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Surfside's History: A Look Back at 88 Years

Oct 19, 2023

For Greater Miami and other parts of Florida, the stock market crash of October 1929 only deepened an economic downturn that followed the collapse of the real estate boom of the mid-1920s. However, those economic conditions did not deter the opening of the posh Mediterranean-styled Surf Club in late 1930.

By Dr. Paul George, HistoryMiami Museum.

The origins of the Surf Club are often attributed to the frustration of many prominent wintertime residents of Greater Miami with their inability to gain admission to Miami Beach’s Bath Club, which had reached its membership limits by the late 1920s. Other sources argue that these same founders wanted a club less staid and livelier than the Bath Club. One account even has James Cox, the powerful newspaper publisher and Miami visitor and investor, as the catalyst for the club’s creation after Alfred Ochs’s Bath Club application was rejected. Ochs was a prominent Jewish publisher and close friend. 

By the end of the 1920s, a consortium comprised of wealthy visitors purchased 900 feet of Atlantic beachfront from 90th Street north for the club’s development – the price tag, $300,000. Designed by Russell Pancoast, a member of a pioneering Miami Beach family and one of the most prolific Beach architects in the first half of the 20th century, this Mediterranean-styled jewel, sitting amid six acres, featured an elongated two-story building paralleling the beachfront and an entrance on fabled Collins Avenue. It opened, as noted, among growing economic uncertainty.

Surf Club dining room, 1949. Francis H. Gardner, photographer. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1989-011-15803.

The club’s guiding light at the time of its opening and in subsequent decades was Alfred Barton, a tall former set designer for movie mogul, Alfred B. DeMille; Barton was also the club’s long-serving manager. Soon after its inception, the Surf Club was hosting the rich, famous and beautiful - ranging from Hollywood starlets, famed entertainers and prominent industrialists. They cherished the club’s privacy along with all its extravagant entertainment offerings, including over-the-top musicals and evening balls, games including bingo and bridge, endless luncheons, poolside fashion shows, debutante galas, nightly parties, and even black-tie prize fight dinners. The array of prominent guests of the Surf Club continued through the late stages of the 20th century. By then, their ranks included Elizabeth Taylor, Cassius Clay, Frank Sinatra, Sir Winston Churchill and the Shah of Iran. As one member famously swooned in 1962, “When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven. I want to go to the Surf Club.”

Surf Club dining room, 1949. Francis H. Gardner, photographer. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1989-011-15803.

Lying immediately south of the Surf Club is the City of Miami Beach, which experienced an upswing in its financial fortunes in the second half of the 1930s. The turn was due to tourism rebounding sharply from the slump helped by an accompanying boom in hotel and apartment construction, especially in the community’s southern sectors. As better times returned to the Beach, the city evinced a desire to annex additional land north of it—land corresponding to a portion of today’s Town of Surfside. 

Before there was the Town of Surfside, there was a narrow strip of land wedged between the waters of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Archaeological evidence points to the presence of a Tequesta Indian village, including a burial mound. Named by the Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon who visited south Florida in 1513, the Tequestas were Miami’s earliest settlers, their presence in the area reaching back thousands of years. Regarded as the first significant archaeological activity in the Miami area, this archaeological find in present-day Surfside came in 1923 as land was being cleared for the Altos del Mar development. Another archaeological dig in 1933-1934 led to the uncovering of a habitation mound nearly 400 feet in length. “The Mound,” as it was known, contained the remains of 50 Tequestas, potsherds, arrowheads and other artifacts. A subsequent dig later unearthed additional Tequesta artifacts. 

Altos del Mar was the ambitious project by the four Tatum brothers, who were among Greater Miami’s most prominent early developers. From 1923 to 1925 they had platted numerous subdivisions within this development. The site spread in a northeasterly direction through today’s Surfside to the beachfront and included land formerly owned by the federal government. Today’s Town of Surfside is carved from Altos Del Mar, plats 4, 5 and 6, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Creek waterway, between 87th and 96th Streets. These borders include one mile of pristine beach.

When in 1935 the City of Miami Beach evinced its desire to annex the above area, 35 residents of the affected area, all members of the Surf Club, joined together to officially incorporate the Town of Surfside on May 18. These signatories to the charter of incorporation financed the venture with a loan for more than $28,000. The new town consisted of about 50 residents with little development within its one square mile borders. 

Surfside’s first mayor, Spearman Lewis, created a vision for his town as a vibrant beachside development, but its major growth would have to wait until the period following World War II in the second half of the 1940s and after. As the young town developed in the flush of postwar prosperity, it generally followed the plan set by the Tatum Brothers, calling for a business district on Harding Avenue, which runs parallel to and immediately west of Collins Avenue from 94th to 96th Streets. As it developed, the lines of demarcation between commercial and residential buildings became clear, with the area south of 95th Street and west of Harding Avenue to the town limits at 87th Street serving as the residential base of Surfside. The strip of Collins Avenue falling within the corporate limits of Surfside has been graced until recent times with small apartment complexes and beachside hotels and motels. Overall, the mix of residential buildings includes single-family homes, duplexes, apartment buildings and condominiums. 

Over the decades, building records point to the quickening growth of Surfside. In 1935, the burgeoning town listed 31 scattered structures built during the heady boom era by the Tatums and by Henri Levy, who also developed the nearby Normandy Isles, Biscaya Island, and a portion of land from Surfside’s southern border north to 92 Street. By the end of the 1930s, the town counted 176 buildings, many of which were built by Levy in that era. Just one decade later however, 431 new structures, most of which were built after World War II, took their place next to the older housing stock. A building surge in the 1950s resulted in the construction of 934 additional buildings, including a new town hall. A 1960s slowdown brought only 195 new buildings in that decade, but the number constructed in the following decade rose to 536. In the 1980s, the town saw 330 additions to its building inventory, following by an additional 564 in the 1990s.

While no available data exists for the number of new construction starts in the early years of the present century, Surfside has increasingly come within the sights of major architects and developers resulting in the appearance of hotel and condominium “brands” on Collins Avenue. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts has restored the existing clubhouse and cabanas of the Surf Club building three stunning glass additions designed by Pritzker-prize winning architect Richard Meier and Kobi Karp, bracketing the venerable club building. The Terra Group offers “starchitect” Renzo Piano’s Eighty-Seven Park, with its fluid design overlooking the Atlantic Ocean while located next to a 35-acre park. Farther up on the ocean side of Collins Avenue stands the luxurious Fendi Chateau Residences. Nearby is the posh Grand Beach Hotel Surfside, which opened its doors in 2013. 

Surfside Town Hall, 1945. James P. Wendler, photographer. South Florida Photograph Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1995-339-8.

On the west side of Collins Avenue is the striking glass Residence Inn by Marriott Miami Beach Surfside. The rash of new development has led to the razing of many apartments and small hotels designed in the Streamline Moderne (Art Deco) or Miami Modern styles, which trace their origins to the 1940s through the 1960s. These changes have brought attention to the wave of development, especially of high-end properties on the eastern flanks of the town and the call by historic preservationists, both within and outside of Surfside, for the importance of preserving the community’s oldest buildings. In 2016 with support from the Town of Surfside, Metro-Dade County’s Historic Preservation Board created the Collins Avenue Historic District in recognition of nine buildings on the west side of Collins Avenue and the east side of Harding Avenue between 90th and 91st Streets. The properties included exhibit sterling representations of the Streamline Moderne or Mid-Century Modern styles, each designed by a master architect. Additionally, both the front piece of a nearby architecturally-distinctive apartment and another apartment complex received historic designation from the same board.  

This picture contrasts with the Surfside of a half century earlier, featuring a flourishing downtown and modestly priced homes; Surfside had successfully established itself as a pleasant seaside community with a mix of middle class and upper middle-class residents. Many observers, including residents, visitors, and members of nearby communities, remarked on its quaintness and a downtown notable for both its old time feel and wide variety of businesses. From its inception, the town offered many outlets for residents to come together for community-wide events and observances. These offerings included two parks and a tennis complex. The town’s politics, “colorful” since its beginnings, became fractious in the 1960s with a rapid turnover of town managers and even a call for the recall of a vice mayor and several councilmen. 

Ground Zero for governance was first, a two-story home converted into a town hall at 9550 Harding Avenue in the downtown sector, followed by a new facility at 9293 Harding Avenue in 1957. The first town hall housed a police force, jail, fire department and the town council chambers. Described as “a hub of public services,” the new town hall underwent a complete renovation in 2001. Today, town hall shares a portion of its footprint with the Turtle Walk exhibit, featuring resin and fiberglass sculptures of Florida Loggerhead sea turtles who lay their eggs on its beachfront each year (also in the area are manatees which are known to mate in the waters just off of Surfside’s beach). The Turtle Walk exhibit promotes the town’s conservation efforts with each five-foot turtle carefully painted by renowned local artists. 

Arguably as important for the future of town as any of the above building projects was the completion in 1962 of the Surfside Community Center on land the municipality had assembled for 15 years. This ocean facility quickly became the center of activities and local social life, hosting weddings, community presentations and gatherings, a library, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Its eastern edge afforded easy access to the beach. The town razed the center in 2008 to make way for a larger, more modern facility, which opened three years later and includes municipal offices, meeting room, a grill, children’s water park and lap pool. 

Just outside the eastern community center gates is Surfside’s biggest attraction – the beach, which continues to be the town’s focal point and an important venue for many events. In recent years, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department has sponsored an annual 5K race, an Earth Day fair as well as beach cleanup events. Due to natural shoreline erosion throughout Miami-Dade County, beach renourishment projects have taken place in 1992 the late 90s, and most recently in 2019.

Beachgoers sitting and standing outside the Surfside Casino Bath House, circa 1950s. South Florida Photograph Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 2009-486-1.

Some of the Town’s most infamous guests and residents include organized crime figures like Tony Accardo and Sam Tucker, as well as famed author Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. Surfside’s 95th Street is co-named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard in honor of the great Yiddish poet and short-story author. With a nod toward the literary, the town has renamed streets west of Harding Avenue for American and British literary figures, whose ranks include Irving, Hawthorne, Emerson, Byron and Dickens.

Today, approximately 6,000 residents call Surfside home.

Like other part of Miami-Dade County, the Town boats a diverse population which includes many ethnic groups - nearly 40 percent of them Spanish speakers. Some might be surprised to learn that 44 percent of the town’s residents are foreign born, with many hailing from Europe and other continents.  Surfside also resembles other coastal municipalities in the county with large scale construction projects, primarily along Collins Avenue, that have introduced several new high-end hotels and condominiums to the area. Where the town differs from others in the region is in its vibrant downtown district, first developed in the 1940s, which is primarily located along Harding Avenue. With its diverse restaurant and cuisine selection, many of them kosher, the area has become a popular kosher dining hub and also features quaint “mom and pop” businesses as well as a wide array of service-oriented stores. 

Volunteer firemen riding on a float in Surfside for the Armistice Day Parade, 1956. Miami Beach Times, photographers. South Florida Photograph Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1995-339-3.

Armistice Day Parade in the town of Surfside, 1956. Miami Beach Times, photographers. South Florida Photograph Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1995-339-4.

The future appears bright for this carefully-managed community with its beautiful pristine beach located to the east, Biscayne Bay’s turquoise waters to the west, and a bevy of amenities for residents and visitors alike. After all, this community’s roots rest not just in the legendary real estate boom of the 1920s, or in the unlikely era of economic depression that followed, but with Miami’s earliest inhabitants whose presence there is counted not in centuries but in millennia.