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Fontainebleau Hotel’s Extreme Makeover

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Photo: Paul Costello

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.

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