When James Johnson moved his family from Philadelphia to Miami in 1915, he quickly realized that his new city was ripe with opportunity. Miami couldn’t construct apartment buildings and hotels fast enough to keep up with the demand in the mid-1910s. This was particularly true for short-term accommodations during the winter months.
It was the 1917-18 tourist season that saw a peak of new apartment and hotel openings to meet the rising demand for housing in the City of Miami. Places such as the Brickell Apartments along SE Eighth Street in Southside, The Gautier on NW Third Street in downtown Miami, and The Gallat Apartments on NW Third Street near the Miami River all opened during or prior to the winter of 1917. The largest apartment hotel which opened that season was the Johnson Apartments.
Planning for the Johnson Apartments
The Johnsons signed a lease to operate the newly opened Waddell Apartments on Avenue D when they arrived in 1915. The apartments were part of the Waddell Building and were built by E.A. Waddell on today’s North Miami Avenue in downtown Miami. The mixed-use complex consisted of a few apartments and ground level retail. Waddell chose to lease the residential portion of his building to the Johnsons so that he can focus on other business interests.
The Johnsons were resident landlords after signing the lease to manage the apartments. However, James was not satisfied with only managing the handful of units available at the Waddell. He had bigger dreams and was on the lookout for the right plot of land to erect his own apartment building.
Within a year of his arrival, James found the right location and purchased land. The Miami Herald described the lot as being located on “Tenth Street just east of Avenue B”. Under today’s address system, it was located at 227 NE Second Street.
James hired architect E.A. Nolan to design the building. While Nolan intended for the building to extend to seven stories, there wasn’t enough time to construct a building to that height. So, the design was modified to erect a four-story building initially and to allow for three more stories to be added later.
Once completed, the building included thirty-six apartments that ranged in size from two to four rooms, each with a kitchenette and bathroom. The woodwork in every room was a very elegant finished mahogany.
Every suite had a bay window. The front apartments had a concrete balcony and the rear apartments had a screen porch. Ventilating skylights and two large air wells were added to every room to ensure adequate light and proper air flow. The configuration of the building was designed to appeal to the winter visitor and to ensure they felt comfortable in their home away from home.
The front porch and lobby were stylish and comfortable. The concrete pillared porch was twelve feet in depth extending across the full width of the building. The lobby was twenty-two feet deep and was divided into two lounges: one for ladies and another for men. Both lounges included an ornate open fire place. The first level was finished with imported Spanish tile, and the stairway leading up to the second floor from the lobby was made of marble.
The architectural design included space for an elevator to be included after the additional floors were added. While Johnson was focused on making sure his building was complete for the 1917-18 winter season, he also made every accommodation to ensure his establishment would have no problems extending to the full seven stories of his original plan. James and his sons were the general contractors on the project.
Ground was broken on June 14, 1917 and the family had little time to be ready to open by the start of the upcoming tourist season. To reach their goal, construction had to be completed prior to the end of the year. In an article in the summer of 1917, the Miami News confirmed that the Johnson Apartment Hotel would be the largest apartment building in Miami once it opened.
As summer transitioned into winter, the project was on schedule and going well. James and his family were excited to open their new apartment building prior to Christmas. However, an unexpected family tragedy occurred before the Johnsons could celebrate the completion of the project.
Family Loss & Opening of Johnson Apartments
On December 5, 1917, James Johnson died at 8:30pm at their home in the Waddell Apartments. He was considered in the best of health when he suffered a stroke. He was surrounded by his wife and family when he passed away. The family was devastated, and the news certainly overshadowed the progress of the apartment building James was so focused on finishing.
While the apartment building was nearing completion, Ella and her two sons were left having to conclude the project while grieving the loss of James. Following his funeral, the two boys got to work and finished the final tasks so they could open the apartment hotel for the season.
In an advertisement that was published on December 28, 1917, the family announced that the “Johnson Apartments Are Now Open”. The brothers kept to their father’s schedule and opened the building prior to the end of December. While James would have been very proud, Todd and Claude Johnson were likely sad that their father was not there to see the completion of his dream.
When Ella and her sons moved into their new building, the family still managed the Waddell Apartments. Ella was listed as the proprietor of the Waddell, and Jas H Johnson’s Sons were listed as the proprietors of the Johnson.
Although it was their father’s dream to run his own apartment and hotel business, the boys embraced his legacy by operating the business that their father had hoped to leave to the two of them at some point in the future. The future just came sooner than any of the family members had anticipated.
The brothers ran the business, raised their families and lived in the apartment building for most of the remainder of their lives. However, they never did extend the height of the building to seven stories. The Johnson Apartments stood as a four-story building for the next ninety-seven years.
A Place to Return
Given the demand for housing in the 1917-18 season, the Johnson Apartments became a quick hit in Miami. After its completion, it was the largest apartment building in the city. Its location was one of its most important features. On the eastern edge of downtown Miami, it was only one block from The Boulevard, which traversed the shoreline of beautiful Biscayne Bay. The Boulevard, also known as Biscayne Drive, was the predecessor to what would become Biscayne Boulevard in 1926.
Winter visitors sent postcards to their friends and family in northern locations describing the beautiful accommodations of the Johnson Apartments and the wonderful weather in Miami. The same families returned to the apartments winter season after season.
The social activities were also very important to the residents of the Johnson Apartments. Many guests would stay on the grounds of the apartment complex for social gatherings, civic group meetings and entertainment. In the early years, dances to live music were very popular in the gardens to the east of the apartment building. The Green Tree Inn orchestra was hired by the Johnsons to play music late into the evening so that guests could dance the night away.
The Johnson brothers made sure to highlight the safety features of the apartments as well. The building was solidified with poured concrete and advertisements accentuated its “fireproof construction”. Many of the newer buildings in the late 1910s made note of their construction materials to differentiate their buildings from older places in Miami that were fabricated primarily of wood. Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel was the likely target of the subtle jabs made by newer buildings.
A Noisy Neighbor
The Hoffbrauhaus Restaurant opened at 221 NE Second Street in 1936. It was located directly to the west of the Johnson Apartments and it earned its reputation for being loud and raucous. Hoffbrauhaus had a beer garden in the back which brought the noise even closer to the neighboring apartment building.
On April 9, 1936, a group of neighborhood hotels and apartment buildings filed a complaint with the City Commission. The Johnson Apartments, Hotel Strand and several other hostelries initiated a protest to the commission citing excessive noise. The Strand was located across the street from the Johnson Apartments.
According to the Miami News, the chief complaint was described as follows:
“… raucous singing of such convivial numbers as ‘Sweet Adeline’, ‘The Sidewalks of New York’, and ‘The Man on the Flying Trapeze,’ to the accompaniment of pounding beer steins…”
The racket emanating from the beer garden went well beyond the restrictions of an ordinance which required public places to eliminate excessive noise after 11pm. The City Commission fined the restaurant and insisted that the police chief enforce the noise ordinance moving forward. The restaurant considered adding soundproofing around the building and beer garden, but ultimately ended up closing before its first full year in business.
While the names of the venues and the type of music has changed, Miami is still dealing with complaints from downtown residents taking issue with the raucous noise coming from the club district along eleventh street. The balance between providing entertainment for visitors, and quality of life for residents has always been a delicate one in South Florida.
Change in Management & Clientele
After Ella Johnson passed away on August 8, 1929, Todd and Claude Johnson were left to manage the family apartment building as a duo. Having managed through the economic despair of the Great Depression and wartime Miami in the early 1940s, the brothers were ready to let someone else manage the business in 1944. That is when they hired Edward Swan to run the operation.
Swan arrived in Miami from Chicago in 1923 looking for opportunity. A lot of the new arrivals to South Florida in the 1920s came from all over the country for the same reason. Edward was hired by George Merrick to be a part of his first sales team in Coral Gables. He sold real estate for the next twenty-one years until he was hired by the brothers. Swan became a resident landlord at the Johnson Apartments.
By the time Swan took over management in 1944, many of the original regular visitors were becoming elderly and stopped making their annual trip to Miami in the winter. At the end of World War II, there was boom in housing in South Florida, but it didn’t take long for downtown residents to discover and then move to the suburbs.
By the mid-1950s, the building was closing in on forty years of age and starting to look more like a relic of the past than the upscale destination that it once was. Although state of the art when the building was completed in 1917, the amenities of the Johnson Apartments came up short in comparison to newer buildings by the middle of the twentieth century.
When Edward Swan passed away in 1959, the Johnson Apartments were considered second-tier housing. Over the course of the next fifty years (1960-2010), the apartment building became the last resort for those trying to avoid being homeless.
In an article in the Miami Herald dated October 4, 1992, entitled “One Step from the Streets”, an elderly man who was evicted from the Parkleigh Apartments when the building was razed earlier that year, said that all he could afford were the Johnson Apartments. He paid $290 per month to live there. Despite all its history, many considered the place an eyesore by the start of the twenty first century.
Demolition in 2014 & Limousine Art
The Johnson Apartment building was showing its age and lack of attention. Despite being listed in the designation report for Downtown Miami’s National Historic District, the building was condemned, and a demolition permit was issued in 2014.
Being a member of a national historic district does not keep the city from condemning and razing a building. Despite the Johnson Apartments being a part of the historic district that was approved in October of 2005, demolition proceeded in the summer of 2014. The building was never given local historic designation which would have given it additional protections.
It was a slow demolition process. Over the course of a few months, the Johnson Apartment building was completely razed, and the lot was bare by the winter of 2014. In just a few short months, ninety-seven years of history was erased (1917-2014).
While the lot was bare, waiting for the next mega-development project to begin, Fringe Projects took advantage of the empty space for art. The group buried part of a limousine in the ground and entered it into the Knight’s Art Challenge as a temporary public art display. The group was awarded a grant to continue to fund public art projects throughout Miami.
Micro Yotelpad Condo-Hotel
It was announced in December of 2014 that a joint venture between Aria Development Group and the Kuwait-based AQARAT real estate company will build an affordable, high-tech hybrid of condo and hotel complex. It will be a thirty-story building that will contain 250 Yotel-branded rooms, as well as, 208 condos ranging in size from 425 square feet for one-bedroom apartments, to 700 square feet for two-bedroom apartments.
Condo owners will be able to rent their units on a short-term arrangement through the management office. The concept sounds like a cross between a traditional boutique hotel and an Air BnB-like condominium concept. The idea is that the hotel rooms will be smaller and less expensive. In addition, the developers believe that the tower will be ideally located in the middle of activity for downtown Miami. Although the date for ground breaking has not been announced, the estimated completion date for the tower is scheduled for the year 2020.
Once the YotelPad project is complete, the property certainly will not be remembered for the Johnson Apartments. While the four-story, ornate apartment building has already been long forgotten, it should be admired for nearly one hundred years of longevity. Given the rate of redevelopment of downtown Miami through the years, it is rare for a building to survive for more than fifty years, rather than just shy of one hundred years.Click Here to Subscribe
- Miami Herald: “New Apartment Hotel Planned on Tenth Street”, June 13, 1917.
- Miami News: “Another Big New Apartment Hotel Near Water Front is to be Ready for Occupancy Before Next Winter”, June 14, 1917.
- Miami News: “Downtown Apartments Are Modern”, November 27, 1917.
- Miami Herald: “James H Johnson Obituary”, December 6, 1917.
- Miami News: “Neighbors Protest Restaurant Combination of Beer and Song”, April 9, 1936.
- Miami Herald: “One Step from the Streets”, October 4, 1992, Joseph Tanfani.
- Miami Herald: “Yotel-branded hotel coming to downtown Miami”, December 2, 2014, Hannah Sampson.
- Miami Herald: “53 win grants in 2015 Knight Arts Challenge”, November 30, 2015, Ana Veciana-Suarez.
- Miami Herald: “This micro-unit hotel company is bring tiny condos to Miami”, January 18, 2016 by Rene Rodriguez
- Cover: Postcard of Johnson Apartments.
- Figure 1: Johnson Apartments in 1920s.
- Figure 2: Johnson Apartment Opening in 1917. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 3: Article in Miami News on January 26, 1922. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 4: Article in Miami News on April 9, 1936. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 5: Johnson Apartment Hotel in 2012. Courtesy of Larry Shane and Shane Photography.
- Figure 6: Demolition of Johnson Apartment Hotel in 2014. Courtesy of Phillip Pessar.
- Figure 7: Buried Limo at Johnson Apt Former Location. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
- Figure 8: Rendering of YotelPad Hotel in 2017. Courtesy of the Next Miami.