Stiltsville: The Stilt Houses of Florida

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A mile off the coast of Cape Florida on the edge of Biscayne Bay, in Miami-Dade County, you can see a collection of houses floating above the shallow water. This is the community of Stiltsville, a group of wooden houses and shacks standing on wood and reinforced concrete pilings, set up towards the end of the prohibition era, allegedly to facilitate gambling, which was not allowed within a mile offshore from the coast.

The story goes that the first shack on stilts was built by "Crawfish" Eddie Walker in the early 1930's, although some historians claim there were shacks out in "the flats", as the area was known, as early as 1922. In addition to being a gambling den, Crawfish Eddie sold bait and beer from his shack and was known for his chilau, a crawfish chowder made with crawfish he caught under his shack. Over the years, Eddie Walker’s shack was joined by more clubs and soon Stiltsville became a hotbed for booze and illegal gambling.

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Stiltsville’s popularity grew after an article appeared in Life Magazine in 1941. One of the shacks, called the Quarterdeck Club, became a popular spot in Miami and a key tourist attraction. Celebrities, lawyers, bankers, politicians and other wealthy well-connected Miamians came to drink, relax and kick back. Even Florida's then Governor LeRoy Collins frequented the place. Another popular hangout was the Bikini Club set up in a grounded 150-foot yacht, which offered free drinks to women wearing bikinis and had sun deck for nude sunbathing.

At its peak in 1960, Stiltsville had twenty-seven buildings. Eventually, none of these popular watering holes could survive the fury of nature and that of the law enforcement agencies. Crawfish Eddie's blew away in a hurricane, the Quarterdeck burned down, allegedly by the owner's wife after a jealous fit, and the Bikini Club was busted and ultimately shut down for operating without a liquor license. Subsequent hurricanes cleared out the remaining structures and by 1992, only seven houses were standing.

In 1985, the flats were declared by the State of Florida as part of Biscayne National Park which required the houses to be moved, but the National Park Service agreed to let them sit until their lease expired in 1999. As the deadline approached, the owners sought for extension and launched a petition drive. After a lengthy battle, the Park Service relented and decided not to demolish the structures but preserve it instead. Today, a non-profit organization called the Stiltsville Trust looks after the remaining seven buildings.

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Sources: www.stiltsville.org / The Atlantic / Wikipedia

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