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Fontainebleau Hotel’s Extreme Makeover

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Photo: Paul Costello

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.

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