IF Coral Gables may be seen as “The City Beautiful,” then to many its very heart is reflected in the sparkling waterfalls, sun-dappled light touching upon Old Spanish architectural whimsy, and the cool, clean waters of that inviting lagoon that make up its celebrated Venetian Pool. To step through its wrought iron gates is to return happily once more to a beloved oasis, and awaken to a lovely and refreshing dream. Yet this dream is real, and the spring-fed waters at a constant temperature of 77 degrees no mirage!
“What IS this place?,” we have asked ourselves time and again, with no small wonder. We pause to stop and look, scanning slowly our surroundings even as we once again fall completely under its spell. The place is absolutely convincing in its illusion that both gently aging casino and its lagoon are quite ancient, giving every appearance that centuries have passed here, like so many months on a calendar of the eternal, and the Venetian Pool has been beloved and enjoyed by countless generations, one after the next with another to follow, since before present memory. Yet it seemed exactly so the very day its doors first opened, in 1925, and that is part of its essential genius.
Understanding how this unlikely oasis first took shape only adds to the magic. It all came into being as an ingenious and highly creative solution to a fairly important problem faced by young attorney/ poet/ developer George Merrick and the team he’d enlisted to help move his romantic vision of “the City Beautiful” closer to “planned community.” That problem was an open quarry pit, just over four acres in size, laying open, jagged, and crumbling, flat under the unblinking Florida sun.
The pit was what remained after the young new city had excavated from the site impressive quantities of the limestone rock (popularly known as “coral rock”) that had helped build and decorate the grand formal entrances around the city, its earliest public buildings, and some of its first homes. (Including, importantly, the Merrick family home, long a pioneer’s humble wood-frame abode, but now clad in the elegant local stone, and christened “Coral Gables.”)
“Painting of the Venetian Pool,” by Denman Fink. Here is the first rendering of the site, as conceived by the artist, and the means by which he communicated his vision, complete, to architect Phineas Paist.
So how did we get from that point, to now? Whose audacious brilliance and boundless imagination first dared undertake so great a leap, from scar in the Earth to graceful Venetian Casino crumbling gently by mythic lagoon? The question is answered on the commemorative marker of historic designation placed just outside the pool grounds:
“This pool was originally a quarry from which limestone was dug for the construction of early Coral Gables homes. In 1924, Denman Fink, Artist-Architect and uncle of Coral Gables’ founder George Merrick, transformed it into a unique pool, resembling a natural lagoon in a Venetian setting. His design included bridges, towers, a casino and lush landscaping.”
I reached that conclusion by another route. Since Phineas Paist was the architect of record for the City of Coral Gables, and I had in fact read that he spoke of the pool as “his baby,” there was some confusion on my part as to who had actually conceived of the pool. Then I came across the image below, captioned “Painting of Venetian Pool, by Denman Fink.” I had seen it before and paid it no particular attention, accepting the caption at face value. But this time, I paused to take a closer look, and quickly realized that it was no such thing. Here was the initial visual/working plan, the artistic “blue print” from which Paist’s great and good work was poised to move forward. Fink may or may not have been sitting by the rock pit when he did the painting, but at that point it really did not matter, since the scene depicted existed only in his mind.
If you take a careful look, you will see how closely the architect followed the artist’s’ creative lead. Aside from the larger size and shape of the pool itself, which Fink was at that point presumably able only to surmise, the match is close to exact.
Though Paist had certainly earned “bragging rights” to the Pool for his innovative architectural work, and first quality attention to detail as well as the whole, the name of Denman Fink should not be allowed to fade in its importance. It was he who first dreamed this sweet dream, and thereby gave to us all our Venetian Pool.