As he prepares to relaunch Gianni Versace's opulent mansion, food impresario Barton G. Weiss doesn't hide his distaste for past attempts to make it a South Beach hot spot.
``The concept never worked,'' Weiss said of the palazzo's run as a private club, restaurant and boutique hotel. ``They operated it like the Hugh Hefner party palace. And it's so not.''
Three months after signing a 10-year lease to take over a property tangled in the Scott Rothstein investment scandal, Weiss insists he can launch a more elegant and refined era at South Beach's most famous (and infamous) former residence.
And he's starting by linking the 20-room manse to another colorful name: his own.
``Barton G.'' now adorns a flag flying outside Versace's old third-floor bedroom, a suite with fresco ceilings, a nine-foot-wide bed and a sitting room for the expansive closet. Wrought-iron gates that mark the spot where the fashion icon was murdered 13 years ago bear a new logo in gold: The Villa by Barton G.
``I think my name will breed definite stability, definite quality,'' Weiss said over coffee and croissants served on Versace china, which his catering company, Barton G., bought years ago for an event. ``When I erased the name and made it the Villa by Barton G., it tells you what it is.''
`OVER THE TOP'
The strategy raises the stakes for Weiss, 53, who has made a career out of flamboyant food. His Barton G. The Restaurant in South Beach serves macaroni and cheese on a mousetrap. He used a live giraffe to open his new restaurant, Prelude, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
Now he's taking on a notoriously difficult entertainment spot -- where he was the caterer for a time -- and counting on the Barton G. cachet to make the difference.
``It's an over-the-top venue and he's an over-the-top caterer,'' said Jeff Lehman, former general manager of South Beach's National Hotel, where Weiss' company once ran catered events. ``Maybe it's a match made in heaven.''
Weiss has mostly preserved the business plan from the owner, Peter Loftin, who paid the Versace family $19 million in 2000 for the 1930 house dubbed Casa Casuarina. The property will continue operating as a 10-room hotel -- Versace's Roman-style suite rents for $5,200 a night -- small restaurant, and lavish event space.
But Weiss sees a more discerning approach for the former Versace vacation home.
When the 70-seat restaurant reopens Saturday night, it will do so without black-shirted attendants hawking menus to passerby on the sidewalk. Weiss also won't restart the private club that once sold $50,000 memberships, and he's canceled the $50 tours Loftin initiated in 2008.
The new customer base is ``not the wannabes,'' said Weiss' new food and beverage director, Steve Haas. ``It's the people who actually are.''
Butlers will tend to guests, who can expect custom-made floral arrangements and private breakfast and lunch service. The public will be invited in for afternoon English tea (about $30 a person, Weiss said) followed by a reservations-only policy for dinner. The menu includes a $48 rack of lamb with Greek yogurt jelly and a cream of white asparagus soup for $13.
Loftin, a telecommunications tycoon who owns the property through a company called Casa Casuarina LLC, closed the mansion in November, three months after announcing a new partnership with Fort Lauderdale lawyer Scott Rothstein. Rothstein's staff briefly took over operations as they prepared to bring in a nightclub and an upscale Italian restaurant.
Rothstein's involvement came amid signs of financial strain -- the property was hit with state and federal tax liens, and vendors sued to collect unpaid bills. Weiss had left as the property's caterer around 2006.
But the Rothstein revival fell apart once federal investigators charged him with running a $1 billion Ponzi scheme with unrelated investments.
Rothstein, now awaiting a prison sentence, saw his 10 percent interest in the property frozen as the government prepares to seize his assets, Loftin said Friday.
``The United States of America owns 9.99 percent of Casa Casuarina and I own the rest,'' Loftin wrote in an e-mail.
Loftin declined to be interviewed for this article, but he praised Weiss as the answer for a property he was ready to hand over. Loftin has a $25 million mortgage on the property.
``WOW it's been fun, however, it's now ready for the most brilliant flamboyant restaurateur to give what it deserves,'' Loftin wrote. ``No one does it like Barton.''
Loftin's Rothstein deal presents one hurdle for Weiss as he takes over the lavish property in a grueling economy. A Barton G. lawyer said Friday some catering clients were canceling events because of the Rothstein publicity. A federal judge Wednesday granted U.S. marshals permission to inspect all of Rothstein's properties, an order that included the former Versace property.
Weiss' lease requires him to pay all maintenance expenses, taxes, insurance and other improvements for a property where the submerged tile in the pool contains gold inlay and wooden steps lead to a rooftop observatory -- albeit one without a telescope and which no longer rotates with the stars.
FIXING IT UP
Weiss says he's already spent more than $1 million refurbishing the property, from a leaking roof to hand-cleaning the garden courtyard's marble tile.
``This floor, you would have never known it was a mosaic. It was just so grungy,'' Weiss said inside of the suite favored by Madonna when Versace entertained his celebrity friends. Golden heads of Roman gods look out from the chandelier, while Versace's signature Medusa head dominates the tile pattern on the floor.
Each room offers a stunning mix of color and opulence: showers with stone moldings and bronze doors, stained-glass windows overlooking Ocean Drive, walls covered by baroque frescoes of doe-eyed men and women.
Weiss said he's replaced much of the fabric, except for original Versace material, but the look remains true to what the fashion icon created when he transformed a ramshackle apartment building into a mansion.
``Sometimes you can overdo it,'' said Weiss, who worked as a costume designer in New York before moving to Miami in the late 1990s. But Versace ``always knew how to go to the edge, even with his clothing.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun