“The ’26 hurricane: refuting the myth that Hollywood was destroyed by that storm”

One of the defining moments in Hollywood, Florida history was the monster hurricane of September 17-18, 1926. Most of us who grew up in Hollywood before mid-century heard about the ’26 hurricane from family and friends who experienced it, and the Sun-Tattler and Miami and Fort Lauderdale papers generally ran stories about it every September. Virginia TenEick’s lively account of the hurricane and its aftermath is really the best and most factual since she was there at the time, and later became a reporter for the Miami Herald. Her book, History of Hollywood, is easily available at the Hollywood Historical Society ($10).
One of the reasons I’m writing about the ’26 hurricane now is to counter the belief that “Hollywood was flattened and blown away” by the storm. That was the first hysterical report in northern papers. It was quickly countered by Miami, Hollywood, and Fort Lauderdale, where the damage was extensive but the cities continued to function.  Nevertheless this “Hollywood in ruins” myth persists, so I will try to dispel it. My sources are TenEick, and first-hand accounts quoted from oral history transcripts that were gathered in 1976 by reporter Don Cuddy. He interviewed some three dozen Hollywood pioneers, people who had come to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s when it was young. Most of them recalled that shattering event. [Transcripts of the interviews may be read at the Hollywood Historical Society’s Research Center.]

Before the storm
All who experienced the ’26 storm made it clear that no one then in Hollywood had any comprehension about what a hurricane could do. Even those born in Florida were from other parts of the state or too young to have yet been in a hurricane. Typical of the optimistic Jazz Age, when they first got word of the storm, they weren’t able to take it seriously and went off without a care to various evening entertainments. For example, Myrtle Gray, who worked as a bookkeeper for J. W. Young as he was creating the future Port Everglades, said that during the day she was working in the office as usual, where no one even mentioned the coming storm. That evening she and her family went to a concert in the Circle, now Young Circle, to hear Caesar LaMonaca’s band. The she “went out on a date and went to a movie in Fort Lauderdale,” came home and went to bed.

Merle  J. Sneden, who had come down from Vermont, worked as an “office boy” in the Young company’s downtown Hollywood office, but by 1926 he was a machinist in the company’s garage. On that September 17 he went to Miami to pick up some parts for the company’s bus fleet, where he heard newsboys hollering “Hurricane! Hurricane!” But this meant nothing to him. Once home, he took his wife to the Broadwalk on the beach, but by then the sand was blowing past the Tangerine Tea Room there on Johnson Street, “enough to take the skin off your face,” so they too went home and went to bed. (The hurricane first began to strike around midnight.)

Another young man, William Riddlehoover, had only arrived in Hollywood in 1925 and had worked at various jobs including construction of the Beach Hotel, and driving for Young’s Homeseekers Realty Company. When he finished work the day of the 17th he saw that the entire front page of the Miami Daily News warned about a bad storm coming “in big black letters,” and that it would hit that night. This made everyone laugh, he said, since the day was sunny, and no one had heard about hurricanes. Some officials, however, decided to take some precautions and rounded up men, including Riddlehoover, to put sandbags around the Casino pool so waves wouldn’t come over the pool, just in case. That evening he went to a show at the Hippodrome, to see the dancing girls and other live acts. This was Brandon’s Hippodrome on North 18th Avenue (now U.S. 1) at Garfield Street. More about that later.

Virginia TenEick and her mother attended a symphony concert (with two grand pianos) at the Methodist Church at 18th Avenue and Van Buren Street. At the same time, she added, there was a party underway at the Beach Hotel. Hollywood’s social life was jumping that September of 1926.

If you are wondering what the city’s dynamic leader was doing about the hurricane, he wasn’t there. J. W. Young had gone north on business and did not even hear about the storm until it hit. He then literally had to lease a train to get back to Hollywood from New York City. (I write about Young’s activities at that time in my forthcoming biography, Joseph W. Young, Jr., and the City Beautiful. )

The storm.

There are many descriptions of the terror experienced by the unprepared people in Hollywood that long night as roofs blew off, cars and bathtubs flew overhead together with lethal sheets of corrugated iron roofing, and water from the Atlantic Ocean raced up Hollywood Boulevard and the area north of it, all the way to the FEC tracks. With the dawn the storm seemed to have abated and stunned survivors crept out to discover what had happened to them.  If you were here as recently as Wilma, you know what a mess they found. But that was only half of the storm, for they were in the eye, and less than half an hour later the other side hit, the storm lasting until afternoon.

Damage, specific

Communication in 1926 was not by TV and Twitter. The quickest method was the telegraph, but immediately after the storm the lines were down, so reporters beyond the reach of the storm apparently jumped to conclusions, printing in large headlines that southeast Florida was in ruins. All of Young’s city of Hollywood had been destroyed, it was said. But that is patently not true since there are some 1,000 structures dating from 1922 to 1926 still standing here some 86 years later. Damage was severe, still the majority of buildings erected by Young or to his specifications, including most of the hotels and apartment buildings, remained habitable.

TenEick wrote that her parents’ home at 1855 Monroe Street and their neighborhood had fared relatively well, and what she wrote about all of Hollywood is worth emphasizing:

          Whole residential areas in which frame cottages predominated, such as the northeast and northwest sections [my emphasis] had become huge fields of giant jackstraws. Homes in the Hollywood Central section [where she lived, now Parkside] had sustained minimum damage, but those in the Lakes section, sustaining some exterior damage, had been waist-deep in water. . . .The arcade at Beach hotel and the shops, both in the arcade and on the Broadwalk, were packed nearly to the first floor ceilings with sand. There was a great deal of broken glass along the hotel’s east side, but structurally it stood firm, and sheltered both pre-season guests and the townspeople who had stayed there for shelter after the celebration. [TenEick, History of Hollywood, pp. 265-66]

Here is the Hollywood Beach Hotel’s east facade, that is, the ocean side, after the 1926 hurricane. During the storm the Atlantic Ocean tidal surge swept through the ground level, filling it with sand to the ceiling Some of this sand has already been pushed back out. [Broward County Historical Commission, Graham Collection]

The west facade clearly was not seriously damaged, in fact awnings may be seen at many of the windows. (From the files of the Broward County Historical Commission.)

From a 1926 brochure put out by Young’s company before the hurricane, this shows the “Lounge area with its splendid dance floor.” Opposite the huge fireplace were “seaward-looking windows.” In the far corner at right, behind a pillar the $30,000 organ may be seen. It celebrated Sunday evening musicales. Sadly, this entire area would have been scoured out by sand from the Atlantic Ocean. [Brochure collection of the Hollywood Historical Society.]

Otherwise, the fortress-like hotel, which must have been an island in the swirling ocean during the hurricane, was restored and opened for visitors by December, 1926.

Now I’d like to emphasize that Virginia Elliott TenEick, who lived with her parents in today’s Parkside section, said this neighborhood received minimal damage. This area, roughly Washington to Harrison Streets and 16th to 21st Avenues is Young’s first residential area, where homes were built not only according to his preferred architectural styles but also according to some building code. It is also high ground, by south Florida standards, not prone to flooding. As a result this area was relatively hurricane-resistant, and remains so today as many of those houses and apartments built from 1922 to 1926 still stand unless demolished by man.

The Lakes section at that time was not very built up, and would have been from about Washington Street to Johnson Street and 15th to 9th Avenues. Homes in the Lakes section were also structurally sound, having also been built according to the Young company codes, but the flattening of the natural dunes along the beach had made it possible for the ocean to flood in, a lesson learned the hard way. But as TenEick implies, although the houses were flooded “waist-deep” the roofs and walls remained and these building were shortly renovated.

As TenEick says, the worst, near-total destruction, was in the northeast and northwest sections. That would be north of Hollywood Boulevard and east and west of the FEC/Dixie Highway. Young had developed the northwest section as the Little Ranches, the area from Washington to Johnson Streets and from the Dixie Highway to 28th Avenue. These were half-acre lots where technically people could have kitchen gardens though almost no one did. But since this was set aside for farming, the building codes apparently weren’t applied there and most of those who owned land there put up frame structures. (Nearly all of those residents worked for Young’ s companies.) Photos show that many of these small cottages were blown off their foundations, even rolled over, and there were casualties. But as this is the highest, driest ground in early Hollywood, there was no flooding.

By far, the worst casualties were in the northeast, largely the blocks from Johnson Street north to Dania, and from 21st to 15th Avenues. As it happens, much of this property didn’t belong to J. W. Young, so also was apparently not under any building codes. As North 18th Avenue had become the quick route from Dania to the Circle in downtown Hollywood it became known as the “East Dixie.” (It was not U.S. 1 until 1930-31.)  The 1926 Sanborn fire map shows that numerous cottage courts were established in these blocks, one- and two-room frame structures, ancestors of motels. And as no one seemed to mind, there were also colonies of newcomers living in tents. Another of those Cuddy interviewed was Robert Anderson, who moved with his mother and brother to Hollywood in 1924 where his mother built a home on Johnson Street just off 18th Avenue, and he attended Hollywood Central School. He described the area to the north of his home at that time as “campgrounds” put up by

“Tin Can tourists, they called them, [who] came down in Model T Fords with all sorts of personal belongings on the roofs, hoods and running boards…they came in faster than there were accommodations, so as a result there were campgrounds put up there…There was one up in the northern part of Hollywood, around Cleveland [Street] and 20th or 21st Avenue, if my memory calls, and I remember the tents that were every place, with one or two spigots, water spigots…[people] were sleeping in cars and makeshift buildings that were put up with building materials that were just put together with corrugated iron. A lot of the roofs were made of corrugated iron and very flimsy, no building construction or no building programs, and of course it was this type of construction that really took its toll when the ’26 storm came through. A lot of fatalities were because of this type of construction. The corrugated roof would blow off and spin through the air.”

Anderson also recalled that the water came from the ocean and rain combined, reaching a peak where he was at Johnson Street and 18th Avenue of “at least a foot and a half deep.”

As 18th Avenue had become the heavily traveled “East Dixie” it was lined with shops, restaurants, and the above-mentioned Brandon’s Hippodrome, where William Riddlehoover and others had gone that night of September 17, 1926 to watch dancing girls and other acts. This theater was in a Quonset-hut shaped building which is prominent in the photos of flattened North 18th Avenue. Presumably its remains were torn down, and Brandon took his popular shows elsewhere.

This road is not Hollywood Boulevard. It’s North 18th Avenue (now U.S. 1), then called the “East Dixie.” Not J. W. Young’s property, and structures were clearly not built to safe codes. Note the center facade with its curved arch over the entrance. This was the Yamato Inn, probably Hollywood’s first Asian restaurant. [Hollywood Historical Society, Gift of Ella Jo Stollberg]

This photo by Higby is labeled “Dixie Hollywood.” The note at the lower right reads “In this wreck lies the Garfield Theater 3 restaurants grocery store dry goods Big furniture store and several offices.” [Note: the Garfield Theater was a movie theater beside or behind Brandon’s Hippodrome. From the Hollywood Historical Society]

Here is a closer view of what surely was Brandon’s Hippodrome, at right. Also by Higby, and his caption reads “Looking up the Dixie, Hollywood Florida” [Hollywood Historical Society]

This series of photos by photographer Higby were widely circulated, leaving many to believe over the years that this was downtown Hollywood, the business section on Hollywood Boulevard. On the contrary, the majority of buildings on downtown Hollywood Boulevard built before 1926 remain standing today. So photos of “Hollywood destroyed” were largely of this area of North 18th Avenue.

Immediately afterwards

What happened after the storm, as the survivors began to move about? An interesting point made by TenEick is that while the National Guard arrived immediately to maintain order, the bulk of the humanitarian and cleanup activities were organized and carried out by Hollywood citizens under city and Young company executives, and members of the very active American Legion post (this was a mere eight years after the end of World War One and there were many veterans living in Hollywood). The hotels owned by Young and numerous others became temporary hospitals (Great Southern and Park View Hotels), “soup kitchens” (the Villa Hermosa and Hollywood Central School), and refuge for those left homeless (Beach Hotel, Hills Inn, Villa Hermosa, and other apartments). When the Red Cross workers arrived a day or so later, TenEick noted that they found the situation efficiently organized throughout the damaged city.

The Villa Hermosa, which was indeed beautiful, was owned by the Whitsons. In her oral history Edythe Whitson noted that it was brand new in 1926, with furnishings similar to those Young had in his Beach Hotel.  She added that it was “so well built that we suffered no damage at all except some water damage.” Red Cross workers were housed here in the Villa Hermosa, also bringing in people who had no other place to go. The Villa had a kitchen with gas stoves, and a guest at the time who was a retired restaurant owner. She “immediately

Postcard, Lobby of the Villa Hermosa, 1926

mustered everybody together and they set up a soup kitchen, and we fed 500 people a day…the food began coming in from elsewhere shortly after the storm.” Edythe’s husband Edwin was made distributor for food for that part of Broward County, she added. While the food sent to Hollywood was plentiful, it was a limited menu: “For the most part people were living on hams and big pots of cabbage boiling with those ham hocks and beans.” National Guardsmen were among the 500 fed daily at the Villa Hermosa.

Some of the Red Cross contingent arrived by train, and among them was a young Hollywood woman who had just begun her career in nursing, in Jacksonville, while her parents were living in Hollywood. This was Florence Lubinski Gassler. I’ll let her tell her own story:

The first word we had of the hurricane was that Hollywood, Miami and Fort Lauderdale were wiped out. Naturally I was worried about my parents. I was on the first Red Cross relief train out of Jacksonville. It was a long train carrying doctors,

nurses, supplies and food to come down to Miami. We had to go on to Miami. I couldn’t get off in Hollywood. “

[Caption under the image reads: First relief train to reach Miami over the FEC tracks. Sunday September 19th, 1926. 24 hours after the hurricane. From the files of the Broward County Historical Commission]

Gassler continued:

“I had to go to the Red Cross headquarters there at the McAllister Hotel…I asked the Red Cross if they would send me to Hollywood…They sent me up on a big Greyhound bus. I was the only passenger. They dropped me off at the Great Southern Hotel. I registered there then went to look for my parents and found they were all right [Her parents lived at 2344 Lee Street. Their house was one of those in the northwest section of Hollywood that survived the storm.]

She said that she “had registered for night duty which I did for three nights. It [the Great Southern Hotel] was really an emergency station. Most of the cases that came in were people in shock…” She was under the impression that all the nurses were brought in, but there were at least four resident Hollywood doctors, all of whom worked round the clock the week following the storm. They were Dr. Elbert McLaury, Dr. Harrison Walker, Dr. Luther Roper, and Dr. James Hartley. Gassler also mentioned June Pyne, who was a policewoman in 1926, who brought some of the patients to the hotel. Like many of the Red Cross workers nurse Gassler was a volunteer, down from her paid position in Jacksonville. After three days she had to return to Jacksonville, taking the same Red Cross train when it returned. Eventually she came back to settle in Hollywood.

There is another organization that went immediately to the assistance of victims of the ’26 hurricane, though I have never seen it mentioned. This is the Salvation Army. My mother, Lamora Gleason, was injured in the storm. She said later that it was the Salvation Army that were her “first responders” and she remained forever grateful.

A positive result

One positive result of the 1926 hurricane–and there were few–was the continual development of codes to protect structures during future storms. Dr. Hartley’s son James Hartley became an architect, and was interviewed by Cuddy in 1976, with much discussion about this issue. Hartley said that the South Florida Building Code is an outgrowth of the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes, developed specifically for this area over a period of years. During the ’26 hurricane, he said, “the greatest damage was caused by a house being de-roofed…and this was extremely devastating because once the roof is gone the house is just a shell that is vulnerable to disintegration…because there is nothing at the top to hold it steady.” As Virginia TenEick and Edythe Whitson both mentioned, the homes in the Central and Lakes sections remained relatively intact, other than rising water damage in the Lakes area. Hartley describes the typical construction of those homes as frame with stucco on the exterior. The stucco was applied on rough wood slats right over the 2×4 vertical studs, and plaster was applied to the inside. These houses held up relatively well, he said, “because they were a standard type of frame construction that had been used in northern areas for many years.” He added that “many of them are still in existence today.”

There was another type of local house that survived quite well, even though seemingly “flimsily built,” he said. These were frame houses without the stucco coating, primarily in the [then] black areas of Liberia and Hallandale. These, he said, literally bent with the wind, and being placed close together weathered the hurricane[s] very well, while rigid concrete block houses [elsewhere], “the roofs flew off and many of them disintegrated.” To this I would add that many of the black families in the south Broward area were from, or descended from Bahamians, and they may well have learned how to build frame structures to withstand hurricanes before they arrived in Florida.

I thought it would be interesting to mention the fate of sites and buildings mentioned here. After the storm, development of Port Everglades continued and the Port opened February 22, 1928. The Young company’s office on the Boulevard where Sneden worked was damaged and its second story was removed. The ground story still stands, for some years now the home of Morningstar’s Jewelers & Pawnbrokers.  The first Broadwalk was made of pink cement slabs, which the storm surge tossed around like autumn leaves. But of course there is another beautiful Broadwalk today. The Tangerine Tea Room was reduced to kindling, but the Casino just across Johnson Street from it survived. It was filled with sand–presumably not from the sand bags put around it, and the south wing was damaged and eventually removed, but the Olympic pool remained into the 1960s before it was closed.

Right foreground, remains of the Tangerine Tea Room. In the center, the Casino buildings and pool. Beyond at left, the Cavanaugh Apartments which still stand, and far left, the Beach Hotel. [Broward County Historical Commission.]

The Hollywood Beach Hotel, now the Ramada Hotel & Resort, still stands. The Methodist Church at 18th Avenue and Van Buren Street where Virginia TenEick and her mother attended a pre-storm concert, was severely damaged. The present church on that site is a later replacement. Hollywood’s quick link to the rest of the world, its telegraph service, was up and running by the afternoon of the 18th. TenEick’s parents’ home at 1855 Monroe Street is standing but this key monument of Hollywood’s history is in danger of being torn down. The American Legion have a permanent building on 21st Avenue. The Great Southern Hotel, another of Hollywood’s landmarks, is in grievous danger of being demolished. The Park View Hotel sadly was demolished and replaced by shops. The beautiful Villa Hermosa was demolished fairly recently. The handsome school building Young donated to the city suffered a fire some years ago and was demolished and replaced. Hills Inn, which became the long-time winter home of Riverside Military Academy, was demolished. Some of the frame homes in Liberia date to the early 1920s and are still in use.

Postscripts

As TenEick and others mentioned, the people of Hollywood organized themselves to restore their city, led by the very new city commission and by officers of Young’s companies. All able-bodied men were more or less drafted and assigned work. It seems they were also paid.

From the estate of Tony Mickelson

This was in my father’s papers. A young man recently out of the Navy, he survived the storm in one of those cement block houses that disintegrated around him. He was unhurt. He had been head of the Young company’s surveying parties, and apparently was named a foreman of a post-hurricane emergency crew of some sort.

Possibly second only to J. W. Young himself in the esteem of early Hollywood residents was a young, handsome band leader, Caesar LaMonaca. Years later people recalled with tears in their eyes how LaMonaca and his band started playing on the afternoon of the 18th. All day and into the night, wrote TenEick, they played, marching on Hollywood Boulevard.

They played several times a day at each of the emergency hospitals. They played concerts of light music in the park. They featured the stirring Sousa marches, tuneful operetta and musical comedy numbers and favorite ballads. The number best remembered as a morale lifter was “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” People could hope again.”

Bandleader Caesar LaMonaca is in the center.

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2 Responses to “The ’26 hurricane: refuting the myth that Hollywood was destroyed by that storm”

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