MIAMI — Perched above the shallow turquoise waters of Biscayne Bay are shacks on stilts that have hosted some of Florida’s wildest parties, from the days when alcohol and gambling were outlawed, to a bachelor party for a member of the Kennedy clan.
Seven homes still stand in Stiltsville, as the community is called, located about a mile (1.6 kilometers) out in the Biscayne channel in Biscayne National Park, just a short boat ride or kayak trip from the Key Biscayne coastline.
“When are you out there and there’s nobody there, it’s one of the most desolate settings imaginable,” said Paul George, a history professor at Miami-Dade College. “And yet in other ways it’s one of the most striking.”
The first dozen homes were built close to the surface of the water in the late 1920s, but were vulnerable to storm surges and hurricane damage. By the 1930s and ’40s, the homes were built higher off the ground on wooden stilts held up by steel-reinforced concrete pilings driven through the sand below.
The houses had boat docks, wraparound verandas and plenty of windows to pick up the breeze. Generators fueled electricity, cisterns collected rain water and sewage was sent to a disposal facility.
More than two dozen homes existed during Stiltsville’s heyday in the 1960s. Seven are still standing, but now are part of Biscayne National Park and no longer privately owned.
HistoryMiami, a local cultural institution and museum, runs occasional three-hour boat tours led by George to see Stiltsville, though the boats do not dock at the homes. Kayakers can also tie up at the base of a home and at least stand on the deck for stunning sunset views. The homes, now used for tours and other events, are locked when no one is there.
George says the homes were a last bastion for what he calls “old Miami’s good ol’ boy network,” a place where acquaintances could fish, drink, tell stories, carouse and get away from city life. Stiltsville was also the site of a party for then-bachelor Ted Kennedy.
But many of the homes were damaged or destroyed in hurricanes and fires, and were not infrequent targets of police raids. Beginning in the 1950s the community also faced opposition from residents of nearby Key Biscayne, who called the shacks eyesores and its residents squatters, George said.
“People over here started complaining about the wild happenings over there,” he said as he pointed at Stiltsville from Key Biscayne, which is about 10 miles (about 17 kilometers) from Miami. The complaints pushed the state to eventually order Stiltsvillians (as the residents called themselves) to abandon the homes when their property leases expired in 1999.
George, an author and local celebrity, gives several tours of South Florida. The Stiltsville, Cape Florida Lighthouse and Key Biscayne Boat Tour starts from Bayside Marketplace near the Port of Miami. The boat does not make any stops, but George supplies fact-packed lessons.
The tour also offers stunning views of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and the Cape Florida Lighthouse before it heads off to the Biscayne Channel and the heart of Stiltsville.