Tag Archives: Miami Beach History

Old views of Belle Isle, Venetian islands seen a new way

Postcard between 1942 and 1951, showing downtown Miami and Venetian and MacArthur causeways.

As part of our continuing exploration of Belle Isle and Venetian Causeway historical images, we found a treasure.

It’s called the Florida Memory Project, a state of Florida archive that includes a collection of 170,000 digitized photos of the state’s early times from the Florida Division of Library and Information Services.

The archive includes beautiful old color postcards, like the one above, which we had not seen before, as well as photos that provide an even closer look at early Belle Isle (pre-condo) and the construction and development of the Venetian Islands and Miami Beach.

This 1949 photograph provides a similar detail as the postcard from east to west.

In the archive we found the clearest pre-condo development photos we’ve ever seen of Belle Isle, the only Venetian Causeway island that isn’t entirely man-made.

Belle Isle, with Carl Fisher's Flamingo Hotel in the background.

This 1930s early photo of the island shows both the Joseph Adams estate  on the land now occupied by Belle Plaza and the Grand Venetian, as well as the J.C. Penney Estate (9 Island Avenue) and relatively empty space on the site of The Standard/DiLido Spa.

The photos of the Joseph H. Adams Estate (dated 1929) are new to us; it covered the southeast quadrant of the island with several structures. You can see how the Bay Road area south of the Collins Canal looked as well.

The Adams estate on the east end of Belle Isle. What is now Maurice Gibb park and Sunset Harbour is behind it.

Subsequent shots show how the development filled in the green space. The old Flamingo on the mainland has been replaced by Morton Towers.

A similar view shows Belle Plaza, Belle Tower and 3 Island Terrace (1968).

On the Beach mainland, Morton Towers, the Venetian, Sunset Islands to the north.

And the view to Miami Beach looked different, too. No Sunset Harbour bayfront condos, though thanks to historic preservation, the beachfront skyline is similar.

Looking east over Belle Isle, you can see the old hotel on the Grand Venetian site.

The archive also includes some great images of the causeway islands and mainland Miami, pre-boom.

One, during the construction of the Venetian Causeway in 1923, shows Belle Isle and and freshly dredged Rivo Alto Isle, with no other islands along the causeway. You can see Lincoln Road and the old Miami Beach golf course, but note, that isn’t the Miami Beach Bayshore Course that exists today.

1923 photograph shows view to Miami across Venetian Causeway.

Another shows Biscayne Island, the closest to mainland Miami, with an airport on what is now the site of the 801 Venetian condo. To the right of the Viking hangar, you can see the original toll booth.

This photo, believed to be from 1926, shows the Venetian Causeway and Biscayne Island.

And, finally, a look at both causeways and freshly dredged Venetian and Sunset islands from a 1927 aerial, shot from a height of 7000 feet. You can see downtown Miami and the mouth of the Miami River, but no Port of Miami.

Note the similarity in perspective to the 1940s-vintage color postcard.

Biscayne Bay, 1927.


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

Once upon a time, Belle Isle was the only island

An historic photo looking west from Miami Beach, across Belle Isle.

John Collins built the first causeway to Miami Beach, a 2.5-mile wooden toll road he cleverly called the Collins Bridge. It opened in 1913, but only after Collins got a $50,000 loan from Carl Fisher (he ended up trading 200 acres of Miami Beach land to Fisher).  Until then, you could only reach Miami Beach by ferry. The County Causeway (later renamed the MacArthur) was built between 1917 and 1920.

Venetian island dredging, 1920.

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

The Collins Bridge crossed just one island between the mainland and the Beach — Bull Island, by then known as Belle Isle. During the land boom of the 1920s, the other Venetian Islands were dredged, and the Collins Bridge was rebuilt and renamed the Venetian Causeway in 1925.

Our top photo shows the old bridge and a high-rise free Belle Isle. You can see the street layout is pretty much the same — Belle Isle Park is on the south of the roadway. This is what the island looked in the days of the old boathouse, and the estates depicted in some of the postcards BelleIsleBlog has collecting during the last year. We’re not sure who owned this estate, built in the 1920s, but J.C. Penney and real estate broker James F. Matthews owned estates on the island.

In the foreground of the bridge aerial, you can see an empty Sunset Harbour area, and the bridge path meeting the Collins Canal, also named for the Beach pioneer. The empty road a bit to the left, heading east-to-west straight at Belle Isle,  is Lincoln Road.

Carl Fisher built his Flamingo Hotel on some of the bayfront land off Lincoln Road. This last shot shows the County Causeway in the foreground, a barely developed Star Island, with Belle Isle to the north. The main structure visible on Miami Beach off to the right of Belle Isle is the Flamingo.

County Causeway in foreground, Star Island, and Belle Isle due north.

Belle Isle before Nine Island Avenue, Grand Venetian, the Vistas and more

In this 1975 aerial photo, the site for 9 Island Avenue is scrub and palms.

Here’s another trip into the wayback machine, a Thanksgiving gift from 9 Island Avenue resident Josh Fisher, a frequent Belle Isle Blog contributor.

The image you see (you can click on it to make it bigger) shows Belle Isle in 1975. The vacant lot in the foreground is where 9 Island Avenue, the biggest condo on our island, was built in 1981.

Postcard shows Venetian Isle Motel at 20 Venetian Way.

If you look on the right, you see the vacant lot that became the Grand Venetian. It’s notable, also, because it means in 1975, the Venetian Isle Motel (from our postcard collection) had already been leveled.

Across the Venetian Causeway from that vacant lot is Belle Isle Key Apartments, in 1975 still looking every bit like the barracks the complex originally was. The renovations with the mansard roofs that developer EuroAmerican has been seeking to level for a sleeker steel and glass complex came after 1975.

Rendering of The Vistas, built in 1998.

One last note: On the northwest corner, where The Vista now sits, is another low-rise complex that also was leveled for new development.

The Vistas is now a 48-unit condo.

For a little more fun, look east. No Sunset Harbour condos facing the island, a straggly mess of greenspace where we now have Maurice Gibb Memorial Park, and generally a lot less density.

In this 1975 aerial photo, the site for 9 Island Avenue is scrub and palms.

Then compare these two images — a Google map view of the island today, and the 1975 view. You can click through so see more detail on the Google map.

A postcard view back to the site of the Grand Venetian

Postcard view of Venetian Isle Motel.

It looks like Nine Island Avenue  (and Asheville, N.C.) resident Josh Fisher has puzzled out the mystery address on the former Venetian Isle Motel, 20 Venetian Way.

Belle Isle’s newest high-rise condo, the Grand Venetian, carries the address 10 Venetian Way.

The Grand Venetian, foreground.

But the condo site used to carry the address 20 Venetian Way, Fisher notes, back when its owner was involved in a protracted zoning fight and lawsuit with Belle Isle residents and the city of Miami Beach.

Throughout that battle, the address of the proposed condo (owned by developer Victor Labruzzo), was 20 Venetian Way. The same address was used for the Grand Venetian construction office.

So there you go. And it sure looks different now.

Belle Isle Bridge, then and now

The BelleIsleBlog loves a challenge, and when Mark Potter threw one down regarding our item on the 1937-vintage postcard of the bridge between Belle Isle and  Miami Beach, we responded.

Mark liked the old post card, which showed the idyllic crossing from Miami Beach to a tree-swept, tropical Belle Isle with but one building visible. But he wanted more:

“I would like to see this 1937 post card side-by-side with a current view from taken the same location.”

How about if we stack them:


The bridge to Belle Isle, 1937


Belle Isle bridge, Feb. 26, 2010

It wasn’t easy finding the correct angle as the original painting. The point of view comes from the southeast, across the Intracoastal/Collins Canal, at the end of Lincoln Court east of Bay Road (and north of Lincoln Road). We’ve marked the spot on our comprehensive Belle Isle Google Map.

Just for fun, here’s a panorama from the same spot, using the PANO app on the iPhone.

Panorama of the bridge

Post card to Belle Isle – 73 years ago


View of bridge to Belle Isle from Miami Beach, circa 1937.

You never know what surprises will turn up in a simple search  on the Internet.

The Belle Isle Blog found this for sale on eBay while searching Belle Isle history and issues. We bought it for $4.50, shipping included, so we could bring it to you.

It’s a vintage, linen postcard from 1937, a view from Miami Beach westward, back when there were no high-rises (we know that Belle Towers was built in 1957).


Original Boathouse -- RSMAS gallery

The one structure you can see on our island, we believe, is the old Joseph H. Adams estate, which included the boathouse that in 1942 or 1943 was used by the University of Miami as the original marine lab for the Rosentiel School of Marine Sciences.

(If any historians out there can add to this, we’d be appreciative. Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email belleisleblog@me.com)

According to the Rosentiel web site, a piling collapsed under the boathouse in 1945 and it could no longer be used, so Marine Lab staff

Water view of boathouse

moved into converted apartment building on Santander Avenue in Coral Gables. There they had seawater for the aquariums brought in by tank truck. Later, of course, the moved to a fine facility on Virginia Key.

Our postcard predates that development, and gives this description of pre-war Miami Beach paradise:

“Miami Beach is located on a narrow, yet attractive peninsula. There are casinos, bathing pavilions, shore resorts and exquisite little bathing places along the ocean front, from the jetties northward, to primeval mangrove studded roads that mean “a bathing beach on your own.’’

The card postmarked March 1, 1937, and is addressed to Miss Ella Huich of Tuscola, Illinois. The writer (and look this over for yourselves) raves about “Cuban pineapples,” and Florida grapefruit (3 x 25 cents!) and oranges, and “magnificient” seafood.

Post card from Miami Beach