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Curtiss, Glen Hammond (1878-1930) | University of Miami Finding Aids

Name: Curtiss, Glen Hammond (1878-1930)

Historical Note:

Glenn Hammond Curtiss was born in Hammondsport, New York, on May 21, 1878. Born in poverty, Curtiss would rise to international acclaim and become one of the nation’s wealthiest men. Curtiss’ career began in a bicycle shop, where he experimented with gasoline engines and their various applications. By the age of 25 he had become a manufacturer of motorcycles and one of America’s most renowned motorcycle racers. Curtiss established land speed records at Providence, Rhode Island in 1905 and Ormond Beach, Florida in 1907.

Curtiss’ experiments led him to invent engines for dirigibles. His reputation led Alexander Graham Bell to employ him to design engines for “lighter than air craft.” As a result of his work with Bell, he was appointed Director of Experiments fo the National Aerial Experiment Association.

Glenn Curtiss enjoyed developing engines and aircraft, and he loved flying them. In 1908 he entered a contest sponsored by Scientific American to fly one kilometer; in his airplane “June Bug,” Curtiss won the contest, the first officially recognized powered flight by man (the Wright Brothers’ flight in 1903 was not recognized for many years).

Curtiss developed an insatiable appetite for flying. He entered aerial races through the Northeast, and in 1910 set a record for long-distance flight when he became the first man to fly from Albany to New York City in under twenty-four hours; he won a prize of $10,000 from the New York World. Curtiss’ feat earned him extensive accolades, prizes, and honors, including the James Gordon Bennett Cup and the Prix de la Vitesse.

In 1910 he formed the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company to manufacture aircraft. During the course of his career Curtiss became a leading innovator in the advancement of aviation. Along with lifeboats, airboats, and speed boats. With Hugh Robinson, he also developed the first aircraft carrier for the Navy and the world’s first seaplane. Curtiss’ company invented the “Jenny,” the only United States combat aircraft to be used in World War I. Curtiss would go on to build the first “flying boats” to cross the Atlantic Ocean and circumnavigate the globe.

In 1916 Glenn Curtiss came to Miami to locate a flying school. He met James H. Bright, a cattle rancher from Missouri who owned 17,000 acres in western Dade County. Bright shared Curtiss’ interest in flying and donated land northwest of Miami for a flying field. Curtiss subsequently purchased controlling interest in Bright’s business and formed the Curtiss-Bright Ranch in 1917. Their holdings soon grew to 120,000 acres in western and northwestern Dade County. Curtiss’ aircraft business flourished during the First World War, netting him a fortune estimated at $32 million.

Glenn Curtiss, his wife, Lena Neff Curtiss, his mother, Lua Andrews Curtiss, and his mother-in-law, Jennie Neff, moved to South Florida in 1921. Curtiss and Bright, seeing the Florida Land Boom coming with post-war economic growth, drained their wetlands and prepared it for subdivision. Their first venture, Hialeah, was a great success. The new development featured large suburban lots and small estate acreages. Curtiss introduced Jai Alai from Cuba as a sales promotion for Hialeah; since then, the game has become popular in Florida.

Hialeah’s success prompted Curtiss and Bright to plan a new, upper middle-class community, located to the southwest of Hialeah, to compete with Coral Gables. In 1924, the community of Country Club Estates was formed. Its resort-oriented, Beaux-Arts city design featured Pueblo Revival architecture; it, too, was a successful venture. Today, Country Club Estates is known as Miami Springs.

Despite the profitability of the first two Curtiss-Bright developments, Glenn Curtiss had even more ambitious dreams for his real estate holdings. He envisioned a new city, north of Miami, located in a beautiful hammock known to the Seminole Indians as Opatishawockalocka. While developing Hialeah he had shortened the Seminole word to “Opa-Locka” for use as a street name. In January of 1929, Curtiss announced plans for Opa-Locka, but Bright convinced him to drop the scheme because of its cost.

As the Florida Land Boom reached its peak in 1925, Curtiss independently re-thought his dream city. He decided that his city needed not only perfect planning and beautiful design, but a unique architectural theme as well, something different from the Mediterranean style his friend George Merrick was using in Coral Gables, or from the Pueblo style employed in Country Club Estates.

Curtiss hired Clinton MacKenzie, who had worked in Coral Gables, as his town planner to lay out the development’s streets. Daniel E. Clune was hired as Opa-Locka’s chief engineer. Curtiss chose Bernhardt E. Muller of New York City for his chief architect. Curtiss’ mother had attended a Christian Science church in New York designed by Muller; she suggested to her son that Muller could provide some ideas for Opa-Locka.

Muller, after reading a copy of The One Thousand and One Tlaes of Arabian Nights, proposed that Opa-Locka become a fantasy city that would translate the stories of the Tales into architectural expression of literature. Muller wired Curtiss about his concept of a city based on the Arabian Nights. Curtiss had the architect come to Opa-Locka to discuss the possibility of a community planned with the orient in mind. Curtiss was fascinated with Muller’s ideas and chose the Moorish Revival style of architecture for his new project.

In December 1925, the Opa-Locka Company was formed, with Curtiss holding most of the stock, and street construction began. The development was announced on January 14, 1926, and lot sales began immediately. As promotions for Opa-Locka, Curtiss introduced the game of “Archery Golf,” which combined both archery and golfing skills. Curtiss soon developed one of Florida’s most extensive recreational package of amenities, including an eighteen hold golf course, parks, Dade County’s first zoo, a pool with aquatic shoes, a flying field with aerial rodeas, stables, a nature preserve, and an observation tower. He also persuaded the Seaboard Air Lien Rail Road to build its tracks and station through the new town, providing the railroad’s first station north of Miami and commuter service for the town’s residents.

Glenn Curtiss was described as a silent and taciturn man, always courteous but conversant only to express an idea. He had no formal religious faith, believing simply in goodness, honesty, and decency. He disdained alcohol and tobacco for health reasons. Most of all, Glenn Curtiss was known as a humanitarian. He organized relief efforts for residents in Opa-Locka, Hialeah, and Country Club Estates after the hurricane in 1926. Curtiss also poured large sums of his personal fortune into Opa-Locka, even after the land rush had ended, in order to keep his city thriving while other developments in the Miami area fell to bankruptcy.

In 1927 Curtiss put plans to expand Opa-Locka on hold until the economy improved. Nevertheless, he envisioned small sections of the city to be done in various architectural styles, including Egyptian, Chinese, and English Tudor sections. These plans were never to have been realized, however, as the national economy worsened. Curtiss Lost millions in the stock market crash in 1929; consequently, he discontinued his land ventures although he and his family were financially secure.

Glenn H. Curtiss died suddenly of a stroke in a Buffalo, New York Hospital on July 23, 1930, thus putting to an end his grand “Dream of Araby” for Opa-Locka.

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