Fifty years ago, a chunk of prime waterfront on Belle Isle, just off the western shore of South Beach, was occupied by a two-story motor court called the Monterey Motel. Mr. and Mrs. Regular Joe would drive down with the kids on their annual winter pilgrimage, park their big American dream machine directly in front of the room, and gaze out through jalousie windows upon a sea of automotive flesh—a prelude to the blue serenity of Biscayne Bay. In the early 1960's, the Monterey was sold; the new owners added a three-story lobby-and-spa building, grassed over the concrete, and rechristened the property the Lido Spa Hotel.
For the next four decades, the Lido endured as a bastion of Catskills culture, a time-warp of handicrafts, chair-aerobics classes, and circle dances in the pool to the tune of "Hava Nagila." In the blank expanse of their evenings, widows took the air, chuckled at variety revues, and whirled gamely about the dance floor with elderly male host dancers. (These were the same ladies who, in the early days of South Beach, rocked on the porches of decrepit Art Deco hotels, chirping in the manner of distracted blackbirds at all the young people who were about to drive them out of their homes.) Two years ago, the Lido shuddered to a close, marking an end to the era when the old were actually welcomed in the vicinity of South Beach. The place stayed exactly the same until the end, making no concessions to the whims of fashion or taste; in the process, it had become the only truly unique hotel in Miami.
It's all about location, of course, and the Lido held on for so long partly because it was a refuge from the fray of South Beach. Apart from the hotel, Belle Isle has always been entirely residential. With its colorful collection of old waterfront cottages still defying the ravages of development, it is a landscape at peace with itself, stilled by water.
This little marzipan village—Miami as it used to be—was seemingly tailor-made for hotelier André Balazs, an archaeologist of ambience. Balazs is betting that his tribe of acolytes, the nomads of fashion who once craved noise (particularly the social riot-zone of South Beach), will now pay for quiet, the modern world's ultimate luxury. And so, on peaceful Belle Isle, within the hallowed grounds of the old Lido, he has unleashed his first spa hotel. The Standard, Miami riffs on the glories of the Lido's past with the inevitable dollop of irony: the future, to Balazs, is a hipster-holism theme park that juggles the spiritual and the pagan.
Balazs has always been adept at envisioning the next curl of the culture. His 1990 acquisition of L.A.'s Chateau Marmont spoke to a contemporary yearning for grace and old Hollywood glamour. The elegant minimalism of New York's Mercer hotel, opened in 1997, anticipated the monied march of SoHo. In 1998, the first Standard hotel, in West Hollywood, made the ballyhooed "cheap chic" trend actually cheap, with room rates starting at $95 a night. The hotel was wrought from a 1962 Sunset Strip institution called the Thunderbird Motel, a downtrodden joint that had become a last-chance retirement home; Balazs's team infused the place with pure Pop, in the form of blue Astroturf pool decks and Warhol flower-print curtains. Four years later, a second outpost arrived, in downtown Los Angeles, which was then virgin terrain for design hotels, as Belle Isle is now. The Standard Downtown took over the former Superior Oil headquarters, a 1956 landmark that Balazs filled with Verner Panton furniture and weekly bacchanals.
South Beach is presently riding its third wave of hype and glory as a resort town, and Balazs, having missed the first two epochs, has been digging in for the Era of Serious Money. His first move was to buy and renovate the Raleigh, L. Murray Dixon's 1940 Art Deco masterpiece on Collins Avenue. The Raleigh is Miami's version of the Chateau Marmont, and its Old Florida pageantry will be linked to the Standard's forward-thinking gestalt by a shuttle service. As with Sunset Boulevard, Miami Beach may yet become Balazsland.
The new Standard is rooted in the genius of the late architect Morris Lapidus, that visionary of excess—and accidental post-modernist—who defined Atomic Age opulence 51 years ago with the Fontainebleau. Lapidus also put his trademark baroque spin on the façade of the Lido, a confection of gold grille panels and tiny sea-foamgreen ceramic tiles with the good name of the hotel writ large in jaunty yellow neon. Because the building is a protected icon, the Lido lettering remains intact, though the neon has been removed; the customary upside-down STANDARD sign is tucked discreetly above it on the roof.
Ironically, Lapidus wound up spending his last bitter days a few hundred feet away, in a 1961 building of his own design. At 97, living among his Lucite chairs, cowhide bar, and Pegasus sculptures, within earshot of the social director's endless announcements over the Lido P.A. ("Attention Lido Spa! It's time for the Aqua Follies!"), Lapidus was still railing about the nerve of Miami's vulgarians. Sadly, one of his last clients was a local Fuddruckers—yet another part of the chain juggernaut that has been transforming South Beach into Anywhere, U.S.A.