The first twenty years of the Royal Palm Hotel represented a time when the hotel was the center of social activity for the growing City of Miami. It sat in one of the most desirable locations in the city. It was a big part of the reason why the city became an annual destination for wealthy and famous visitors each and every winter season.
However, both progress and untimely events would impact the fate of Miami’s iconic hotel. The father of Miami and financier of the Royal Palm, Henry Flagler, passed away in May of 1913. The hotel would continue to thrive for several more years following Flagler’s death, but would lose its standing as the city’s most important attraction by the mid-1920s.
Modern Hotels Overshadow the Royal Palm
As the 1920s approached, Miami became a city with a lot of options for overnight accommodations. No longer was the Royal Palm the first choice of the younger tourists. They never remembered a Miami that prominently featured Flagler’s grand hotel as the place to be seen. These tourists were opting for a more modern experience.
However, the Royal Palm did have a dedicated following. The guests who had been traveling to Miami every tourist season since its beginning wouldn’t consider staying at any other establishment. The staff had become like family and the location on the bay and river were ideal for those who regularly visited Miami every winter.
The hotel’s manager, Joseph P. Greaves, had a well-earned reputation for running an excellent hotel and maintained all the traditions that the frequent guests would come to expect. Visitors could rely on the consistency of staff from season to season. An article in the Miami Herald in 1928 described the later years of the hotel as the “only keeper of traditions and memories of the past when Miami passed into its full grown maturity”.
The opening of the Royal Palm every winter was still filled with pomp and circumstance. Even into the early 1920s, the locals and guests would look forward to the opening parties offered by the hotel’s staff. It was a time that guests could reconnect with old friends and the locals could spot the celebrities of the day.
While the nostalgic crowd would continue to visit Miami and stay at the Royal Palm, there were more and more tourists that chose to stay at the modern and innovative hotels. The Royal Palm represented old and out of date, and the newer hotels were in hot demand. This was especially true in a rapidly changing and fast growing Miami of the 1920s.
Winds of Change in 1926
By the summer of 1926, the Royal Palm Hotel’s manager was beginning to have health problems. Joseph Greaves management had become a very important part of the running of the hotel. Guests and locals alike had a lot of respect for what Greaves meant, not only to the Royal Palm Hotel, but also to the community of Miami.
At the end of each winter season, Greaves would normally travel back north and manage a hotel in Lake Champlain, New York. Because of his deteriorating health, he stepped down from managing his summer hotel in 1926. However, he still spent his summers at his home in Brooklyn, New York.
As the summer turned to fall, Miami’s hurricane season presented another obstacle for not just the Royal Palm Hotel, but for the entire area. On September 18th, 1926, a 130 mile per hour hurricane cut through Miami Beach and Miami.
The death toll of the hurricane was more than 300 people. Most of the victims lost their life from the back side of the storm while inspecting damage. Having not experienced hurricanes, many Miami residents mistook the eye of the storm for the end of the storm.
There was extensive property damage to the entire area. Given that the Royal Palm Hotel was a wooden structure that was not built to withstand 130 mile per hour winds, it was damaged badly in the storm. The hurricane destroyed a lot of buildings in the Miami area, but the Royal Palm would be repaired enough to open once again. However, the storm also revealed the age and obsolescence of the nearly 30 year old building.
Death of Greaves
The following two winter seasons represented a very slow time for the Royal Palm. The 1926 Hurricane impacted the physical stability of the hotel and the collective psyche of winter tourists. Everyone involved with the hotel was hopeful that the building would be repaired fully and time will heal the reticence of tourists to return to Miami.
However, on July 2nd, 1928, Joseph Greaves collapsed and died suddenly while riding the Lexington Avenue Express subway in Brooklyn, New York. News spread quickly and the entire Miami community was in shock.
While he was a life-long bachelor, it was said that he was part of the family of many of the prominent early Miami residents. He was particularly close with Dr. James Jackson’s family. Dr. Jackson passed away four years earlier in April of 1924, and the Jackson family remained close with Greaves until his death.
The FEC Hotel Company understood the importance of Greaves to the operation of the Royal Palm. Between the 1926 hurricane and Greaves death, the company’s confidence in the 31 year old hotel was diminished.
Closed in 1928
Given the circumstances, the FEC Hotel Company executives had to make a decision on whether to open for the 1928 – 29 winter season. In addition to losing the most important figure in the operation of the hotel, they were concerned about demolition work of the west wing of the property as well.
The FEC Hotel Company sold a strip of land to the city that comprised the western end of the hotel’s property. This land would be used to build NE Second Avenue and make room for a new Second Avenue (Brickell), bridge. The sale of this land resulted in part of the hotel being deconstructed to make room for the road. The engine room and the swimming pool were the two areas directly impacted.
The demolition was carefully planned in order to repurpose materials at other FEC Hotel locations or to sell to the public. Plumbing supplies and other materials were transported to the Casa Marina in Key West, as well as, other FEC hotels. The disassembled lumber was sold by the wrecking company to contractors to build into Miami homes. The Dade County Pine used for the Royal Palm was considered the finest stock for building material.
At the end of the partial demolition, the only thing remaining was the Westinghouse Number 18 gasoline engine. This engine was installed into the hotel in 1899. The Westinghouse 18 provided power for the first electric lights in Miami.
The deconstruction of the west wing of the Royal Palm, and clearing of the land for NE Second Avenue, was completed by September of 1928. It was about this time that locals began to realize that the rest of the hotel could meet the same fate at the west end of the hotel.
Plea to Renovate or Rebuild
Mayor E.G. Sewell was one of the men who helped break ground for the Royal Palm Hotel in 1896. He was brother to John Sewell, who headed the operation to clear the grounds for the building of the hotel.
Once the operators of the Royal Palm Hotel announced that it would not be open for the 1928 – 29 winter season, he made a plea with the FEC Hotel Company to reconsider the decision. Sewell wrote a letter promising to halt the road and bridge work adjacent to the hotel by January 1st if it were not completed by then.
In an article dated August 23rd, 1928, Sewell stated that he was looking forward to when the company will erect a modern hotel similar to the Breakers in Palm Beach. He was implying that the modern hotel would take the place of the obsolete Royal Palm Hotel.
While Sewell’s plea was partly based on nostalgia, it also represented the last effort to ensure the Royal Palm could experience one last winter season. Despite the urging of the mayor, the decision was not reconsidered and the Royal Palm Hotel would never open again.
Preparation for Final Demolition
The deconstruction of the west wing was complete by September 12th, 1928. The only remaining artifact from the Royal Palm’s west wing was the Westinghouse engine. The city took the opportunity to capture the moment by taking several pictures of the free standing engine before it was removed from the grounds that it sat for close to thirty years.
By April of 1929, the local papers were featuring stories on the auction of furnishings and items from the Royal Palm Hotel. The auction took place in the Palm Room of the hotel. This room was an annex to the main dining room and was added in to the hotel in the summer of 1903. It was the banquet hall for the hotel and was the venue for many ceremonies during the large number of conventions hosted in Miami through the years. It was even the location of the wedding reception for Helen Jackson, the daughter of Dr. James Jackson.
While the Palm Room was known for elegance and pageantry, it represented the gathering place for bargain hunters and scavengers in April of 1929. The assemblage of auction participants entered the room through the kitchen. For the first time in its history, the great white entrance that so many guests had passed to enter the Palm Room was closed for good.
From mattresses, box springs and pillows, to a couch stuffed with horse hair, the auction featured most every item that was not nailed to the foundation. The auctioneer got sentimental when it came time to begin the bidding for the Royal Palm Hotel rocking chairs. Many hotel guests passed time by lounging in the rocking chairs on the front porch while catching the winter breeze off of Biscayne Bay. The chairs were as much a symbol of the hotel as the Flagler yellow that covered the exterior of the building.
By March of 1930, the wrecking job for the hotel was awarded and final preparations were being made. The Miami Wrecking & Salvage Company would begin to place ads in the Miami Herald advertising the sale of the building materials that were part of the remains of the hotel.
As the preparation for the wrecking of the hotel began, locals would pass by with a look of sorrow as if they were paying their respects to a loved one for the final time. The demolition was slow and deliberate. An editorial in the Miami Herald on March 25th, 1930 described the feeling of the demolition as follows:
Nobody lives at the Royal Palm Hotel any more. Unless one can call a wrecking company a family. Not a family with constructive intent. Its name, however, is emblazoned over the one time sacred portal of the hostelry. Sentimental women weep as they pass that way. Strong men blink moisture from their eyes. Old glories are nothing now but a dim past. The Royal Palm must come down.
By the summer of 1930, most of the hotel was deconstructed or razed. An article in the Miami Herald on June 12th, 1930, indicated that the wrecking company had carefully inspected the timber and only five percent was affected by termites and ants.
The timber that was affected by termites was burned at the site of the former hotel. Some local Miamians remember the plume of smoke that bellowed from the former site of the hotel during the fire to dispose of the infested timber. Almost 75 years later, an archaeological dig revealed concrete from the Royal Palm and char from the burning of that wood during the demolition of the hotel.
After the Royal Palm
While the decisions to close, and then raze, the hotel were rather swift, there was never a plan on what to do with the land that hosted the Royal Palm Hotel. The iconic front circle and the dining room wing of the hotel remained on the site through the 1930s, but were gone by the early 1940s.
As the city evolved through the mid-twentieth century, the area formerly occupied by the hotel remained vacant. In 1957, the land that was formerly the Royal Palm garden, was used for the Dupont Plaza Hotel. The land where the hotel resided was used for a parking lot. Much of the land in the adjacent area was also used for parking lots during the second half of the twentieth century.
The Dupont Plaza Hotel met its fate with the wrecking ball in 2004. Its location became today’s Epic Hotel. An archaeological dig was conducted on the old location of the Royal Palm Hotel in 2004. Robert Carr and a team of archaeologists began to dig and explore the remains of the old hotel.
The dig provided a lot of insight on the use of the land during Miami’s early years and many years prior. In addition to providing artifacts and information on the hotel, the dig also provided more detail on the expanse and lifestyle of the Tequesta Indians.
Despite the completion of the dig in the mid-2000s, the Met 3 condominium project was put on hold due to changes in the real estate market in the latter part of the 2000s. It was scheduled to be the tallest of the Met projects in the area, but plans were changed when the project was put on hold.
The Met 3 project gained momentum in 2008 when Whole Foods signed on to be the flagship retailer in the building. However, the project was not started until 2012 and is nearing completion as of the writing of this article. The Whole Foods opened well before the completion of the rest of the building.
In preparation for another MDM development that is being built on part of the old Royal Palm Hotel site adjacent to the Met 3 project, there was another archaeological dig conducted in 2015. This dig revealed a staircase that was part of the Royal Palm, which sat at the edge of the former site of the hotel. This project will be the Met Square building which will feature 43 stories of condominiums and a movie theater. It will be located at 340 SE Third Street in downtown Miami.
In addition to the staircase, the same dig revealed 11 circles that were attributed to the Tequesta tribe and referred to by Bob Carr as “probably the earliest prehistoric town plan ever found in eastern Northern America”. The dig revealed that the Chickee’s supported by the circles were connected by elevated walkways.
Once Grand and Now Forgotten
While downtown residents make regular stops into Whole Foods, many of them probably don’t know that they are walking the grounds that so many early Miami residents and guests coveted in earlier times. It is hard to believe how much has changed in downtown Miami in just the last fifteen years. Imagine what those early Miami residents would think if they could see the grounds of the Royal Palm Hotel today?
While one may appreciate the changes taking place in Miami today, it is hard not to imagine a Miami of a different time. As you walk the aisles of Whole Food, take a moment to visualize what it would have been like to take that same walk a hundred years earlier. A walk through Miami’s first iconic building. A grand hotel that was discarded just 33 years after it opened.Click Here to Subscribe
Special Thanks to Larry Wiggins for providing the clippings for the articles listed below.
- Book: “Miami Memories”, John Sewell
- Miami Herald: “J.P. Greaves Dies Suddenly in Brooklyn”, July 4th, 1928
- Miami Herald: “Joseph P Greaves Obituary”, July 5th, 1928
- Miami Herald: “Royal Palm Hotel Closed This Winter”, August 19th, 1928
- Miami Herald: “Bridge Approach Cleared of Hotel”, September 12th, 1928
- Miami Herald: “Royal Palm Auction in Historic Room”, April 18th, 1929
- Miami News: “Wrecking Job on Royal Palm Start Soon”, March 7th, 1930
- Miami Herald: “Echoes of Miami”, March 25th, 1930
- Miami Herald: “Little of Hotel Timber Damaged”, June 12th, 1930
- Sun-Sentinel: “Archaeologists Hurry to Excavate Remains of Henry Flagler Hotel in Miami”, April 21st, 2004