Looking at when Belle Isle was Miami Beach’s star island

(J.C. Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

These days, when people think of Miami Beach island luxury, minds leap to Star Island, home over the years to such celebrities as the Gloria and Emelio Estefan, Shaq, Lenny Kravitz, Rosie O’Donnell and Wil Smith.

But back in the 1920s and 1930s, Belle Isle was the Beach’s island star. The way it commanded the public imagination is abundantly clear from news coverage, historical photos and postcards of the mansion from that era.

And the headliner was the J.C. Penney estate.

Snapshot of crumbling estate wall, taken 1979 (J.C.Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU)

Back then, the five-acre estate carried the address 8 Belle Isle. Penney bought the home in 1921, and sold it in 1931 for $150,000 after luring Herbert Hoover to vacation there before assuming the presidency in 1929. As we reported in previous post, Penney invited the president to the estate to leverage publicity for a home sale.

And that sale made the estate and Belle Isle famous, the subject of tourism postcards, newspaper articles and glossy magazine spread that are part of the collection of J.C. Penney’s papers at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University.

(Courtesy the J.C. Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU)

We were able to match some images we collected on eBay and elsewhere with photos from Penney’s papers.

One postcard from eBay showed the back of an estate with a cabana and small pool.

A 1938 postcard depicting "An Estate on Belle Isle, Miami Beach, Fla."

Look at how it matches the photograph from the J.C. Penney papers.

J.C. Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU

2 responses to “Looking at when Belle Isle was Miami Beach’s star island

  1. I love seeing old photos of what Miami Beach once looked like, as growing up there, I saw changes through the years and honestly, I didn’t like quite a few of them. When greedy developers in the name of ‘progress’, tore down buildngs, took down signs (like the Coppertone Tan sign) for ugly high rise condos that we already had plenty of, it runined a lot of old charm Miami and Miami Beach once was always known for. Ofcourse I still love it there, but wish we didn’t lose what we had in those bygone times.

  2. Mary Kennedy Baumslag

    Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts about this beautiful place. I came here once in 1968 to write a story about President Nixon
    buying a house on Key Biscayne. And though Miami Beach was such a rundown tragedy in those days anyone with eyes could see how truly beautiful it was. I agree that developers have contaminated this beauty but it is still lovely. Does anyone need another high rise here? I hope not.

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