It’s not good when a man invests in a Fort Lauderdale Beach property and then realizes that the constant sound of waves cresting on the beach annoys him. Enough to make him move out.
Just another early chapter in the story of Fort Lauderdale’s early beach development. Or more specifically, lack of it.
While today’s city leaders prize pristine beaches as the main attraction, those who settled here first prized something else – the New River.
Indeed, the New River Settlement prospered for years, while only two businessmen from Chicago, Hugh Taylor Birch and his friend John McGregor Adams, secured beach property. It wasn’t for commerce, but for their own pleasure.
The dueling visions are captured in enduring statements, one from Birch, and another from filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who came in Fort Lauderdale’s early days to make the film The Idol Dancer.
Griffith told a gathering of locals: “There may be more beautiful rivers in the world than the New River that runs through your city, but if so I have never seen it.”
When Birch, an attorney who was also an authority on geology and ornithology, first saw the luscious dunes and sea, he called it “the most beautiful spot I laid my eyes on in all my travels.”
Somewhere along the line Birch and Adams had a falling out. They ended up dividing up three miles of beachfront, with Birch taking the north (and bequeathing it for the 180-acre park named after him). Adams took the part to the south, building a private hunting lodge.
After Adams passed on in 1904, politician Thomas E. Watson bought the hunting lodge and opened it up for paying guests.
The next chapter on the beach was significant – the opening of the very first beach hotel. It came with the sale of the lodge property in 1914 to David Alexander, who retooled the lodge and named it the Las Olas Inn.
A Californian, Alexander came here on a visit and realized the beaches, then deserted, were as beautiful as anything on the Pacific Coast. So he also purchased 32 acres of beachfront property, platted the land and called it Las Olas-By-The-Sea.
A stroke of genius by Alexander is credited with preserving what in the future would become our greatest attraction.
He established a street setback a good distance from the beach and, most importantly, permitted no structures be built east of the road. That has held until today. One need only survey the thirty or so miles north, where giant hotels and condos monopolize the beaches.
Now all that was needed was a bridge to the beach. Progress was slow. Private investment wasn’t near enough. It took a countywide bond issue to build vital bridges to the beaches in Broward.
The Las Olas bridge opened in 1917 with much fanfare and a parade of vehicles making the crossing. Now the Las Olas Inn could fill its guestrooms.
Shortly after, Alexander sold his property to G.E. Henry, the man who discovered that the surf annoyed him. Henry had built the downtown Broward Hotel, the first three-story building in the city. (It was there that D.W. Griffith and his crew stayed during filming). After Henry discovered that what soothed so many had the opposite effect on him, he moved, and rented out the Inn.
The property exchanged hands several times until the 1926 hurricane. The structure somehow survived, but with downtown devastated, it went into foreclosure.
However the next operator, George Simon Jr., ran it successfully for 22 years. In 1939, according to archival records, the Las Olas Inn advertised rooms with “an ocean view facing east and a view of the ‘New River Sound on the West.’”
And there was this (surely for winter guests): “Dining was available on the veranda.”
By this time other hotels were also springing up, most famously the three-story, 60-room Lauderdale Beach Hotel. The architect was Roy France, designer of a string of Art Deco masterpieces, including Miami Beach’s National and Edgewater Beach Hotels.
The Las Olas Inn and its three acres went through several more owners and iterations until 1955, when it was demolished to make way for a succession of new places. A 243-room Holiday Inn opened in 1967, later becoming home to the Button Lounge.
That’s a long way from 1925, when a tent colony was set up around the Las Olas Inn. Twenty-five tents were advertised as “ventilated and luxurious.” They even offered showers and bathtubs.
Somehow, in view of what we have today, vacationing in a tent by the sea, with the crescendo of the surf, the ocean breezes and the bright starry skies at night, seems wonderfully inviting.