Women’s History Month in Miami: Mary Brickell

The mother of Downtown Miami

Mary Brickell

Mary Brickell

In honor of Women’s History Month, it is important that we recognize the local Miami women who were key figures in the growth of our community.  Let’s start with Mary Brickell, the lovely woman who is now the namesake of Downtown Miami’s Mary Brickell Village… Here is a fabulously interesting story originally published by the Miami Herald.

Mary Brickell: a woman and her city

A new book explores the role of the Brickells, Mary and William, in the birth and early development of Miami.


In the late 1960s, Beth Brickell lived in Miami while costarring as the mom in a TV show called “Gentle Ben,’’ about a 650-pound bear. It was filmed at the Ivan Tors studios.

At that time, she became aware she shared her name with an important Miami thoroughfare, Brickell Avenue. After the show was cancelled, she went on with her life, leaving Miami behind.

In the mid-80s, her father dabbled in genealogy and became interested in William and Mary Brickell, the land-owning pioneer couple for whom Brickell Avenue is named.

They weren’t related, but the more he learned the more he became enthralled, especially after corresponding with Carmen Petsoules, an amateur historian with a trove of Brickell-related material.

Fast forward to spring 2009. Beth Brickell, still in the entertainment business, found herself back in Miami. She decided to pick up where her father left off, researching the Brickells of Brickell Avenue fame. The result is a book – “William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami & Fort Lauderdale’’ ($19.95, The History Press) – that is due out this week. It focuses particularly on Mary, a dynamic woman with remarkable business acumen. Here is an excerpt :

Mrs. Brickell wanted a boulevard through her property after the railroad came and business promised to grow to fantastic heights. She didn’t bother the politicians about it. Instead she ordered the concrete and other supplies from Germany, put her boy Will in charge of a road-building gang, and ordered a street 100 feet wide with parkways for planting shrubbery and flowers down the center.

Wide streets were one of Mary’s cardinal principles. She had been disappointed that [railroad tycoon] Henry Flagler didn’t give the city wider streets on the north side of the river. “Time after time, in the early days of Miami,” she said, “I endeavored to impress upon Mr. Flagler the necessity of widening the narrow streets of Miami.”

Mary also wanted Miami to be “a city of handsome homes.” She sold large bay-front tracts to people of national prominence who built mansions overlooking the bay, people such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, of stained-glass window and lamp fame, and William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee for president in 1896, 1900 and 1908, and secretary of state under President Woodrow Wilson.

On January 5, 1914, Mary sold 180 acres at the south end of “Millionaire’s Row,” as Brickell Avenue became known, to James Deering, vice president of International Harvester. There Deering built Villa Vizcaya, a stunning thirty-four-room Italian Renaissance mansion filled with treasures collected from all over the world and with expansive Italian gardens and fountains on the grounds. Miami had a population of ten thousand at the time, and one thousand of its citizens were employed as laborers and craftsmen building the Vizcaya estate, completed in 1916.

A personal glimpse of Mary Brickell was given in an interview by a young woman, Ethel Weatherly Sherman, who was a stenographer with the law firm of Seymour & Atkinson:

When Mr. Seymour had papers for Mrs. Brickell or some of the family to sign, they would send me over there with them. As I think of Mrs. Brickell, she looked to me more like some pictures that you see of Queen Victoria. She was English and a very nice person…If there [were] any of them in the room she would introduce me to them, so I met a good many of them…[Their house] was like pictures that you see of the old Victorian houses full of bric-a-brac and beautiful old furniture…She was always nice to me. They always had crackers and cookies and tea, so I had quite a little visit there while I was waiting for her to read and sign the papers.

It was most unusual in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for a woman to be as involved with business affairs as Mary was, and some men resented her for it. One man referred to her as “steely eyed.” Another called her “vile” and thought William wasn’t much of a man for allowing Mary to handle the family’s vast business interests.

But more enlightened men held Mary in high regard. After her death at age eighty-six, the Miami Herald wrote:

The first comers to the city of Miami are today unanimous in praising the quick, keen mind behind the bright blue eyes of this woman pioneer whom they characterized as “one of the finest business women in the whole country.” They speak almost reverently of her ability in managing the immense business which grew about as a result of her land holdings…

Only the day before her death, Mrs. Brickell received several real estate men in Miami. Her keenness, the quickness and alertness of her mind, as well as the charm of her personality, made a deep impression upon them. “She will stand in my mind as one of the most delightful and one of the most uniquely interesting people I have ever met,” said one of them.

The meeting the day before Mary’s death was related to a new subdivision that she designed, platted and developed at her own expense. She called the subdivision Brickell Hammock, but its popular name became “The Roads.” The five-hundred-acre neighborhood, stretching from 15th to 32nd Road between SW 1st Avenue and SW 11th Street, still reflects her taste and vision today. The area features her signature wide streets with median parkways and roundabouts graced with native trees, shrubbery and flowers. She envisioned residents walking the sidewalks and enjoying the beauty of their neighborhood.

Mary gave the streets, parkways and sidewalks of The Roads to the city, along with electric lights up and down each street. A developer working with Mary was quoted: “The streets and avenues in this subdivision will all be white ways. Mrs. Brickell is donating to the city of Miami a cool $100,000 [$1,273,943 in 2008] worth of improvements in this item alone. The city has been asked for nothing.”

The Roads was intended to provide affordable lots to Miami residents. All of the properties were sold at a one-day auction on February 1, 1923. The Miami Herald reported, “Over $300,000 [$3,821,828 in 2008] was realized from the sale, the average price being about $1,800 [$22,931 in 2008].” Mary developed other affordable subdivisions in Miami, such as Riverside between today’s SW 7th and 8th Avenues. She expanded the area in 1919 and personally financed many modest but comfortable homes there for residents.

She also developed subdivisions in Fort Lauderdale to encourage the growth of that city. Two large subdivisions, Colee Hammock and Rio Vista, were platted in 1920 on the one-square-mile Frankie Lewis Donation adjacent to and west of the Fort Lauderdale township platted earlier by the Brickells. (In 1924, Rio Vista was deeded to C.J. Hector and was then re-platted.) As with all of Mary’s subdivisions, the roads, thoroughfares and utilities were dedicated to the perpetual use of the public.

Mary gave the citizens of Fort Lauderdale another gift that wasn’t intended. The public gained riparian rights on either side of the river that cut through the middle of Fort Lauderdale when Mary lost a lawsuit brought against her by the city. Although she sold to private parties river frontage that was to include land “abutting and adjoining the river,” the Florida Supreme Court agreed with a lower court on appeal that the original plat by the Brickells did not clearly reserve to themselves the riverbanks alongside North and South Streets that bordered the river, and, therefore, “dedication of the streets extends to the waters of New River.”

In Miami, apart from developing beautiful residential neighborhoods at different price levels, Mary tried helping the young city in other ways. In the early years, Miami depended almost exclusively on income from wealthy vacationers who came during winter months and then disappeared until the following year. Mary was farsighted enough to realize that in order for Miami to achieve its potential as a major city, it needed industries other than tourism.

In 1898, she and William gave the city six acres between Brickell Avenue and Biscayne Bay to be used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an “Experimental Station” to develop “exotic plants and shrubbery.” Dr. David Fairchild, famed botanist and plant explorer, was instrumental in establishing a plant introduction site on the property that was in use until the facility was moved to southern Dade County in 1921.

Mary Brickell gave generously not only to the city but to its citizens as well. A contemporary said, “Mary Brickell didn’t believe in using banks and always had plenty of cash, which she loaned without collateral to people who were refused bank loans. Her interest-free loans helped many people open businesses.”

During the Panic of 1907, when banks failed and those that didn’t were reluctant to make loans and provide mortgages, it was said that Edith, one of the Brickell daughters, went around with a large satchel-like purse lending money without collateral or interest to those in need.

Although many were never able to return the money she had lent them, Mary never foreclosed on a mortgage nor took legal action to collect a loan.

Mary gave to the city a two-and-a-half-acre park in the 500 block of Brickell Avenue next to the family homesite. The park is maintained by the city today and provides the public with access to Biscayne Bay from Brickell Avenue. In the park is an empty Brickell family mausoleum. A relative who was the last to live in the family home until her death on November 22, 1960, had the family’s remains removed to Woodlawn cemetery on August 30, 1951. She said that Brickell Avenue had become “too noisy even for the dead.”

Original Story: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/02/12/v-fullstory/2062934/mary-brickell-a-woman-and-her.html#ixzz1FrKn7rlo

One Response to “Women’s History Month in Miami: Mary Brickell”
  1. Jerseyshore00 says:

    Thanks Sarah…never knew how Brickell came about ….and Mary brickell village.. Now I know..,,,,Thanks for doing all of our home work :D….I will subscribe to your blog…..keep up the good work….:P

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