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Early history of the study area

By: Jim Broton

The Civic Center/Highland Park/Alapattah area has a known history that goes back before the first white settlers arrived in Miami. Approximately 2000 years ago, Tequesta Indians lived in Miami at the mouth of the Miami River. The "Miami Circle" site is the most recent evidence of their presence here, but records suggest they settled on both sides of the Miami River. It is likely they traveled upriver to the Everglades, stopping to drink the sweet Everglades runoff water flowing down what is now called Wagner Creek.


In the early 1840s William English owned all the land that would become the study area. He had a mill that processed arrowroot or "coontie" plants on Wagner Creek. The mill was located near water since running water was needed during the production of arrowroot starch from the mashed coontie roots to leech the poison from them.


In 1857 William Wagner homesteaded this land, including the creek that bears his name. The Wagner home, the oldest known surviving house in Miami, was moved to Lummus Park in 1979 and reconstructed there. Wagner also ran a coontie mill on the creek, and planted tropical fruit trees here and later had a dairy. Beginning at the river and continuing north beyond the study area was found the richest soil in Miami. That northern area was called the Alapattah Prairie. It was farmed extensively during the early years of Miami, and yielded fruit and vegetables in abundance.


The main feature on the site was the Golf Links [locator], cleared approximately in 1900 by the crew Henry Flagler brought in to build the Royal Palm Hotel downtown.  During the 15th anniversary celebration of the formation of the City of Miami, a biplane piloted by aviator Howard Gill flew from the Golf Links over the City, thus becoming the first plane to fly in Miami. In 1923 the Miami Country Club was built at the southern edge of the Golf Links on NW North River Drive, facing the Miami River. In the 1920s until the 1940s it was the site of social gatherings for Miami's elite. The site is now a parking lot for the Civic Center.


After the Royal Palm hotel opened tourists would travel up the Miami River to play golf, and also to see attractions such as Alligator Joe's Alligator Farm at the junction of the Miami River and Wagner Creek. They also traveled further upriver to climb an observation tower built to view the construction of the Miami Canal, a manmade waterway extending northwest beyond the headwaters of the Miami River. When opened in 1912, the canal drained much Everglades land west of 27th Avenue and allowed the development that exists there now.


When developer FCB LeGro opened the Highland Park [locator] subdivision on January 12, 1911 it was one of the first Miami subdivisions, having been originally platted by a different developer on Jan. 3, 1910 as the Golf Links addition. The subdivision featured two landscaped traffic circles and a park at its northern border. The area quickly filled with residences, since it possessed several factors favoring its development: 1) its then-rustic location must've attracted the adventurous. 2) The nearby Golf Links was a sign of civilization. 3.) Its location on "high land" that sloped gently down to the Miami River insured that the land would stay dry, unusual considering the often-muddy and sometimes flooded subtropical landscape of Miami. In the last two years Habitat for Humanity has built 29 single-family residences in the Highland Park area.


Sandwiched between Highland Park and the Golf Links is a massive stone building, the residence of John Sewell, shoe salesman and the third mayor of Miami. Started on July 20, 1913 it was situated on the highest elevation in the City of Miami. Sewell called his home Halissee Hall [locator], "Halissee" being the Seminole word for "New moon."  In his book, Miami Memoirs, Sewell writes that Halissee Hall was built with “boulder rock grubbed up on the hill” with which he built “the best home in Florida, not the most expensive, but the best home, with eighteen-inch walls of solid stone and cement, three stories high, with a half-acre of floor space.” The original entrance to Halissee Hall, two pillars, can be seen just south of the 836 Expressway near NW 10th Avenue.


Situated far from Downtown to hinder the spread of disease, Miami's first city hospital [locator] was originally located at NW 18th St. near NW 10th Avenue. It was designed by well-known Miami architect August Geiger and built in 1918 on 15 acres of land that was formerly a City waste and rubbish dump. It was named for one of Miami's early doctors, James M. Jackson, Jr. after his death in 1924. The hospital was moved to its present location near the center of the Jackson hospital complex in 1979 and is affectionately known as "The Alamo."


South of the Golf Links and what was then Alapattah Road (NW 11th St.) is the Spring Garden subdivision, opened February 5, 1919. Miami baker John Seybold, who also built the Seybold Building on Flagler street downtown, laid out this subdivision over the course of six years. He created what was to be an exclusive area with gas and sewer lines, and with royal palm landscaping planted in 1913 that still can be seen on NW 9th Ct. He also widened his part of Wagner Creek, and built a bridge going over it so residents coming from Downtown didn't have to cross any other bridge. Prior to its opening, scenes of a Fox film called The Jungle Trail were shot here, and a Hindu Village and cardboard Hindu temple set were constructed. Seybold used the filming to advertise his subdivision, and after they left in 1919 he commissioned August Geiger to design a temple-like structure reminiscent of the set. The "Hindu temple" can still be seen on NW 11th St. and NW 8th St. Rd.


The population explosion that began here in the early 1920s resulted in residential development that soon spread west from Downtown. In the study area, large farms were sold to developers who created subdivisions with names like Greenwood Park, Evergreen Gardens, Braddock (a major property owner), and Uneeda Park. Fine examples of Vernacular, Mission and Pueblo-style architecture were built here then, supplemented later by homes built in the 1940s. In 1961 a large part of the study area was rezoned to encourage non-residential development. This acted as catalyst for the creation of the Civic Center Complex, however it may have also prompted the flight to the suburbs by professionals working in this area that has left it in the state it's in today.