Imagine waking up in the morning to the sound of mullet jumping and water lapping underneath you. You brew a cup of coffee, sit outside and watch the new day’s light reflect off the water while dolphins and manatees play. Sounds like a great morning on your boat, but it’s not. Your boat is tied to your porch and the gin clear water is all around you. You’re not dreaming – you’re on a Florida stilt home.
In places like Texas, beach houses are built on stilts for protection from storm surge, and in Louisiana they are built on stilts because the ground is soft. But in Florida, some build on stilts out in the water just to be right where they want to be.
There are stilt homes and stilt “shacks” found in waters all over Florida. Ten water-borne structures are found off the coast of Charlotte and Lee counties. Others are in the Keys. But there are only a few places where concentrations form over-water communities. They appear like a mirage on the horizon, but are a very real symbol of what Florida is famous for – fun, sun and relaxation.
Two of the remaining stilt house communities can be found in Biscayne Bay off Miami and on the Gulf Coast near Port Richey. They date back to the early 1900s, providing a place used for work, play and rest. They have endured the harsh salt environment and have been battered many times by storms and hurricanes. Fewer in quantity, they live on today as coastal landmarks.
The stilt community just east of Miami known as Stiltsville has gone through many changes, but became part of Biscayne National Park in 1985. The structures recently came under the care of The Stiltsville Trust, a not-for-profit entity set up to preserve them and grant access by permit to individuals and companies for various events.
Originally a dozen stilt structures were built in 1922. Storms claimed a few, but then the community grew again to as many as 27 in the 60s. After hurricane Andrew in 1997, only seven structures remained.
These seven have been used for all kinds of activities over the years. They first were used as bait and beer shacks for fishermen headed out beyond the flats that they resided on. More were built and became clubs and social gathering spots that grew in notoriety. One was called the Bikini Club and offered free drinks to visitors wearing bikinis. It even sported a nude sunbathing deck only to be shut down, not for the lack of a liquor license but for possessing undersized and out of season crawfish.
One was built by a group of blue-collar workers that became the Miami Springs Powerboat Club. Others were built as getaway homes for some of Miami’s socialites.
Once available to those who knew someone, or by invitation only, these structures are now open to the public by obtaining a permit and paying the appropriate fees. There are conditions and restrictions, but if you would like to learn more you can visit Stiltsvilletrust.org online. They can also be enjoyed from afar from Key Biscayne or by boaters visiting the surrounding park waters.
Nine stilt just off Port Richey are built on a ridge running north and south just outside the mouth of the Pithlachascotee River (also known as the Cotee River for those who can’t pronounce the former name). They are numbered one through nine from north to south. They are said to be on a watery road called Gulf of Mexico Boulevard, a unique and liquid address for sure.
Like Stiltsville, this community has an interesting history punctuated by nature’s wrath. The first structures were built in the early 1900s to aid the mullet fishermen in the area who had to pole out to the fishing grounds and then pole back at night. The shacks made their job easier and safer during bad weather. Others were later built as getaways visited by such celebrities as Johnny Cash and Billy Graham. Two dozen stood in 1968, but in October of that year Hurricane Gladys destroyed most.
All nine are on underwater land leased from the State of Florida. The southernmost is also the newest. After a 2010 fire caused by lightning, co-owners Sims Henry and Dr. Robert Mount rebuilt the uninsurable structure on the original pilings.
“My eight-year-old daughter can now throw a cast net from the dock. I couldn’t do that at her age,” says Henry, whose family spends as much time on the property as possible. With the building expertise of Mount’s sons and the decorating sense of Henry’s wife, they have created a comfortable place to spend time with friends and family. Fishing the surrounding waters or just sitting and enjoying the spectacular sunsets, they enjoy a slice of history.
When you’re on the water and what seems a mirage of a home appears on the horizon, reflect on the history and perseverance required to keep this part of Florida a reality and not just a memory.