FIU alumni, former professor tell the story of Coral Gables founder George E. Merrick

Charles Sothers as George E. Merrick before the beginning of the performance | Kaysea Suzana, PantherNOW

Kaysea Suzana | Assistant Entertainment Director

The life of George E. Merrick, patron and poet of the South Florida community, was on full display on the theatre stage.

“The Placemaker-Poet”, a performance developed by emeritus professor Philip M. Church, gives light to the history of George E. Merrick, patron of South Florida’s community, and the importance of Coral Gables’ past.

Merrick had built the city out of coral, an important material to combat the disastrous hurricane of 1926. 

Additionally, when working as a postmaster he had also paid men and women the same wage, and founded recreational activities such as a bowling team.

Merrick’s mother, Althea, herself had created her own school for the community, and accounting for the length of travel for students to get to and  from school, had instead housed the children and their teacher.

Althea had also herself founded and sponsored a Coral Gables garden club, a Coral Gables Women’s Club, and a Coral Gables Library– all of which are still ongoing.

In assistance with the non-profit theatre company What if Works, Church envisioned a play that describes the life of Merrick from his boyhood aspirations coupled with the struggles of his upbringing in the swamps of South Florida. 

The English-born professor has had a long run with FIU’s Theatre program, working since the 1980’s, an expertise he carried into this production. His recent retirement made him realize how little he really knew about the area and its history. 

“Retiring and stepping into the community of Miami, I realized I didn’t actually know that much about it. So that was a part of what sparked my interest in exploring George E. Merrick,” Church said.

Church’s research into Merrick’s life led him to Miami-Dade College graduate Dariel Gonzalez who would go on to be the assistant-director and historian for the play.

The play includes performances from FIU alumni, with Shadya Muvdi, Victoria Smith, Dayron Leon, Kyran Wright as main vocals,  and Charles Sothers starring as George E. Merrick.

“I’ve favored FIU actors and production. You don’t need open auditions and they have that passion. For them, we’ve also been able to offer them internships and at times pay them for their work on projects,” Church said.

Church emphasized he enjoyed working with FIU students since they’re a familiar crew.

For example, despite each performance they did at three separate theaters involving different logistical challenges–some theaters had a traditional stage while others had an additional platform–the performers worked together well and could adapt to changes in choreography.

Alongside with the performers, were also FIU students involved in the production, such as Senior Bachelors of Music major Wyatt Nymoen who worked on the music composition.

“A lot of instruments were chosen specifically for texture. The sound design was primarily to fit a mood, not necessarily any genre,” Nymoen said.

Musical texture is described as melody, tempo and harmony working in tandem within musical production.

However, even the sound design for the play had its challenges.

“There was a lot of experimentation. A lot gets written, practiced and some of it doesn’t make the cut. For the intro and towards the end of the play, I had to use dissonance to make an ethereal aspect and an unnerving feeling,” Nymoen said.

The terse moments to which Nymoen refers to are the darker parts of Merrick’s life, when he encountered strife through his father’s passing, and his financial failures in the midst of the Great Depression, leading to his alcoholism.

“I tried using a violin and working with a bow and tritones to get weird musical elements. That didn’t quite work out so I tried using synths and sampling reverb. Playing with pitches is what got me that uncomfortable feeling that I wanted to produce,” Nymoen explained.

There was also a need for expertise on the historical validity of the play’s nature, which Gonzalez was enlisted for.

“Most of the known information about Merrick comes from a biography by Arva Moore Parks. I know the author’s daughter, and it was her daughter who had invited me to obtain some of the author’s work,” said Gonzalez.

The biography written by Parks is titled “George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables” and it served as the main background knowledge for the play.

“Historical accuracy was the most important aspect. The majority of people watching this performance have some knowledge of the history. We then took certain creative liberties, as do most performances, to avoid making it boring,” Gonzalez said.

Differences that Gonzalez noted were primarily creative touches, such as the inclusion of a stag throughout multiple times in the play, despite there being no record of Merrick interacting with one, meant more as a metaphorical plot point.

Both Church and Gonzalez were keen to showcase Merrick’s contributions to the South Florida community, a response in accordance to a recent trend labeling Merrick as a racist, anti-semetic segregationists in an attempt to cancel his legacy. 

University of Miami had removed Merrick’s name from their association, despite Merrick’s copious donations and support for the school.

“Merrick loved and worked with the Bahamians, even naming them ‘wayshowers’ in reference to how much they had taught him about working with coral and construction,” Gonzalez said.

“The controversy comes from a 1930’s speech he made about the difficulty in integrating colored people into equal rights. He had mentioned creating a safe space for them and the Jews. A petitioner took this out of context and pushed the narrative that he’s a segregationist,” Gonzalez said.

The petition that Gonzalez is referring to is one done by UM alumni Evan Kissner, citing a news source that claimed that Merrick “advocated for all black families to be pushed out of  Miami’s city limits… and into ‘negro towns’.”

Other sources were listed for Kissner’s claim, such as a journal article by Raymond A. Mohl titled “Whitening Miami: Race, Housing, and Government Policy in Twentieth-Century Dade County”.

Mohl wrote that Merrick had “emphasized the importance of the ‘negro resettlement plan’. In a speech before the Miami Board of Realtors, Merrick proposed ‘a complete slum clearance effectively removing every negro family from the present city limits.”

Mohl’s source is credited to “Prologue” the 1987 edition by National Archives.

In addressing the concern for resources regarding the Black community, Gregory W. Bush’s “White Sand Black Beach, Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami S. Virginia Key” mentions Merrick’s intentions to create a waterfront in Miami.

This waterfront was intended to house the Black population of the city, which was one third of the total population at the time. Bush quotes a speech by Merrick directed at several white organizations.

“Today this third of our present citizenry are effectively denied water access and water use… We cannot receive fairness until we give fairness to this deserving one-third of our citizenry.”

Gonzalez refers to Parks’ work, in reference to Merrick’s poetry dedicated to the Bahamians.

“Many years later, Merrick would honor these Bahamians in a series of stories he entitled ‘Men of the Magical Isles.’”

Gonzalez writes, “One line in the story highlights Merrick’s praise and admiration for them, when he writes, “Very few realize today how much our Bay country owes, in its very foundation, to the Bahamian [laborers].”

Gonzalez also references a speech by Merrick, stored in UM’s digital collections, that refers to his plans to improve transportation for Blacks.

“With this must come a county-wide, county controlled transportation system. Whereby these negroes and other workers can be brought back and forth at a very cheap rate.”

It is this same speech where the aforementioned news source quotes Merrick’s statements about a ‘negro resettlement plan’. It is this segment, to which Gonzalez referred to as ‘being taken out of context’.

More information can be found at the Coral Gables Museum.

1 Comment on "FIU alumni, former professor tell the story of Coral Gables founder George E. Merrick"

  1. There’s traces of coral within South Dade but it’s more prevalent in Monroe County / Florida Keys. It’s often ubiquitously referred to as such (coral), but mainly most old timers know that the entirety of the Miami rock ridge and most of Redland is on oolitic limestone. For instance when I auger a hole in Redland, there’s often some bits and pieces of Coral, but it’s not the entirety of the excavations.

    As for Coral Gables, that’s a long affair with Floridiana and George Merrick’s vision to make everything as pleasant sounding as it is picturesque. The name Coral Gables just sounds so much better than “Limestone Gables”. The prime example in that city of a quarry is the Venetian Pool, although not in Italy, it bears the name of the European influence for the concept, as do many of the street names, particularly denoting references to Spain. George Merrick was even knighted by the King of Spain for his efforts in promoting Spain in his Mediterranean concept, Coral Gables.

    There’s sparse areas of coral, but most geologists and historians of the area have grown to differentiate the two, and deal with the subject with a manner of precision that these sorts of historical details and anecdotes deserve. As for Coral Ridge, that name may have just stuck through development and landowners, just a take on that. Check this out for more info.

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