Rediscovering 1950s opulence Hotels: The Fontainebleau and Eden Roc in Miami Beach were monuments to excess four decades ago. The lavish homes to celebrities and movie sets are catching attention again with multimillion- dollar makeovers.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI BEACH -- They sit side by side, architectural paeans to the past, with ocean views. Built by the same man in the same era, the hotels hark back to a grander time, when staircases had sweep, floors were made of marble and chandeliers glittered like the night sky.

Morris Lapidus' Fontainebleau and Eden Roc were monuments to 1950s excess -- lavish, gaudy homes to celebrities and movie sets and postwar optimism. Now these landmark structures, having undergone multimillion-dollar makeovers, are getting renewed attention. And their architect, once scorned, is praised.

But each hotel is pursuing a different future, and in Miami Beach's competitive tourism market, no one is sure which approach will pay off.

The recently completed renovation at the Eden Roc, the smaller of the two hotels, pays homage to a bygone era. Back in the rooms are the kidney-shaped tables, curved sofas and flamboyant colors that recall the days when Elizabeth Taylor, Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra were guests.

The Fontainebleau -- a city unto itself -- has taken a corporate approach. Now managed by Hilton, the 1,206-room hotel is a convention center with few retro flairs. It's opted not to sell the past so much as the future with nearly 200,000 square feet of meeting space.

Both have attracted movies, music videos and celebrity visits. "The Bodyguard" with Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston was filmed at the Fontainebleau. Madonna posed for an album cover on a teal-colored bed in the penthouse of the Eden Roc.

But Lapidus makes clear which hotel he prefers. He was an unpaid consultant on the Eden Roc redesign and says: "The whole thing hangs together beautifully. It's colorful, attractive and today's design."

Of the Fontainebleau, he says: "It's very dreary. You come into this huge expanse of lobby. The carpet -- a big floral -- cheapens the whole thing. There are no seats. As for the rest of the place, it's nondescript. It doesn't reflect what I had originally."

What he had was a wondrous thing: a sweeping, curved structure built upon the remains of a 1920s landmark, the Harvey Firestone mansion. Opulence was the design motif of the huge hotel built beside the Atlantic Ocean. Staircases were created expressly to facilitate the grand entrances of glamorous women. Dresden figurines the size of small children stood guard in the coffee shop. And chandeliers of hand-blown Venetian glass shimmered in the ballrooms.

"I wasn't a purist," says Lapidus, 94. "I used French, Italian, anything that fit my requirement to create a sense of luxury and excitement."

Randall Robinson, preservation planner with the Miami Design Preservation League, says such eclecticism paid off.

"The Fontainebleau looms large in the history and lore of the city," he says. "It's like saying, 'Can you talk about the importance of the Empire State Building to New York City?' "

Architecture snubbed

While the public loved it -- the Miss Universe Pageant was telecast here and movies including the James Bond film "Goldfinger" were shot on location -- the architectural community wasn't impressed.

Lapidus' work was called "pornographic." The New York Times said the hotels were "by and large, less examples of architecture than an extension of the carnival midway in concrete, lighted up at night like the entrance to the Tunnel of Love."

There were personal clashes as well. Shortly after the Fontainebleau opened, the owners had a falling out. One partner bought property next door and commissioned Lapidus to build a competing hotel.

The rival Eden Roc opened in 1956 to similar fanfare, a playground to the stars with its supper clubs and cabanas.

The Fontainebleau struck back, building a 17-story tower -- dubbed "the spite wall" -- that cast a shadow over the Eden

Roc's swimming pool. Several lawsuits later, the Eden Roc created a second pool that captured the afternoon sun.

By the 1970s, the hotels -- along with Miami tourism -- were struggling. The Fontainebleau nearly went bankrupt before developer Stephen Muss came to its rescue. He renovated, signed over operations to the Hilton and turned the hotel into a convention success.

'A real balancing act'

In the '80s, the Eden Roc hit rock bottom. The property looked condemned when real estate mogul Lloyd Goldman and his sisters bought it for $14 million in 1994. Renovating the place cost nearly twice the purchase price.

"We wanted to respect the genius of the '50s, but we had to make it work in the '90s," says William Diamond, an interior designer involved in the work. "It was a real balancing act. The hotel is like a Cadillac Eldorado from 1958 -- somewhat gaudy, pretentious, but modern '50s design."

Besides updating the design, management had an image to make over. "Everybody had the perception of the old Eden Roc, the rundown Eden Roc," says Annette Francisco, public relations director of the hotel.

The success of South Beach two miles away -- with its pastel-hued art deco hotels -- has helped generate interest in these establishments. But last year was admittedly slow for the Eden Roc. During the winter, management began offering room rates based on the highest daily temperature. (Depending on the time of year, rooms at these hotels can range from $125 to $1,500 a night.) And there is talk, denied by the hotel, that the Goldmans are looking for a company to operate it.

While emulating the '50s, the Eden Roc has made plenty of concessions to the times -- adding a spa with mahogany lockers, rock-climbing and mud wraps by the beach. There's also a sports bar named and decorated for Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson.

But exactly how much of the past tourists want remains to be seen.

"As much as the '50s and '60s is fabulous, a lot of people look at it and say, 'It's old,' " says Lisa Cole, public relations manager for the Fontainebleau. "The Eden Roc is a beautiful property, but it's like the stepchild that sits there waiting for someone to notice it. It's clean. It's cute. It's kitschy, but it's a little quiet. We don't compete with them. It's a different league."

Robinson of the Preservation League believes there's room in Miami for both hotels.

"They represent a piece of Miami Beach that people are just starting to rediscover," he says. "This was a time when Miami Beach was the hottest resort in the world. There's a lot of colorful history to be mined."

That also means good things for Lapidus. He's now active on the lecture circuit, having written his autobiography, "Too Much Is Never Enough." A retrospective of his work, shown in Europe several years ago, described him as an architect of "happiness and delight."

"The greatest satisfaction is that I lived long enough to see this," he says. "It makes for a nice old age."

Pub Date: 7/28/97

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