plans of Carl G. Fisher (1874-1939), the man locally renowned as “Mr. Miami Beach.”
I was already familiar with some of the biographical details of Fisher’s life and his rag to riches to rags story. Born in 1874 to a family struggling economically, the Indiana native became a cycling enthusiast, opening a bike shop with a brother and promoting bicycle racing. The automobile also caught his interest, and an investment in a patent for automobile headlights in 1904 earned him millions of dollars in 1913. By that time, Fisher was heavily invested in promoting automobiles by developing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Fisher was also the brainchild behind the creation of the Lincoln Highway, the first east-west transcontinental road for automobiles, and the north-south Dixie Highway. Following its completion, he led a caravan of cars from Indiana to Miami, Florida.
Fisher also became interested the development of Miami Beach, providing John S. Collins (1837-1928) with a financial loan to complete his bridge to the island in return for 200 acres of prime real estate. Between 1912 and 1914, Fisher had the architect George Pfeiffer plan and build his first home, the Shadows, on the island on the beach at the end of Lincoln Road.
#173 The Shadows Carl Fisher’s home 1912-1913
By 1927, Fisher had commissioned the architect August Geiger (1888-1968) to build the developer a new mansion on the Biscayne Bay side of the island.
The photograph album of the Fisher estate provides stunning views of the mansion and grounds and a set of plans of the building and grounds of the estate.
The eastern terrace of the second of his shadows, for example, boasted a “Juliet” balcony.
Inside, one couldn’t help but be impressed by the double staircase leading to the upper floors.
The rooms of the mansion pictured in the large black & white professional photographs are ornately decorated and furnished.
The estate included a large swimming pool in green tile complete with dressing rooms connected by a tiled loggia.
As one would expect in the mansion of one of the nation’s greatest automobile promoters, the home was equipped with a spacious garage that could accommodate four cars with a connecting maintenance and oil room.
But Fisher had also promoted Miami Beach as a warm winter playground for the wealthy by organizing powerboat races. Not surprisingly, his property included an enclosed boathouse accommodating a forty-five foot cruiser, connecting to an apartment for the ship’s captain!
One unusual feature of the mansion is a tall observation tower.
The typed text in the photograph album boasts that the poured concrete tower set on pilings driven into the rock foundation was capable of withstanding two hundred mile an hour winds.
An electric elevator brought guests up to the lounge at the top where one could sit by a hearth, drink ice cold beverages from a Frigidaire, and gaze out the windows to get a bird’s-eye view of the island.
The tower reveals Fisher’s savvy as a real estate promoter, as it was said that he had deliberately added the tower so as to be able to bring potential buyers up to the lounge in the top where they could see and pick out a parcel of land. It was said that he had installed a bathroom in the tower as well, so as to deprive hesitant buyers an excuse for leaving before signing papers!
It was not, however, a good time to be a real estate developer in Miami Beach. The feverish land boom of the 1920s had begun to sour by 1925, and the deadly Miami Beach hurricane of 1926 put the final nails into the coffin. In fact, the photograph album itself is a testament to Fisher’s financial problems, as it had been designed to sell his Miami Beach mansion.
As Fisher recognized the warning signs of the downturn in Miami Beach property values even before the bust, he tried to diversify his real estate portfolio with plans for developing a northern summer resort at Montauk Point, New York.
Investing $2.5 million for 9,000 acres on the tip of Long Island, Fisher promoted the scheme with the slogan: “Miami Beach in the winter, Montauk Point in the summer. In 1926, Fisher employed the Schultz and Weaver architectural firm to build Montauk Manor, a 200-room hotel in the Tudor Revival style, on the site.
But with land values in Miami in a free fall and his finances tied up in the new Montauk development scheme, the Stock Market crash of 1929 caught him hopelessly over-extended. Like so many others, Fisher lost his fortune in the Great Depression and the Montauk project ultimately went into receivership. On January 4, 1936, Fisher addressed a letter to the trustee of the Montauk Beach Development Corporation, T. E. Ringwood inviting him to come down and spend a week in Miami Beach. In the same letter Fisher expressed his hope that he might be able to entice former presidential candidate Al Smith for a week’s fishing and NYC “master builder” Robert (“Bob”) Moses to address the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce about the “park situation, as it applies both to Montauk and Miami Beach.”
GIFT OF DAN RATTINER
By this time, however, Fisher’s personal finances were such that he was no longer in any position to direct the future development of either Miami Beach or Montauk Point, a reality reinforced by the authors, subject matter, and tenor of the bulk of letters in the Montauk archive.
GIFT OF DAN RATTINER
Reduced to living in a modest Miami Beach cottage in his later years, Fisher took on one final real estate venture, building the Caribbean Club on Key Largo which doubled as a fishing club and “a poor man’s retreat.”