Elser Pier in Downtown Miami

Aerial of Elser Pier in 1917.Aerial of Elser Pier in 1917.

Throughout its more than one hundred twenty-year history, Miami has had its share of attractions. In the second decade of the twentieth century, there was no bigger attraction than Elser Pier. It became the reason civic and industry organizations chose Miami as the place to host their conventions. It also was the reason residents spent their free time along the Boulevard in downtown Miami.

While it wasn’t around for a long time, it became an unforgettable place. Elser Pier was the venue to witness and learn about the technological advances of its era. It brought the world to South Florida and provided a destination to experience what was unique and interesting about Miami in the early 1900s.

Pier Named for Owner

Elser Pier in 1917.

Figure 1: Elser Pier in 1917.

Matthew Elser invested his earnings from a sandwich shop to purchase a hotel in Buffalo, New York. He then further built his fortune by trading oil stocks in the late 1800s at a time when the oil industry was growing rapidly. By the turn of the century, Elser was considered a wealthy man.

In 1907, at the age of forty-one, Matthew and his wife, Rose, discovered the favorable climate of South Florida and became regular visitors. Seven years later, they decided to become permanent residents when they bought property along Millionaire Row on Brickell Avenue.

While he could have retired and enjoyed Miami’s social scene, Elser was intent on providing his adopted home town a water-front destination that offered the city a modern venue for events and entertainment. The FEC Fair Building and Royal Palm Park were two of very few viable locations for conventions and entertainment in Miami during the mid-1900s. Elser petitioned the city council in 1916 to build his recreation pier at the center of what was becoming a fast-growing downtown.

The Center of Downtown Miami

Elser Pier from Berni Apartments in 1920.

Figure 2: Elser Pier from Berni Apartments in 1920.

The year 1916 saw a lot of planning and development along downtown Miami’s main road. What would be renamed to Flagler Street in 1920, Twelfth Street became the city’s most important thoroughfare by the turn of the century. It was the retail district and the lots adjacent to the street became valuable locations.

As the second decade of the twentieth century reached its midpoint, The Boulevard also served as an important avenue for new development. It was expanded and renamed to Biscayne Boulevard in 1926. It ran north and south and provided an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay.

It only made sense for Matthew Elser to choose the intersection of Twelfth Street and The Boulevard to build his recreation pier. At first, the city council had reservations about the project. The plans for the pier called for it to extend two hundred and sixty feet into the bay which had some councilmen concerned. The plan called for it to extend much further into the bay than any other structure that was located along the shoreline at the time.

However, after a lot of deliberation and debate, the city council gave the approval for the project. By mid-1916, Matthew Elser began preparations for the land and structure that would become his pier. It was during this time that he hired a noted architect to design the buildings that were part of the pier. Elser was hoping the pier would be completed by the end of December in 1916.

Design and Construction of Elser Pier

Elser Ballroom in 1918.

Figure 3: Elser Ballroom in 1918.

As soon as he got approval from the city, Elser began filling in the bay around what would become the foundation of the main buildings of the pier. He hired August Geiger as his architect to design the buildings at the front of the pier. The pier was designed to be seventy feet wide and four hundred feet in length. The main buildings were constructed to occupy the first one hundred and forty feet, and the docks extended the pier an additional two hundred and sixty feet into Biscayne Bay.

The portion of the pier that fronted Twelfth Street was where the two tall towers were built. Each tower was three-stories (sixty feet), in height. In between the towers was space for several shops to provide retail options on the plaza. Behind the shops was an arcade that included a sixty-foot long by forty-six-foot wide aquarium. The Elser Pier aquarium pre-dated James Allison’s Miami Beach aquarium by four years.

In front of the aquarium was a band stand. Adjoining the aquarium were two boat slips, one on each side of the pier. At the end of the pier was a dock for the bay boats that shuttled passengers from Miami to Miami Beach, or boats that provided longer distance voyages to places like Key West or New York.

At the entrance of the pier, adjacent to the Boulevard, were steps leading to a roof garden. There were refreshments and other dining options available on the roof. In addition, electric lights were placed around the entire pier to provide an Atlantic City feel in Miami.

Elser Pier was located directly to the north of the FEC Fair Building. The intent of the recreation venue was to offer additional options for tourists and conventioneers considering Miami for large gatherings. New hotels were being built around the city to accommodate larger conventions and the growing tourism industry in Miami.

As Summer turned to Fall in 1916, work was well under way for the pier. Fill around what would become the pier was complete and construction of the building and docks were making progress. The original estimated cost for the project was $25,000 and the estimated construction time was ninety days. When the pier finally opened, the project exceeded its projections on both fronts.

Opened in 1917 with an Auto Show

Elser Pier in 1917.

Figure 4: Elser Pier in 1917.

On January 4th, 1917, a Miami Metropolis article announced that Elser Pier would officially open on January 22nd when it hosted an automobile show. Although auto shows in the north were becoming more common by 1917, one conducted in the deep south was a novelty. It was the very first automobile show held in Miami.

When the pier opened, and the show began, some of the automobiles on display included: Hudson, Studebaker, Saxon, Dodge, Cadillac, Chevrolet and Buick to name a few. By the end of the week, the show was declared a great success and the manager of the pier, A.T. Wright, announced that the Pure Food Show was booked as the next exhibit to take place at the pier.

The pier also acted as an annex to the Fair Building whenever an event was too large to fit entirely into its neighbor to the south. In March of 1917, a new ferry service was announced to bring people from Elser Pier to Avery Smith’s dock on Miami Beach.

After the United States entered into World War I, Miami served as a place where soldiers trained before being dispatched to Europe. Elser Pier hosted dances for soldiers as they prepared to be sent off to war. War bond fundraisers were also conducted at the pier.

Elser Pier Leased to Miami Founders

Elser Pier in 1918.

Figure 5: Elser Pier in 1918.

After constructing and running the recreational pier for four months, Matthew Elser decided to lease the property to N.B.T. Roney in April of 1917. Roney was later known for building and running the Roney Plaza Hotel on Miami Beach. He operated the pier and was responsible for managing the sub-leases to individual proprietors for the dance hall, retail space, roof garden and docks. The pier represented good income for Roney. While Elser still retained ownership of the land and buildings, he no longer was responsible for the day to day management of the pier.

On June 16, 1919, Roney sold his lease rights to Fred Maxwell. He immediately signed a contract to sub-let the entire first floor for $8000 per year to A.K. Shipman. Shipman booked a high-profile boxing match between Frank Kramer and the heavyweight champion of the time, “One Round” Hogan, for July 4, 1919. However, days before the match, the fight was moved to the Fair Building.

Shortly after acquiring the lease for the pier, Maxwell partnered with Locke T. Highleyman to help manage the facility. Highleyman was best known for developing the Point View sub-division in Southside. He was also the developer of Hibiscus and Palm Islands.

“Meet Me at Elser Pier”

Ad in Miami News on March 7, 1917.

Figure 6: Ad in Miami News on March 7, 1917.

In addition to convention business, the recreation pier was also the main entertainment venue in Miami by 1920. Ads promoted the venue with the slogan of “meet me at Elser Pier”. There were shopping and dining options available in the main buildings. Miami residents would embark on a ferry to Miami Beach, or take sightseeing excursions from the pier.

Live music and dancing were big attractions for the main ballroom. Bands such as “The Banjo Orchestra” and “Stuarts Elser Pier Orchestra” were regular performers at the pier. Eddie Brasted, the Rag Time Kid, performed in the ballroom. Dancing was offered every Monday, Thursday and Saturday nights. There was no other place like Elser Pier by 1920.

Long before the real estate boom of the mid-1920s, property auctions were conducted at the pier. One advertisement in the Miami Metropolis in 1917 announced a “Free Lot Sale”. Property in Grove Park, Spring Garden and Hialeah were all sold in auctions conducted at Elser Pier.

Another advertisement in the Metropolis in 1917 reveals the extent of racial segregation during this time in Miami. The copy for the ad read “1000 Negro Lots at Auction” with a byline of “Sold to White People Only”. While the slogan of “meet me at Elser Pier” was seemingly inviting and inclusive, it didn’t apply to everyone.

In November of 1920, Fred Maxwell added a massive electric sign at the entrance of the pier. The sign fronted Flagler Street and it was fifty-seven feet high and seventy feet wide. The face of the sign was 4,169 feet. It weighed sixteen tons and was said to be the largest sign of its kind in the south. It took twenty-five men to install and required eighteen reinforced concrete posts. The sign was used strictly for advertising purposes.

While Elser Pier was thriving as Miami entered the 1920s, the city’s politicians were beginning to plan for a large park adjacent to Miami’s downtown. However, the initiative required the cooperation of the property owners along the bay front, including the proprietors of Elser Pier.

City Provided Option to Buy Pier

Headline in Miami News on January 16, 1920.

Figure 7: Headline in Miami News on January 16, 1920.

In an article dated January 16, 1920, it was reported the city attorney was to going to take preliminary steps to submit to voters a bond issue for $1.5 million for the purchase and improvement of the bay front. The bond issue was the first step in the process to raise money to build Bayfront Park.

On April 24, 1920, Maxwell and Highleyman offered the city an option to purchase Elser Pier for $175,000. Around the same time, there was a bayfront committee formed that consisted of Councilman H.R. Chase, R.W. McLendon, E.L. Brady, Ben Hunter and J.F. Chaille. The committee was concerned that the option price was not commensurate with the market value of the pier. The committee believed the option price was overstated.

In May, the city was given authority to negotiate with the FEC Railway to purchase their interest in the Bayfront shoreline for $650,000. The FEC owned most of the land adjacent to Biscayne Bay that the bayfront committee was targeting for the park. However, the estate of Henry Flagler negotiated the amount to $1 million and a deal was reached on September 21, 1920. After acquiring the FEC land, the only obstacle for the city to begin planning for Bayfront Park was Elser Pier.

The city council, bayfront committee and community leaders debated whether the option offered by Maxwell in April was fair. The consensus was consistent with what the bayfront committee determined when it was offered.

In the meantime, the pier continued to host conventions and other events. It was business as usual for Elser Pier.  The big convention during the winter season of 1921 was the National Editorial Association. The convention was hosted in the ballroom at Elser Pier and the big excursion for the event was a shark fishing expedition to Soldier Key.

Obstacles to Purchase Elser Pier

Headline in Miami News on June 12, 1923.

Figure 8: Headline in Miami News on June 12, 1923.

While the city contemplated their options to acquire the Elser Pier property, a deal to buy the property looked bleak in 1921. The Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations objected to the option price offered by Maxwell. Around the same time, Maxwell and Highleyman felt that their offer was too low. The two parties were at an impasse.

In addition, the city discovered that Maxwell and Highleyman didn’t have the proper rights to sell the property. Under the terms of their lease agreement with Matthew Elser, the partners had an option to purchase the land and building but were only given common law riparian rights by the terms of their contract. They would have needed statutory riparian rights to convey the land to the city.

Given the nuances of Maxwell and Highleyman’s contract with Elser, the city attorney, A.J. Rose, determined that the partners did not have the proper rights to offer the city an option to purchase the land. Therefore, he determined that the offer by Maxwell could not be honored by the city.

The objections by civic organizations to the option price and the lack rights of the partners to sell the land required the city to get creative to acquire the rights to the land around the pier. However, a new charter for the City of Miami in 1921 meant that a new group of civic leaders had to decide the fate of Elser Pier.

Resolution of Ownership

Demolition of Elser Pier in 1924.

Figure 9: Demolition of Elser Pier in 1924.

In the Summer of 1921, the City of Miami decided to re-organize and issue a new charter. Since the time of incorporation, Miami was run by a city council. Following the special election of 1921, the city issued a new charter and voted for a city commission to replace the council. The first city commission was known as the “Bankers Commission” because all five members elected were former bank officers.

The new commission had many issues to address when they were sworn into office on July 28, 1921. One of those issues was how to resolve the acquisition of Elser Pier. Given that the city council all but rejected Maxwell’s option offer, the commission made the decision to issue a “condemnation” order to acquire the land. The term “condemnation” was how municipalities described an eminent domain legal action in the first half of the twentieth century.

Given other priorities, the city commission did not move quickly with their plan. By 1923, the Miami Chamber of Commerce, headed by Everest Sewell, insisted that the city attorney move forward with the condemnation of the pier. Sewell argued that it was a public safety hazard that impeded progress. The chamber maintained that the completion of the park would provide a boost to tourism and business in downtown Miami.

In the meantime, the city awarded the fill contract to the Clark Dredging Company on April 29, 1924. The contract required Clark to complete the dredge and fill phase of the construction of Bayfront Park by December 1, 1924. The aspiration to finish the first phase of the park by December created more urgency for the city to complete the acquisition of Elser Pier.

After extensive legal proceedings, the city was awarded Elser Pier on November 8, 1924. Three days later, a jury awarded Maxwell and Highleyman $275,000 for their interest in the pier and land. The two men resolved their riparian rights issue with Elser a few months earlier. When the judgement was announced, the partners agreed not to appeal the decision and the city subsequently tendered a $400,000 bond issue to cover the cost of acquiring the pier and associated fees.

On November 18, 1924, the city extended the lease of the remaining tenants to April 1, 1925. However, the plan was to demolish the pier in stages with a completion date to coincide with the expiration of the lease extension.

End of Elser Pier

Aerial of Bayfront Park with Elser Pier & Fair Building in 1925.

Figure 10: Aerial of Bayfront Park with Elser Pier and Fair Building in 1925.

By the Summer of 1925, what was left of Elser Pier was surrounded by new land that would become the future Bayfront Park. A 1925 aerial view of Biscayne Bay looking east toward downtown Miami provided a glimpse of what was coming and what was going. Elser Pier’s main building and remnants of the old FEC Fair Building were the only two structures that remained. Both were enveloped by newly added land that would be cultivated into a beautiful downtown park.

By the end of 1925, Elser Pier was completely gone. While it was part of Miami’s landscape for less than ten years, it is still fondly remembered today. It was one of the first notable privately-operated attractions not owned by the FEC conglomerate of companies. For its short life, it was a reason why tourists and conventions came to Miami. It was also a reason why many residents spent their leisure time in downtown Miami.

The pier was symbolic of Miami’s transition from a railroad town that Flagler built to a city with its own identity. It was built when Miami was beginning to outgrow the Fair Building and other facilities built by the Florida East Coast (FEC), companies. It was removed when Miami was reaching a new milestone in its evolution as a significant city.

Elser Pier was removed from the bay front during a tremendous period of growth for the city. Bayfront Park was part of the great building boom of the mid-1920s. The park became the foreground to Miami’s evolving skyline, but it could not have been built until Elser Pier was acquired and removed from its perch along Biscayne Boulevard.

However, the pier was more than just an obstacle to progress. It represented the transition from Flagler’s Miami to a modern city with endless possibilities. E.V. Blackman nicknamed Miami the Magic City because of the potential of the area. For ten years, Elser Pier provided a venue to exhibit all the technological wonders of the day. In many ways, the building was a technological marvel itself and served as an omen that the city was modernizing very quickly. Miami was forever changed during Elser Pier’s ten years in operation. The change hasn’t stopped since.

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4 Comments on "Elser Pier in Downtown Miami"

  1. Another fascinating historical story about our “magical” city.
    Thank You, Casey.

  2. Rudy Garcia | May 21, 2018 at 7:51 pm | Reply

    I am fascinated with the history of our city. A city that I have been a part of since 1955.

  3. My family moved from Georgia To Miami in 1924.
    My grandfather bought some property in Hialeah and built a home there for his family. (Just in time for the 1926 Hurricane.) My mother, her sister and brother all grew up there. I was born in Miami’s Old Victoria Hospital on Feb. 11, 1939. I grew up in Coconut Grove, and in Hialeah.

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