The pastel buildings seem to hover above the greenish water; from a distance, they even appear to be boats.
Biscayne Bay is home to the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, the Port of Miami (from which one in every seven cruise passengers in the world departs), a 172,000 acre National Park that includes the NPS's only underwater archaeological trail, and more than a dozen islands, many of which are artificial.
It is also the site of a curious collection of stilt houses, perched on sand flats a mile offshore from the Cape Florida lighthouse.
Venue had an opportunity to circle Stiltsville, as the cluster of wooden shacks on pilings is called, aboard a History Miami charter boat. We were accompanied the ceaseless narrative patter of local historian Dr. Paul George.
There are currently seven stilt houses in total, but this number has been whittled down, we learned from Dr. George's litany of fires and hurricanes, from an all-time high of twenty-seven structures in the 1960s.
The pastel buildings seem to hover above the greenish water; from a distance, they even appear to be boats. As you approach them, the stilt houses pass through a curious combination of stages, seemingly a mirage one minute, a child's drawing of a house, all boxes and triangles, the next.
They are sufficiently far from each other to seem utterly isolated, yet sufficiently far from anything else to coalesce into a community.
Although the details are murky, legend has it that Stiltsville's first shack was built by "Crawfish" Eddie Walker in 1933. In addition to bait, beer, and crawfish chowder, Eddie's island kingdom also offered gambling, which was apparently legal if located at least one mile offshore.
This story, perhaps, is responsible for the various rumors and urban legends that surround Stiltsville, including the idea that the houses had deliberately been constructed outside U.S. territorial waters in order to form a kind of free state off the coast of south Florida--architecture as pirate haven, micronation, and "seastead" all in one. At the very limits of the nation-state, this (somewhat overblown) version of Stiltsville's origin story goes, strange new architectures take shape on the horizon, with the continental shelf as subtropical autonomous zone.
In any case, by the late 1930s and early 40s, we learned, Crawfish Eddie's gambling shack was joined by a handful of other social clubs, whose members also appreciated the legal leeway that came with distance from the mainland.
The Quarterdeck, for instance -- an invitation-only private gentlemen's club built across a collection of pilings and barges -- welcomed Miami's wealthy and well-connected for drinks and, rumor has it, more. A 1941 article in LIFE magazine described the club as "a $100,000 play-palace equipped with bar, lounge, bridge deck, dining room and dock slips for yachts."
The 1960s era Bikini Club -- a grounded yacht that offered free drinks for women in its namesake attire and operated without the bother of a liquor license -- only added to Stiltsville's hard-partying renegade reputation.
Nonetheless, in accordance with the handful of possible fates that seem eventually, inevitably, to befall all Stiltsville structures, Crawfish Eddie's blew away in a hurricane, the Quarterdeck burned down, and the Bikini Club was busted and ultimately shut down by the vice squad.
Meanwhile, as our guide put it, Miami's "frontier era" was drawing to a close. After Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, the state issued formal leases for the bay bottom and refused to permit any new structures. In 1976, the state renewed those leases, but inserted an expiry date of 1999, after which any remaining stilt houses would need to be removed at the owners' expense.
The seven remaining structures now stand within the boundaries of Biscayne National Park, and, after a lengthy battle, the NPS has agreed not to demolish what is left of Stiltsville. Instead, the houses sit in limbo, awaiting the outcome of a promise to develop a preservation and public access plan, including an artist-in-residence program, park education facilities, and community gatherings.
In addition to the faded glamor of its bohemian past, Stiltsville retains a liminal feel today -- a sense of suspension from everyday rules and concerns that comes from being far enough away from shore for civilization to still be in view but with its effects much diminished.
In some ways, however, the real charm of Stiltsville is precisely its evanescence. As we made our way back to the city's shore, the shacks in our wake seemed less like four-walled houses, and more like spindly-legged, brightly-colored wading birds, tiny and temporary in the vast blue-green expanse of the bay and sky.