More than seven thousand people converged on the site selected for the University of Miami in Coral Gables to witness the cornerstone laying ceremony on Thursday, February 4, 1926. The pomp and circumstance surrounding this event represented a seminal moment in the founding story of this educational institution.
Some of the most influential South Florida residents during the roaring twenties were involved in both the founding of the university and the dedication ceremonies. The school’s most generous benefactor, George Merrick, shared his thoughts on how that day was the proudest moment for him and the biggest day in Coral Gables history. He pledged his support through the donation of land and money in memory of his late father, Reverend Solomon Merrick, who died fifteen years earlier in 1911. In many ways, the cornerstone dedication ceremony was George’s opportunity to memorialize his father.
School Chartered in April of 1925
It was William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and former secretary of state in the Woodrow Wilson administration, who was accredited for spawning the idea for a Pan-American university in South Florida, and given his affiliation with George Merrick, envisioned it would be located in Coral Gables. As the City Beautiful was gaining in popularity, the idea of a school with international appeal was had the support of Merrick, Bryan, and James Deering to name a few of the high-profile dignitaries behind the movement.
In March of 1925, the concept of an institution of higher education in South Florida had taken root leading to the formation of a board of regents to formalize the pursuit of a university. Judge William E. Walsh, who would become the chairman of the first board of regents, described the idea for an open-air institution of learning which would include outdoor classes being conducted in shell pavilions with a partial roof to maximize light and air flow. Walsh was a recent arrival to Miami Beach when he relocated from Pittsburgh to start his law practice. He went on to become a municipal judge who was a big proponent of higher education. While he wasn’t as focused on the Pan-American concept as Bryan, Deering, and Merrick, he believed the region was ripe for a great outdoor university.
The officers of the first board of regents were Judge Walsh as president, Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of William Jennings Bryan, as vice president, and Frederic H. Zeigen as secretary and treasurer. Other members of the original board included Judge Mitchel D. Price, author Clayton Sedgwick Cooper, head of the Miami Conservancy for Music Bertha Foster, and impressionist painter Henry Salem Hubbell. The board met for the first time on March 12, 1925, to plan the details of the project and complete the application process.
Frederic Zeigen was made the managing regent for the committee and put in charge of completing the charter application. In the document, he called for the need of at least 160 acres of land for the campus and a budget of up to $15 million. Initially, the proposal called for accommodating up to 5,000 students upon the opening of the university in the Fall of 1926, but the regents felt that the area could accommodate a much larger institution.
The charter was granted by Judge H.F. Atkinson on April 5, 1925. An article in the Miami Daily News described the parameters of the charter as follows:
“The charter provides for the founding in Miami of a university which will have scientific and classical courses, and in addition have a normal school wherein white teachers may be trained. The charter provides that the institution may own up to $10 million of property.”
The provision that spelled out the race of the students who could get an education at the university provided for a policy of racial segregation. This would not change until 1961 when the university trustees voted to end segregation by opening admission to everyone regardless of race, creed, or color.
The article in the Daily News also wrote that “a feature of the institution will be the general establishment of outdoor class rooms.” The next big decision for the board was to select a site on which to build the campus.
Location for Campus Chosen
When the board of regents met for the first time on March 12, Judge Walsh received a wire from Coral Gables founder George Merrick who offered to donate 160 acres of his Coral Gables development to the school, and to make a generous donation to help finance the start of the university. He would ultimately donate $4 million, with part of that earmarked to finance the construction of the administrative building which would be dedicated as the ‘Solomon Greasley Merrick Memorial’ building when it was completed.
However, before the board could decide on accepting Merrick’s offer, they needed to consider the pros and cons of all possible locations. They narrowed their choices down to four possible sites in and around Miami, but ultimately decided to accept Merrick’s offer on May 25, 1925, which provided for 160-acres of land in the Riviera section of Coral Gables.
Letter from the Board of Regents
On June 3, 1925, the new university published a document providing details on the scope of the charter and a statement from each of the board of regent members. By this time, the board had expanded to include:
- George Merrick: Founder of Coral Gables.
- William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner. He was a three-time Democrat party nominee for President, and former Secretary of State in the Woodrow Wilson administration.
- Ruth Bryan Owen: Daughter of William Jennings Bryan and later the first woman to represent Florida in the House of Representatives. Also, she became the first woman to be appointed an ambassadorship when she became the envoy to Denmark for the Roosevelt administration.
- James Middleton Cox: Owner of the Miami Daily News and presidential candidate in the 1920 election.
- Frank B. Shutts: Founder and owner of the Miami Herald.
- Everest G. Sewell: President of the Miami Chamber of Commerce. A Miami pioneer who later became a four-time Mayor of Miami.
- Thomas Pancoast: President of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. He was a founder of Miami Beach and son-in-law to John Collins.
- Mitchell D. Price: Judge and long-time citizen of Miami.
- Henry Sam Hubbell: A well-known American impressionist painter.
- Leslie B. Robertson: A former United States assistant attorney general.
- Clayton Sedgewick Cooper: Renowned author as well as president and editor-in-chief for the Miami Tribune.
- Bertha Foster: President of the Miami Conservatory of Music. She would serve as the university’s Dean of Music for 18 years until she retired in 1944.
The document was published in the Herald, Daily News, and Tribune and was included as one of many items embedded within the stone that would be placed as part of the cornerstone dedication on February 4, 1926. Other items included in the tomb of relics were a photograph of Solomon Merrick, a copy of the contract between Merrick and the board of regents, and coins in an assortment of denominations, along with a one and five-dollar bill, all made in 1925.
Cornerstone Laying Ceremony
In early February of 1926, workman frantically put the finishing touches on the platform where the cornerstone laying ceremony would take place. Although the location of the future campus for the university consisted of field and trees at the time of the ceremony, there were concerns about parking and crowd management. Coral Gables police were put in charge of organizing the more than eighteen hundred automobiles that needed parking, and provided security for the more than seven thousand people who attended the event. Given that the City of Coral Gables was incorporated less than a year earlier, on April 29, 1925, the police department was relatively new.
The events for the dedication included music provided by Arthur Pryor’s band, an orchestra from Asbury Park, New Jersey, who was hired by the Miami Chamber of Commerce to perform at the band shell in Royal Palm Park in downtown Miami during the 1926 winter season. The band provided entertainment for the large crowd leading up to the speeches and cornerstone placement.
Bertha Foster and Sadie Lindenmayer, supervisor of music in public schools, organized the school children to sing as part of the opening ceremonies. Of the seven thousand attendees, a thousand of them were school children, some wearing costumes to add color the proceedings.
In addition to the orchestra and school children, there were forty members of the drum and bugle corps from the Harvey Seeds American Legion post. The corps members entertained the crowd by performing field drills prior to the official kick-off of the ceremony and were responsible for the presentation of the American Flag at the end of the event.
Speeches by Judge Walsh & Frank B Shutts
Following the performance by the young singers from the school system, Judge William Walsh kicked off the ceremony by stating:
“As we stand here today, about to lay the cornerstone of this magnificent temple of learning, dedicated by a loving son in memory of a good father, have in mind the picture of what this neighborhood was four years ago, an unbroken wilderness of palmetto and pine. Hard upon the heels of the retreating wilderness we are today planting this institution of learning, an event which will loom large 100 years hence, when other things you and I have done will be forgotten.”
As we approach the one-hundred-year mark of the cornerstone ceremony, only a few years away, it is interesting to read his last statement and how reflective he was delivering that speech with complete confidence that the University of Miami would stand the test of time.
Frank B. Shutts was the second speaker of the day, and his words took a stern tone while focusing on the value of education:
“Good has come from seeds planted in our schools. England’s position today is due to the great institutions of learning in that country. We need such institutions in this country. The proportion of uneducated, unthinking and careless boys and girls in this country is growing in number all the time. You all know that a low country, low land, needs dykes to keep back the waters. This country needs a dyke built up by education, cultured people. This applies to Miami.”
At the conclusion of Shutts remarks, the Pryor’s Band performed “Stars and Stripes Forever”, followed by Judge Walsh introducing George Merrick for the final speech before the laying of the cornerstone.
Speech by George Merrick
When George Merrick was introduced, he received a standing ovation. The crowd was aware of Merrick’s generosity in supporting the future university. His words were brief but emotional. He took time to reflect on what the University of Miami would mean for the region:
“For today we are entering upon the realist thing Miami can achieve. Hotels, clubs, all the other great material things that Miami has accomplished, beautiful, wonderful, glorious though they be, are but of ephemeral insignificance beside this great enterprise of permanently real and vital influence upon the lives and hearts of the present and future Miami that we are here beginning.”
Merrick was an entrepreneur and developer and for him to downplay all of his other accomplishments as “ephemeral insignificance” compared to what they were dedicating on that day was insightful. George was also a writer, who truly valued education and culture, so the dedication must likely appealed to the poet in him.
After Merrick finished speaking, Frederic Zeigen spoke next to describe and then point out, from the vantage of the elevated stage, the locations of the buildings that would be part of the university campus topology. Next, with the assistance of John B Orr, chairman of the fund campaign, the two men lifted and lowered the cornerstone into place until it was straight, and level, as attested to by the architects Pace and Fink.
The ceremony concluded with the presentation of the flag to the university by a member of the Harvey Seeds Post of the American Legion. The Pryor’s band played the “Star Spangled Banner” which ended the afternoon’s ceremonial events.
Events Following the Ceremony
The regents were hoping that construction of the first phase of buildings were completed by October of 1926 in time to begin classes. The administrative building broke ground in May of 1926 but was only partially finished when the great hurricane of 1926 ended the building boom and erased the wealth of many of the men and women who pledge to donate to the university. The momentum to construct the campus described by Frederic Zeigen during the cornerstone ceremony was halted instantly by the fallout of the storm.
The administrative building would sit unfinished and nicknamed ‘The Skeleton’ until 1949. The university would conduct programs out of the Anastasia Hotel, several miles from the land Merrick donated for the university, which required the classrooms to be separated by makeshift cardboard walls to provide for enough rooms to conduct classes. Because of the provisional solution, students began referring to the university as the ‘Cardboard College.’ On the subject of nicknames, it was the storm of 1926 that provided the school with their moniker of the Miami Hurricanes.
Given the difficult financial times the region faced following the 1926 hurricane, many of the pledges for financial support did not come to fruition. By 1932, the university was insolvent and filed for bankruptcy. However, the institution came out of bankruptcy and managed to stay in business to realize better times. The school thrived during the post-WWII period when soldiers returned from war and took advantage of the G.I. bill for financial assistance. While educational opportunities were plentiful for many, the University of Miami was still segregated during the post war boom time.
However, on January 31, 1961, the university’s board of trustees voted unanimously to pass the following resolution: “Resolved that it is the policy of the university to accept any qualified students in any of the schools or colleges of the university regardless of race, creed, or color.” For the first time in the school’s history, black students could apply and get accepted to the university starting in the spring semester of 1961.
At the time, the University of Miami became the third major private educational institution in the south to desegregate. The other two were Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and the University of the South, in Sewanee, both located in the state of Tennessee. By February 4, 1961, thirty-five years after the cornerstone dedication ceremony, the university received and began to process applications from black students for the first time in its history.
Today, the University of Miami now comprises twelve schools and colleges serving undergraduate and graduate students in nearly 350 majors and programs with more than 19,000 students from around the world. Aside from some of the early financial struggles, Merrick, Bryan, Walsh, and the other founding regents had much of their vision realized over the school’s nearly 100-year history. It became a relatively large, international scholastic institution that has brought people from all of the world to Coral Gables for their pursuit of education. Most importantly, it has stood the test of time as Judge William Walsh had expected nearly 100 years ago.Click Here to Subscribe
- Miami News: “University of Miami Will Be Launched Soon”, March 1, 1925.
- Miami Herald: “University of Miami Will Teach Outdoors”, March 4, 1925.
- Miami News: “University of Miami Regency is Organized”, Marc 22, 1925.
- Miami Herald: “University of Miami Charter is Prepared”, March 23, 1925.
- Miami News: “Charter Granted for $10,000,000 University Here”, April 10, 1925.
- Miami Herald: “4 Possible Sites for Miami University are Discussed by Board of Regents”, April 22, 1925.
- Miami News: “Action on Site of University is Postponed”, April 22, 1925.
- Miami Herald: “Letter from the Regents”, June 3, 1925.
- Miami Tribune: “Workmen Busy of Campus of U for Ceremonies”, February 1, 1926.
- Miami Tribune: “Coins, Papers, Speeches to be Placed in Miami U Cornerstone”, February 4, 1926.
- Miami Herald: “To Lay Cornerstone”, February 4, 1926.
- Miami Herald: “University of Miami Cornerstone Laying Witnessed by 7,000”, February 5, 1926.
- Miami Herald: “UM Opens Doors to All Students”, February 1, 1961.
- Miami Herald: “9 Negroes Ask Entry Forms from University of Miami”, February 4, 1961.
- Miami Herald: “How a Pittsburgh Lawyer Started the University of Miami”, by Howard Kleinberg on October 8, 1996.
- Cover: George Merrick speaking at the Cornerstone Dedication on February 4, 1926. Photo courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 1: University of Miami board of regents at the cornerstone ceremony on February 4, 1926. Photo courtesy of Florida State Archives.
- Figure 2: Rendering of the University of Miami campus in 1926. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 3: Letter from the board of regents published in the Miami Herald on June 3, 1925. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 4: Panoramic view of the cornerstone dedication on February 4, 1926. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
- Figure 5: The University of Miami administrative building in September of 1949. Courtesy of the Miami Daily News.
- Figure 6: Article in the Miami Herald published on February 1, 1961, announcing the desegregation of the University of Miami. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.