When John Sewell and his crew began preparations to clear the grounds in April of 1896 for what would become the Royal Palm Hotel, Julia Tuttle asked him to preserve as many of the best shade trees as possible. She placed markers on a few of the trees and was particularly adamant that they were not removed during the clearing of the land.
One of those trees stood on what would become the north corner of today’s Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard, or what was originally referred to as Twelfth Street and the Boulevard. This tree was estimated as being at least 20-years old when Sewell and his men began work in 1896. Sewell obliged, worked around, and preserved the trees earmarked by Julia Tuttle, including the Banyan tree on what would become one of Miami’s most prominent corners.
Twenty years after the incorporation of the City of Miami, that same tree was in danger of being removed with the announcement of the McAllister Hotel in January of 1915. When James Deering, who was building his Vizcaya estate at the time, heard that a mature Banyan Tree was going to be felled to make room for a hotel, he offered to buy the tree and move it at his expense. This is the story of one of Miami’s most prominent intersections and a tree’s journey from that corner to Vizcaya Gardens in 1916.
Cozy Corner Novelty Shop
In December of 1904, the Miami Evening Record announced the construction of a new building that would be placed on the north corner of what we know today as Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard. The small building was constructed abutting the historic fig tree that was preserved by John Sewell during the clearing of land for the Royal Palm Hotel.
The newspaper article described the structure, and the owner of the building as follows:
“A new and elegant cottage is to be erected on the corner of Twelfth Street and the Boulevard. The lot selected for the new dwelling is one of the best located in the city, overlooking the bay and the hotel grounds (Royal Palm Hotel). The new owner is ‘Japanese’ Fuller, one of the best-known business men of Saint Augustine, who will make his home here for a larger part of the year.”
The “cottage” was constructed by contractor F.W. Hahn for what was described as a curio shop. The retail establishment provided antiques and novelty items from the Orient during the winter season in Miami. For as long as it was in business, the establishment opened at the beginning of December and operated until the end of April. Each year the proprietor of the business would have a close-out sale that began in March and concluded at the end of April, only to repeat the cycle during the next winter season.
Fuller ran the small curio shop from 1904 until 1908 when he presumably sold the business to a couple by the last name of Farr. They ran the place under the name of Farr’s Novelty Shop from 1908 until 1911, when they sold the lease for the establishment to Sato Miyanaga, who renamed the store the Cozy Corner. During the Miyanaga operation, the curio shop specialized in high grade Japanese wares, silk kimonos, linen-cover, cotton crepe, dress patterns and many other oriental goods.
While business appeared to be good on one of Miami’s busiest corners, the curio shop was left to find a new location when Emma McAllister purchased the property and an adjoining parcel of land to erect a hotel on that corner. Based on the timeline of the ground breaking for what would be named Hotel McAllister, the Cozy Corner’s last year operating out of the one-story cottage on the corner of Twelfth Street and the Boulevard came to end at the conclusion of the 1915 – 16 season.
Announcement of Hotel McAllister
On November 10, 1915, the Miami Herald reported that architect Victor Frohling announced that a “thoroughly modern and up to date seven-story hotel, costing approximately $350,000, would be erected, within the next twelve months at the corner of Twelfth street and the Boulevard” (Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard). The original footprint of the hotel was constructed on two parcels of land along 140 feet of the (Biscayne) Boulevard and 100 feet to the west along Twelfth (Flagler) Street. By the mid-1920s, the hotel expanded to the west of the original structure increasing its footprint along Flagler Street.
Victor Frohling arrived in Miami just four months earlier when he partnered with Walter DeGarmo to form the firm of Frohling & DeGarmo. The two men knew each other from New York prior to Victor’s arrival in Miami in 1915. Walter DeGarmo was an established architect in Miami and was responsible for the design of the Miami City Hall, constructed in 1907, as well as other structures during the first two decades of the Twentieth Century. DeGarmo may be best remembered for his blueprints for residences and commercial structures in Coral Gables during the building boom of the 1920s.
Prior to the design of the McAllister Hotel, all of Frohling’s work was conducted outside of South Florida. Some of his most notable designs were the Queen’s Plaza Court building and the Belmont Terminal station, both in New York. In addition, Frohling provided the blueprints for the People’s National Bank building in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Mason Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida. At this stage of the project, Victor Frohling was the spokesperson for the venture. Later, Walter DeGarmo would take over the role of lead architect for the project.
Emma McAllister, who owned the land and raised the capital for the project, also provided the name for the hotel. The project was financed by investors from New York who had a very specific requirement that the hotel be completed a year after it was started. Frohling worked with McAllister to conduct a search for a general contractor, which expanded nationwide to find the right firm to construct what was described as a state-of-the-art hotel. Given the architect’s and McAllister’s connections in New York, the search also included firms that were based in the Big Apple.
By December of 1915, contracts were awarded to three different organizations. Biscayne Construction Company, a local Miami based contractor, was given the excavation contract. Frank Seery, a New York based company was granted the contract to head the project as general contractor. A separate contract was awarded for the plumbing, heating, and lighting work.
The groundbreaking for the hotel took place on March 16, 1916, and the project team stated that they expected to open the hotel by February 1, 1917. However, prior to the excavation phase beginning, the Cozy Corner building and the now 40-year-old Banyan tree needed to be removed from the property.
James Deering Buys Tree
When James Deering was made aware of the hotel, he approached Emma McAllister and negotiated to buy the large Banyan Fig tree that sat on the corner. He agreed to remove the tree from the corner with plans to relocated it to his Vizcaya Estate. As Deering was planning his elaborate garden on his estate, he wanted to plant mature foliage given the years it took a sapling to mature into a full-grown tree.
On March 24, 1916, a columnist for the Miami Herald wrote:
“The large tree, which is said to be about forty years of age, must necessarily be removed to give way to the new McAllister Hotel that is soon to be erected on the corner. Realizing its attractiveness, and knowing that it would require many years of waiting in order to obtain such a specimen, James Deering negotiated for its purchase and now has a force of men, under charge of forestry foreman James Perran, engaged in its removal.”
He was willing to incur the large expense of relocating mature trees from other parts of South Florida, particularly as downtown Miami was undergoing so much development. Deering saw the building trend as an opportunity to round out his gardens with fully grown trees without having to wait for them to mature. The Miami Herald did not provide an exact cost to relocate the one tree, but did estimate that the expense would total in the thousands of dollars.
The tree that he moved from Twelfth Street and the Boulevard was not the only tree in downtown Miami that James Deering preserved by moving to his property. When William Urmey began preparing the site for his namesake hotel (Urmey Hotel), at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Avenue B (today’s SE First Street and SE Second Avenue), also in the summer of 1916, he let Deering move several mature oak trees from the lot before his workers began clearing the land for construction. These trees were also relocated to the gardens on Deering’s Vizcaya estate.
The preparation to move the large tree began on Thursday, March 23, 1916, with the planning on how to extract the tree by the root without killing it. To protect the roots of the tree, a circle was dug around its trunk, which was estimated at a full sixteen feet in diameter. Great care was taken not to damage the roots as part of this process.
The Miami Hearld columnist described the magnitude of the tree as follows:
“The lower trunk of the tree is fully five feet thick, while there are four large branches that sprout out from this. These four branches, which are each about as large around as the ordinary human body, contain from two to six separate branches, all of the smaller ones have been removed.”
Once the tree was trimmed of its smaller branches and uprooted, the plan was to carefully move it onto a barge at the end of Twelfth Street (aka Flagler Street), and then transport it to James Deering’s estate. However, the crew tasked with removing the tree ran into a problem. Part of the root of the behemoth Banyan went under the Cozy Corner building which meant the structure had to be moved before they could finish the job.
Miyanaga Holds Out
Given the sensibilities of the times, the Miami Herald ran a headline on April 7, 1916, that read “And The Jap Still Stands”, indicating an impasse between the owners of the land and Sato Miyanaga. While the headline would certainly be perceived as culturally insensitive by today’s standards, the article did provide the shop owner’s point of view on why he was unwilling to leave the premises a month early.
As the article explained, Sato’s lease was not technically up until May 1st, so he refused to move until the end of his lease unless he was protected financially against any loss which he would have sustained by moving earlier. Shortly after the article was printed, the Miami Herald reported that Miyanaga agreed to move his merchandise out of the building a week sooner than the official end of his lease.
Banyan Fig Tree in Vizcaya Garden
After the Cozy Shop was vacated by the end of April, the little wooden building was sold to W.S. Witham who relocated the structure to a different section of downtown Miami. Once the building was moved, Deering’s crew was able to finish uprooting the tree allowing them to load it on the barge and begin transporting it to Vizcaya. Despite the length of time between the start of the process to uproot the tree and when it was loaded onto the barge, the Banyan was deemed in good health and even began sprouting new leaves on some of the limbs that remained intact.
When the Banyan Fig tree arrived at Deering’s estate, it was unloaded from the barge and planted near the Casino on the Mound in the gardens with the hope it would provide shade once it began growing out its branches and leaves. The estimate was that it would take two years to regain its foliage and become of material use as a shade tree.
A decade after the relocation of the Banyan Fig, the Great Hurricane of 1926 did a lot of damage to grounds and gardens on the Vizcaya estate including toppling the relocated tree. However, during the cleanup and recovery from the storm, the tree was replanted in a different part of the garden and still stands today.
If it remains healthy, a Banyan Fig has a lifespan of 200 – 500 years. Given the original estimate of the tree being 40-years old at the time it was relocated to Vizcaya in 1916, the tree is only 148 years old today, which means that if it is properly cared for, it could remain a vibrant part of the Vizcaya garden’s landscape for a couple more centuries.
The fact that Julia Tuttle specifically requested that this Banyan Fig tree remain standing during the clearing of land for the Royal Palm Hotel, and the idea that John Sewell made it a point to preserve this tree on what would become one of Miami’s most iconic corners adds to the mystique of this majestic tree. The agreement between Emma McAllister and James Deering, which led to the tree being preserved and relocated to Vizcaya in 1916, further reaffirmed the fig tree as a truly authentic and living relic of the city of Miami’s relatively brief history.
The Miyanaga Curio Shop reopened in the Chamberlain Apartment building, located just west of the store’s prior location, which opened in 1917. The apartment building was acquired in 1924 and razed in 1925 to allow the McAllister Hotel to expand westward.
The McAllister Hotel, which was beset with problems throughout construction, finally opened on January 1, 1920, well after their anticipated opening date announced at the onset of the project. Emma McAllister lost operational control of her namesake hotel half way through the project, but would later construct and open the Ponce De Leon Hotel on Flagler Street in the mid-1920s. The McAllister Hotel stood until the late-1980s when the building was razed in May of 1988.
It is ironic that this tree has survived the test of time and outlived the hotel for which it was moved in 1916. One can only hope that the Banyan Fig continues to receive the care and maintenance that it needs to prosper on the grounds of Vizcaya to see close to its full lifespan.Click Here to Subscribe
- Miami Metropolis: “Cozy Corner Open Friday, December 1, Japanese Bazaar”, November 29, 1911.
- Miami Herald: “Miami To Have Splendid New and Modern Hotel Building”, November 10, 1915.
- Miami Herald: “Getting Bids for Big Hotel”, December 5, 1915.
- Miami Metropolis: “Break Ground for Big Hotel Next February”, December 23, 1915.
- Miami Herald: “Broke Ground for the New McAllister”, March 17, 1916.
- Miami Metropolis: “Will Start McAllister Hotel When Old Buildings Are Sold”, March 17, 1916.
- Miami Herald: “Clearing Away for New Hotel”, March 21, 1916.
- Miami Herald: “New Home of Big Fig Tree”, March 24, 1916.
- Miami Herald: “Move the Big Tree”, March 26, 1916.
- Miami Herald: “And The Jap Still Stands”, April 7, 1916.
- Miami Herald: “Ground Work of the McAllister Hotel”, April 27, 1916.
- Cover: Cozy Corner on the corner of today’s Flagler Street and Biscayne Boulevard in 1916. Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum.
- Figure 1: Photo from the top of the Royal Palm Hotel looking north in 1899. The arrow indicates the Banyan tree that would be moved in 1916. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 2: Ad for the Cozy Corner on December 1, 1911, in the Miami Metropolis. Courtesy of the Miami News.
- Figure 3: View of McAllister Hotel being constructed from the top floor of the Royal Palm Hotel in 1918. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 4: Banyan Fig Tree being trimmed and prepared for relocation to Vizcaya Gardens. Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum.
- Figure 5: Banyan Fig Tree arriving at Vizcaya in 1916. Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum.
- Figure 6: Relocated Banyan Fig tree planted in Vizcaya gardens in late 1916. Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum.
- Figure 7: Postcard of Chamberlain Apartments. Courtesy of Larry Wiggins.