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 and 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 continued 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 who 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 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 who chose to stay at more modern hostelries. To the latter, the Royal Palm was considered old and out of date, and the newer hotels provided the amenities they were seeking. This was especially true in the 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 managerial style had become a very important part of the operations 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 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, but 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 all of South Florida. On September 18, 1926, a 130 mile per hour hurricane cut through Miami Beach and Miami. The death toll of the hurricane was more than 300 people because many newcomers to Miami left their shelter during the eye of the storm mistakenly thinking that it was over. The back side of the storm was unexpected and lethal to those not expecting it.
There was extensive property damage to the entire area. Given that the Royal Palm Hotel was a wooden structure incapable of withstanding 130 mile per hour winds, it was damaged badly in the storm. The hurricane destroyed a lot of buildings in the Miami area, but it was particularly devastating to those primarily constructed of wood. The storm revealed the age and obsolescence of the nearly 30 year old Royal Palm Hotel.
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 an honorary family member of many of the prominent early Miami residents. He was particularly close with Dr. James Jackson’s family. Miami’s pioneer doctor 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 hotel. Due to the devastating hurricane and the loss of the hostelry’s steward, the company’s confidence in the 31-year-old hotel was all but gone. The time had come for the FEC’s executives to decide the fate of the Royal Palm Hotel.
Closed in 1928
Given the circumstances, the FEC Hotel 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 edge 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 re-purpose 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 repurpose for other construction projects around the city. 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 and it 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
As one of the men who helped break ground for the Royal Palm Hotel in 1896, Mayor E.G. Sewell was an advocate for finding a way to keep the iconic hotel in operation. His brother, John, oversaw the clearing of the grounds to build the hostelry, so the preservation or replacement of the hotel was personal for the Sewells.
Once the operators of the Royal Palm Hotel announced that it would not open for the 1928 – 29 winter season, Sewell made a plea with the FEC Hotel Company to reconsider the decision. He wrote a letter promising to halt the road and bridge work adjacent to the hotel by January 1 if it were not completed by then.
In an article dated August 23, 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 never opened again.
Preparation for Final Demolition
The deconstruction of the west wing of the hotel was complete by September 12, 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 resided 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 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 enjoyed beautiful Miami afternoons by lounging in the rocking chairs on the front porch while catching the 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 contract for the hotel was awarded and final preparations were being made. The Miami Wrecking & Salvage Company placed ads in the Miami Herald advertising the sale of materials that were once part of the structure of the hotel.
As 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 12, 1930, indicated that the wrecking company had carefully inspected the timber and only five percent was affected by termites and ants. That five percent was burned at the site of the former hotel, and many local residents reminisce of the plume of smoke that rose above the ashes of the remains of the former hostel. Almost 75 years later, an archeological dig revealed concrete from the Royal Palm Hotel where char confirms that wood was disposed of through a controlled burn on the former site of the building during its demolition.
After the Royal Palm
While the decision to close and raze the hotel were rather swift, there was never a plan on what to do with the land after it was cleared. 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 former location of the hotel was converted into surface parking and remained as such until recent times.
The Dupont Plaza Hotel met its fate with the wrecking ball in 2004 to make room for the Epic Hotel, which was completed in 2010. An archaeological dig was conducted on the old location of the Royal Palm Hotel in 2004 when Miami-Dade County archaeologist Robert Carr and team began to dig and explore the remains of the old hotel.
The dig provided a lot of insight into the use of the land long before Miami was conceived. 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 as a result of the financial crisis of 2008. It was scheduled to be the tallest of the Met projects in the area, but plans were modified after the project was put on hold. However, the Met 3 project gained momentum shortly after the 2008 crisis when Whole Foods agreed to be the flagship retail tenant in the building. Ultimately, the project was mostly finished by January of 2015, when Whole Foods opened, and was completed in 2016 when the condominium, Monarc at Met 3, opened.
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 condominium apartments 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 was 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