Fontainebleau Hotel’s Extreme Makeover
Published: June 2009
By Tom Austin
A half-century after its Rat Pack heyday, an icon of Miami Beach—the newly buffed and expanded Fontainebleau—is swinging again.
On an evening of deranged opulence in Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau—the iconic hotel that heralded a new order of glamour when it opened in 1954 with such guests as Walter Winchell and the mayor of Fontainebleau, France—is relaunching itself with the cheesecake semiotics of a Victoria’s Secret fashion show (broadcast last December on CBS). At a hotel where women once dressed for dinner in furs and diamonds, Heidi Klum struts a runway in bra, panties, and three-foot-tall wings, sashaying past Usher, who’s doing a post–Sammy Davis Jr. number in a bowler hat and vest.
The following evening, Mariah Carey and Terrence Howard perform for a crowd that includes Kate Hudson, Martha Stewart, and
Gwyneth Paltrow. George Hamilton and Deborah Harry greet one another as if they’re long-lost friends in the great American fame club. The $10 million opening weekend wraps up with Miami Beach boy (and Rush Hour director) Brett Ratner helping to install the Fontainebleau’s first mezuzah, at the front entrance, accomplished with a local rabbi given to a celebrity clientele.
The opening festivities and the hotel itself are as close to the overloaded social gestalt of Las Vegas as Miami has ever come. As it happens, the Fontainebleau was acquired in 2005 by Miami developer Jeffrey Soffer, who’s also responsible for the 3,800-room Fontainebleau casino hotel in Las Vegas, scheduled to open later this year. Soffer dropped a cool billion dollars on the Miami Beach Fontainebleau, and the hotel, like Vegas itself, is a mix of low party culture (pounding house music, bouncers, and velvet ropes guarding the lobby on weekends) and high art, beginning with an exquisite James Turrell light sculpture behind the reservations desk. Everything is infused with glitz—constantly changing colored lights under the floor of the Bleau Bar in the lobby, spectacular chandeliers created by artist Ai Weiwei—and sex: the Fontainebleau’s campaign of Vegas-like ads with nearly nude models in poses of sensual abandonment is carried out in real life throughout the property, with topless sunbathing and the like.
The new LIV nightclub—situated within the former La Ronde supper club, where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack would dazzle all the high rollers back in the day—is an obvious nod to the wayward-starlet slice of the nightlife market, and the Fontainebleau is playing that game with lots of money and celebrity wranglers. South Beach has been a Florida outpost of Vegas for years—and many hotels have become free-form nightclubs—but the Fontainebleau has used its power to orchestrate that something-is-about-to-break-loose illusion of Sin City: Paris Hilton, assorted young models, and controversial Bill Clinton confidante Ron Burkle making a splash in LIV; Jay-Z and Beyoncé suddenly turning up in Blade Sushi Bar for a Tory Burch dinner.
Curiously, the iconography of the long-dead Rat Pack is still the hotel’s most potent marketing lure; even Solo, the resort’s coffee and pastry shop, is decorated with black-and-white stills of Sinatra at the Fontainebleau. Miami Beach was home to the Rat Pack in its early days as well as a slew of illegal gambling clubs, and the Fontainebleau invented the modern Las Vegas theme-park-à-go-go resort hotel model. Steve Wynn spent time there in the 1950’s, when his hotel-as-theater concept began percolating, and places like Caesars Palace obviously learned from the big showroom, curved walls, and thematic exuberance.
Fontainebleau Las Vegas, styled after—a long way after—the aesthetic of original Fontainebleau architect Morris Lapidus, brings it all full circle and has ratcheted up the Vegas sweepstakes. And Soffer has reeled in the ultimate Vegas whale, Nakheel (a real estate arm of Dubai World), which has bought a 50 percent share in the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach and, of
course, plans to open a Fontainebleau in Dubai. Ironically, the Delano, the hotel that launched South Beach’s second coming in 1995 and eclipsed the Fontainebleau overnight, is also opening an outpost in Dubai.
The Miami Fontainebleau, besides using fame to promote its agenda, has also made some subtler efforts in its neo-Vegas ambitions. Last September, according to reports in the Miami Herald, its owners quietly gave $30,000 to the Committee for Critical Challenges, formed by two developers who want to bring gambling to their proposed 25-acre Miami Worldcenter hotel and entertainment project, in a hardscrabble section of downtown. To that end, the committee has hired Roger Stone, the Republican political operative who once did work for Donald Trump’s casinos, to get an initiative together for a constitutional amendment in Florida to permit casino gambling. According to the initiative, gambling would be allowed at the Miami Worldcenter, in the city’s existing betting establishments, and at a Miami Beach hotel that has “over 800 lodging rooms.” Only the Fontainebleau meets the latter qualification. (According to hotel construction sources, the ballroom is poised to transform into a casino, as is the north tower.)
The drive for legalized gambling, deeply unpopular in Miami Beach, is nothing new. Ben Novack, who built the Fontainebleau, always pushed for it, and after he went bankrupt in 1977, he auctioned off Fontainebleau memorabilia—including an elaborate cigar box given to him by former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista—and tried to open a Fontainebleau casino in the Bahamas, as well as a Fontainebleau resort in Israel. In 1978, Miami Beach developer Steve Muss bought the Fontainebleau for $28 million, and over the years has lobbied repeatedly for gambling.
Before selling out in 2005, Muss, in a joint venture with Soffer, built two aesthetically unfortunate condo-hotel towers at the Fontainebleau, with apartments costing upwards of $2 million. After taking control, Soffer closed the hotel for renovations and transformed the Fontainebleau into a complete destination resort, with 10 swimming and dipping pools and 11 big-deal restaurants and lounges, including Alfred Portale’s Gotham Steak, the American debut of Alan Yau’s Hakkasan, and a rendition of New York’s highly regarded Scarpetta. The 1,504 guest rooms, designed by Wilson Associates, cost an estimated $570,000 apiece, after factoring in the overall acquisition and renovation expenditures. Largely devoid of whimsical references to the tropics, they’re done up in a sleek, international style of luxury, all opulent woods, white padded headboards, and customized iMacs.
Lapidus understood that a hotel lobby is a theater for amateur narcissists, and the new hotel’s primary interior designer, New York–based Jeffrey Beers, has retained some of Lapidus’s personal vagaries for the new age of Miami Beach society. Lapidus, who died in 2001 at the age of 98, was the kind of old Beach sport who favored bow ties, and he put black bow tie–shaped insets into the white marble floor throughout the lobby. This signature flourish has been re-created, and the hotel now includes the inevitable design punch lines: bow tie–shaped concrete pavers set in the grass and a swimming pool in the shape of a deconstructed bow tie. Some of Lapidus’s other Ziegfeld Follies Revisited touches have become more tenuous concepts. The celebrated “staircase to
nowhere,” which led from the lobby to the mezzanine and was designed for grand entrances in minks and gowns, now merely grants access to the hotel’s executive offices. Out by the pool area, the vaguely menacing bent ship’s prow of glass that is the new 40,000-square-foot Lapis Spa is Lapidus Lite, accomplished with too much money and too little artistry: Lapidus didn’t know from Mies van der Rohe (“less is more” was not his thing), but the spa building might have put him over the edge.
I first saw the Fontainebleau in the winter of 1970, as a dopey eighth grader shuffling along on family adventures. My family had just moved to Coral Gables from a working-class neighborhood in Virginia Beach, and that night, Dad cranked up the culture shock with a drive past the splendor of the local Mount Rushmore. None of us would ever have thought of actually stepping inside such a grand hotel. It was enough just to witness the magnificence of the façade. Then, as now, it’s impossible for me to look at the great sweeping arc of the main building, the “cheese holes” and outdoor wall sculptures of centaurs and bathing maidens, and not feel a jolt of delight.
The Fontainebleau defines Miami to the world, and it’s also a signpost to my own history here. In high school, we’d gape at the working girls and Damon Runyon characters in the Poodle Lounge, which originally featured Fragonard-inspired paintings with poodle faces on the subjects. In the 80’s, as a social reporter for the Miami Herald, I was transfixed by a tipsy Frank Sinatra throwing away the poetry of “One for My Baby” at a charity ball; 15 years later I watched Isaac Hayes and James Brown tear it up on stage at various music-award ceremonies.
From the start, the Fontainebleau was a shiny pinwheel of pop Miami Beach images: Goldfinger’s penthouse, Jackie Gleason’s variety show, Surfside 6, Jerry Lewis’s The Bellboy, Elvis Presley doing The Frank Sinatra Show in 1960 at the hotel and hanging out with the Rat Pack afterward, the gang strolling into the bar mitzvah of one Ira Hirsch for a drink and a chuckle. But below the surface of all that bright Miami froth was a noir undertone: Meyer Lansky walking over with his shih tzu from his apartment down the block and playing cards in his cabana; Sam Giancana’s daughter Bonnie having her wedding party at the hotel surrounded by reporters and FBI agents. Last October, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character Ace Rothstein in Casino, died of a heart attack in his Fontainebleau apartment. It makes perfect aesthetic sense that the Fontainebleau would also turn up in Scarface and The Sopranos.
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, just like now, Miami Beach was all about “hotel-of-the-year” hype, and the Fontainebleau’s early allure was steadily dimmed by a succession of fresher real estate stars—the Eden Roc, the Doral, the Americana. Ben Novack gave Lapidus the aesthetic courage to create a brilliant twist on an International Style building, sort of worker-housing-for-the-nouveau-riche in effect, with a demented French-provincial, Liberace-does–Boca Raton décor.
Most of the great Miami Beach hotels that came after the Fontainebleau were designed by Lapidus, and Novack apparently didn’t take kindly to his boy working for anyone else: when Harry Mufson, Novack’s former partner, hired Lapidus to design the adjacent Eden Roc in 1956, Lapidus was banned from the Fontainebleau and Novack built a “spite wall”: a pedestrian 14-story wing of rooms with a solid wall facing the Eden Roc, effectively casting the Eden Roc’s pool in eternal shadow. Then again, business is business: the Eden Roc now has its own 21-story tower, part of a $200 million makeover, and the two hotels have joined forces, lobbying together to lure conventions.
The Fontainebleau has always had an outsize American ambition, and from the beginning the hotel staked out the same mythic territory as the Plaza in New York. Even when most people have lost the habit of actually using the place, it’s a comfort to know that the Great Hotel of the city, the monolith built on dreams, is still there. No matter what happens, the Fontainebleau will always be a gleaming beacon to the possibilities of what Miami should be, not what it is.
4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, Fla.; 800/548-8886; fontainebleau.com; doubles from $369.