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 which became the primary venue in Miami for conventions and special events. It was also an attraction that provided residents a way to enjoy the beautiful shoreline of Biscayne Bay 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
Like so many others who came to Miami during its formative years, Matthew Elser was an entrepreneur who built his wealth in the north prior to relocating to the Magic City. As a young man, he started a sandwich shop and invested his earnings by purchasing a hotel in Buffalo, New York. Later, he invested the profits of his hotel operation by gradually building a portfolio of oil stocks in the late 1800s at a time when the petroleum industry was growing rapidly. It was through his diverse investments that Elser became wealthy long before he moved to Miami.
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 provided 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 special events in Miami during the early-1900s. Elser petitioned the city council in 1916 to allow him to construct his recreation pier at the center of what was becoming a fast-growing downtown.
The Center of Downtown Miami
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 last century. It became Miami’s retail district and the property along Twelfth Street became the focus of development for commercial projects beginning in the early 1910s, particularly on the eastern edge of the street approaching Biscayne Bay.
As the second decade of the twentieth century reached its midpoint, The Boulevard also served as an important avenue for new development. It ran north to south on the city’s eastern edge, providing an unobstructed view of Biscayne Bay. The Boulevard was expanded and renamed to Biscayne Boulevard in 1926, providing the city with an iconic avenue associated with the hotel district constructed during the building boom of the first half of the 1920s.
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, but later relented and gave approval for the building. The original plan called for the structure to extend into the bay well beyond what the city council felt comfortable, but they ultimately agreed to approve a revised plan which limited Elser Pier to reach to only two hundred and sixty feet from shoreline to terminus.
By mid-1916, Matthew Elser began preparations for the land and structure that would become his namesake pier. It was during this time that he hired a noted architect to design the buildings that comprise the pier, which allowed him to begin the project that he had hoped would be completed by the end of December in 1916.
Design and Construction of Elser Pier
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 with the main buildings occupying the first one hundred and forty feet, and the docks extending it 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 with each tower reaching 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, providing an alternative to Flagler’s recreation venue for residents and conventioneers seeking a place to hold conventions and large gatherings. The addition of an additional event venue inspired the construction of new hotels throughout 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 timeline was ninety days. When the pier finally opened, the project exceeded its projections on both fronts.
Opened in 1917 with an Auto Show
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 World War I, Miami served as a place where soldiers trained before being dispatched to Europe. Elser Pier hosted many events and activities affiliated with the war effort including providing recreational dances for visiting soldiers and war bond fundraisers to help finance the effort.
Elser Pier Leased to Miami Founders
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 who immediately sub-let the entire first floor of the main building to A.K. Shipman for $8000 per year. Shipman booked a high-profile boxing match between Frank Kramer and the heavyweight champion, “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 Elser 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 and his association with the Biscayne Bay Island Company which created and developed Hibiscus and Palm Islands.
“Meet Me at Elser Pier”
In addition to convention business, the recreation pier was also the main entertainment venue in Miami by 1920. Ads promoted the facility with the slogan of “meet me at Elser Pier”. There were shopping and dining options available in the main buildings and Miami residents would embark on a ferry to reach the bathing casinos on Miami Beach or to enjoy a nice afternoon on a sightseeing excursion.
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 regularly. Dancing was offered every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. By the onset of the 1920s, there was no place like Elser Pier.
Long before the real estate boom of the mid-1920s, property auctions were conducted at the pier. Property in Grove Park, Spring Garden and Hialeah were all sold in auctions conducted at Elser Pier. An 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 square feet and weighed sixteen tons making it one of 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
In an article dated January 16, 1920, it was reported the city attorney was 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 included Councilmen H.R. Chase, R.W. McLendon, E.L. Brady, Ben Hunter and J.F. Chaille. The committee was concerned that the option price was considerably higher than the market value of the land and operations of the pier.
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, it was representation for the estate of Henry Flagler who negotiated the amount of $1 million to help reach a deal 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 that it was not and that they needed to consider another approach to acquire the final piece to the bayfront puzzle.
In the meantime, it was business as usual for the operators of the Elser Pier as they continued to host conventions and other events during the busy year of 1921. One of the biggest conventions that year was sponsored by the National Editorial Association. The meetings took place in the main ballroom at the pier, but the big event for the week was a shark fishing excursion to Soldier Key on the last day of the convention. The chartered fishing boats departed from the docks of Elser Pier.
Obstacles to Purchase Elser Pier
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 and Highleyman, the partners began to feel as if their offer was too low. The two parties were at an impasse.
In addition, the city discovered that Maxwell and Highleyman did not 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. This means that they did not possess the ultimate power to negotiate with the city for the sale of the property, which would have required statutory riparian rights.
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
In the Summer of 1921, the City of Miami decided to re-organize the municipality. Since the time of its incorporation in 1896, Miami was run by a mayor and city council but that changed in 1921 when a special election led to a recharter of the city’s government composition to a city manager led government who reported to a five-person city commission. The first commission was known as the “Bankers Commission” because all five members elected were former bank officers.
The new government 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 new 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.
However, 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. Furthermore, 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
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 west 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 as 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 partly a reason why many residents spent their leisure time in downtown Miami.
Elser 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 and operated by the Florida East Coast (FEC). However, the pier was removed from the bay front during a tremendous period of growth for the city. The next chapter of the city’s developed led to the creation of Bayfront Park, a green space that is a piece of the legacy of the building boom of the 1920s, and still part of Miami’s evolving modern skyline.
The legacy of Elser Pier is that it was a stepping stone toward the progress that accelerated after its removal. It represented the transition of Miami from a quiescent resort town to a modern city with endless possibilities. E.V. Blackman nicknamed Miami the Magic City because of the potential of the area. For its time in downtown Miami, Elser Pier showcased that potential by providing 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 at a rapid pace. Miami was forever changed during Elser Pier’s eight years in operation.Click Here to Subscribe
- Cover: Aerial of Elser Pier in 1917. Courtesy of HistoryMiami. Hoit Collection.
- Figure 1: Elser Pier in 1917. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 2: Elser Pier from Berni Apartments in 1920. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
- Figure 3: Elser Ballroom in 1918. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 4: Elser Pier in 1917. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 5: Elser Pier in 1918. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
- Figure 6: Ad in Miami News on March 7, 1917.
- Figure 7: Headline in Miami News on January 16, 1920.
- Figure 8: Headline in Miami News on June 12, 1923.
- Figure 9: Demolition of Elser Pier in 1924. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 10: Aerial of Bayfront Park with Elser Pier and Fair Building in 1925. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.