Stiltsville: Miami’s Lost City on the Sea
About a mile out in the turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay, a city suddenly appears hovering above the crystalline waters. Set on wooden and cement poles like spindly legged shore birds, these rustic, pastel-colored wooden homes are sufficiently far enough from each other to seem utterly isolated, yet collectively far enough from anything else to coalesce into a community.
This is Stiltsville, a ghost town out on the ocean where, in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, Miami’s jet-setters came to party in true Gatsby style far from prying eyes. And while this storied city of floating homes is wholly unique to Miami, it may not be for much longer if worsening hurricane seasons have anything to do with it. “The most remarkable thing about Stiltsville,” says Dr. George, the resident historian at HistoryMiami Museum, who conducts a narrated boat tour out to the site every few months, “is Stiltsville itself.”
Stiltsville history begins in the 1930s when a local character named “Crawfish” Eddie Walker first built out on the flats. Officially, his “building” was a little beached barge that served as a bait and tackle shop, where he also sold cold beer and his famous “Chilau” crawfish chowder to passing fishermen and boaters. Unofficially, it was a gambling joint well beyond the reach of the long arm of the law, as it was stationed more than a mile offshore and technically outside any city limits. Gradually, others caught on to Walker’s idea of an overwater hideaway conveniently located outside of local law enforcement, building all manner of ocean homes atop towering stilts.
The homes would become far more elaborate than Walker’s modest shack, playing host to the Miami elite. Some built barn-sized clubhouses with massive decks and fancy signs that could be seen from shore. Others came together in a piecemeal fashion, with never-ending wooden additions giving them a ramshackle Swiss Family Robinson feel.
But, as naturally befitting a community born in the dying days of prohibition, they also earned a reputation as “sin shacks,” playing home to illegal bars, brothels, and gambling dens, attracting criminals and city officials alike, all out for a completely uninhibited good time. The tales and legends abound: Al Capone was said to be in on the action, as was the governor of Florida, LeRoy Collins. A local scoundrel named Harry “Pierre” Churchville grounded a yacht in the shallows and called it the Bikini Club, offering free liquor to any ladies in bikinis. The stories go on.
The vice of Stiltsville didn’t mark the start of its undoing, however; hurricanes did. “Crawfish” Eddy’s shack was demolished during the Labor Day hurricane of 1950, starting a trend that lasted for years to come. Today, only seven homes remain, far fewer than the 27 that stood at the community’s peak of popularity, and you can see Hurricane Irma’s most recent impact: unused pilings where a dock once stood, wind-lashed paint jobs, and rickety guardrails.
Despite the history of hurricanes, even through the ’90s, the homes were still popular sites for weekend retreats and parties – in fact, one massive banana-yellow home was ground zero for Senator Ted Kennedy’s blowout bachelor party before his second marriage in 1992. But when state officials announced plans to remove the remaining houses in 1999, the resulting outcry kicked off a long battle for the historic preservation of the decaying city at sea. Today, the remaining homes are co-owned and operated by Biscayne National Park and The Stiltsville Trust, a coalition of Stiltsville homeowners and interested citizens. Although the trust has often arranged for private tours and even rented the homes for parties and events, it involves a meticulous permitting process. Aside from that, the only way to visit is through HistoryMiami’s boat tours or a private boat tour of your own.
“The realization that they could disappear during the next storm makes each visit special,” says T. Wheeler Castillo, a local artist and environmentalist who also leads Stiltsville tours for HistoryMiami. “Everyone should visit the remaining structures while they can, as the next storm could blow them away like hurricane Andrew blew six away in ’92. That said, they could also as easily collapse if a party gets too out of control.” It sounds like an exaggeration, but isn’t at all: In 1992, just five months before hurricane Andrew came to town, one of the homes collapsed under the weight of nearly 300 partygoers, according to Coast Guard officials at the time. Astonishingly, only eight people were injured and everyone was safely fished out of the water by boat.
“For the last 26 years, they’ve dodged a lot of bullets,” adds Dr. George. “It remains to be seen whether there’s much of a future for these homes. The National Park Service really hasn’t unfurled a good game plan for renting the houses, and they also haven’t enough budget to perform proper maintenance. That salt air is just brutal on them. It should be OK unless another storm comes through and does some serious damage. After that, you might not see Stiltsville anymore.”