The "dream village" that founder Robert C. Graham envisioned so many years ago continues to prosper and thrive today. The vision for this subtropical paradise began in 1929 when Miami Beach Heights, a Detroit-based real estate development corporation purchased the raw land. Headed by industrialist Graham with associates Carl Fisher and Walter O. Briggs, Miami Beach Heights began the task of crafting a new community. Perhaps most significantly, they hired one of the leading urban planning firms of the twentieth century - Harland Bartholomew & Associates - to design the Village. Bal Harbour and Coral Gables are the only Miami-Dade municipalities that were built with a fully conceived master plan in place.
From the beginning, the Village was envisioned as a modern community that would maintain exceptionally high standards, provide superior services and foster civic pride.
The advent of World War II brought plans to an abrupt halt and Graham, in patriotic gesture, leased to the land to the United States Air Corps for $1 a year. The area became a center of year-round training complete with barracks and a rifle range located on the site of the Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort. A prisoner-of-war camp, located on the current site of Bal Harbour Shops, housed German prisoners. Soldiers stationed up and down Miami Beach marched north to the area, known as "tent city," for maneuvers.
After the war ended and the troops departed, development plans resumed in earnest. Graham quickly converted some of the barracks into apartments to boost the resident population - the State of Florida then required twenty-five males to qualify for incorporation..
In 1945, Stanley Whitman (who was later to build Bal Harbour Shops) moved into the barracks with his young family in order to support the Village's incorporation efforts and was one of the original founders of Bal Harbour.
On August 14, 1946 the Village was incorporated and the first Council elected. The roster for the first Council: Mayor Judge Julian Southerland and Councilmen Charles R. Graham, Glenn E. Massnick, Ray Semmes, Jr., Willard H. Webb and George Whittaker. Willard Webb was the first Village Manager and Mary Wetterer, the first Village Clerk, remained at her post for more than forty years.
The Village was first called "Bay Harbour," a name that was soon discarded as not properly defining a community with oceanfront property. A new word was created, taking letters from 'bay" and "Atlantic" to create "Bal." Thus Bal Harbour, a new town encompassing bay and ocean, was named. The fledgling government was housed in converted military barracks until the current Village Hall was built in 1956.
Bolstered by Miami's post war prosperity, Bal Harbour's growth escalated with the rapid sale of residential lots, the development of community resources and the construction of hotels. In December 1946, the first hotel opened for business - Kenilworth-by-the-Sea. Described as "ultra-modern," the 160-room ten-story Kenilworth promoted the concept of "luxurious leisure." Over the next decade, a total of nine resorts would line the Village's beachfront as the Sea View, the Bal Harbour, the Balmoral, the Ivanhoe, the Colony, the Singapore, the Beau Rivage and the Americana all held court. At the height of South Florida's hotel boom, these world-class resorts attracted a steady stream of upscale clientele and helped put Bal Harbour on the map.
In the 1950's, Bal Harbour and Miami Beach were considered America's Riviera, a magnet for the era's top musicians and entertainers. Count Basie and Guy Lombardo could be seen having drinks at the Ivanhoe's Pump Room Lounge. Frank Sinatra and his "Rat Pack" frequented the Americana's Carnival Supper Club.
In 1953, Arthur Godfrey brought considerable media attention to the area when he was the first entertainer to televise nationally from our area. He broadcast to his radio and television audience, estimated at between 40 and 60 million, from the Kenilworth Hotel. Other television personalities would follow suit over the years including Jackie Gleason and Ed Sullivan.
Bal Harbour's hotels quickly became the chosen destination for countless dignitaries, celebrities, and presidents.
Many important events and national conventions took place at Bal Harbour's hotels, and the Americana Hotel - which became the Sheraton Bal Harbour in 1980 - was an ideal location. Designed by Morris Lapidus and built by the Tisch family in the 1950's, it was one of the most glamorous resorts in South Florida. The Americana hosted three nationally televised AFL-CIO Constitutional Conventions - in 1961 with President Kennedy at the podium, in 1967 with President Johnson, and 1971 with President Nixon. The Sheraton was President Clinton's favorite hotel when in town, and one of the venues for 1994's Summit of the Americas.
Likewise, the discreetly luxurious Sea View Bal Harbour Hotel has drawn its share of notables, from David Brinkley, Bob Dole, Howard Baker, Hubert Humphrey, Tip O'Neil, Thomas Dewey, and Boris Yeltsin to the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Bob Dylan and many Latin American television stars.
At the same time, a quiet residential community was evolving with lovely homes and apartments bringing newcomers each year. In 1947, the Church by the Sea was built, designed by Miami architect Russell Pancoast. Community activities for families, such as arrival of a truckload of snow so that children could play and build snowmen, became part of the Village tradition.
In 1957 real estate developer Stanley Whitman (with a vision that few understood), purchased sixteen acres that were originally planned as the site for a gas station and grocery store. "Only my mother believed in my plan," stated Whitman of his concept for creating a luxury shopping mall. At the time, the once elegant and upscale Lincoln Road had declined tremendously and Whitman was adamant that a new high-fashion center located in Bal Harbour could thrive.
Further bucking trends, he insisted that the mall be open-air, including lush landscaping and parking structure. Despite resistance to his ideas and many obstacles, the Shops opened in 1965 with thirty upscale, mostly New York-based tenants. The venture was immediately successful and soon thereafter, Whitman enticed Stanley Marcus to open his first Neiman Marcus outside of Texas. Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end retailers followed suit. Bal Harbour was the first mall location for Cartier and Bulgari and the first ventures outside of New York for Louis Vuitton, Prada and Sergio Rossi.
Today, celebrating forty years in business, Bal Harbour Shops is recognized as the industry leader and, according to Women's Wear Daily, is the "number one most productive shopping center in the United States." Stanley Whitman is now widely acknowledged as 'the Walt Disney of luxury retailing,' having created his own magical kingdom… the ultimate destination for shoppers. Bal Harbour Shops has become a role model for developers and continues to be a key element in defining Bal Harbour Village's style and elegance.
A major challenge that South Florida has faced through the years is the erosion of its beaches through storm and hurricane damage. The Village Council, realizing the importance of maintaining beach quality, was aggressive in exploring and researching options for restoration projects that were ahead of their time. Their initiatives were innovative and many neighboring municipalities followed this lead.
In 1968 the Council passed a resort tax initiative (an effort Stanley Whitman is credited with spearheading). This successful venture established critical resources for the Village's multi-million dollar beach restoration efforts. It provided funds for maintenance and enhancement of the Village through the taxation of tourists. As a result (and at no cost to Bal Harbour residents), major landscaping and beautification projects continue to be carried out and maintained each year.
As economic and real estate dynamics shifted, many hotel owners opted to convert their properties into condominiums. This has led to a whole new residential landscape for the Village, continuing to attract newcomers from all over the world that aspire to live the Bal Harbour lifestyle.
The new ONE Bal Harbour was re-branded in June of 2009, becoming the northern gateway to the Village. This is the first new hotel to be built in the Village in fifty years. The Sheraton Bal Harbour was demolished in November of 2006, making way fo the new St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort and Residences (scheduled to open in 2012).
Today, the Village continues its legacy of superior service. Those hired to manage and run the Village often remain for decades and many current staff members have been on board for more than twenty years.
From the very beginning, Village founders thoughtfully master-planned this model community and it has evolved into an internationally renowned place to live and visit. As stated by founder Robert Graham more than sixty years ago, "We have only one objective. We want to make this village, with its unusual advantages of ocean and bay and South Florida climate, a lovely place to live."