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What's Happened to Miami?

It's not easy for a city to recover from a tragic event like the one that bloodied Ocean Drive in Miami's South Beach in July. With the violent death of designer Gianni Versace, the town lost one of the most visible architects of its remarkable renaissance, and the new Miami Beach seemed shaken, even betrayed—especially since the murder occurred in broad daylight on South Beach's most beautiful and most photographed street, in front of the palazzo that Versace had magically created from a pair of derelict buildings just two years earlier.

But if South Beach has lost one of its leading lights, it has not lost the enlightened spirit that Gianni Versace symbolized. This is a man who, long before it was fashionable, recognized the area's potential to become something more than another place in the sun. Happily, many people have come to share Versace's faith in the neighborhood—hoteliers, restaurateurs, developers, artists—and as the new season gets under way, South Beach is hardly falling apart. On the contrary, spurred on by the memory of the slain designer, the area is continuing to come together as a center of international style, art, and culture.

To witness the bold new South Beach, one need look no further than Ocean Drive. In spite of all those fickle folk who every year or so deem it no longer cool, South Beach's original strip of oceanfront is booming. On the northern end of the drive, for example, two big-time condo complexes are rising, one designed by none other than the noted Michael Graves. And a few blocks to the south, the Tides hotel opened in May to the same kind of buzz that greeted the Delano in 1995. A symbol of Ocean Drive's new maturity, the Tides is the latest creation of recording industry mogul turned hotelier Chris Blackwell, who made his name in Miami Beach by transforming small Art Deco hotels (the Marlin, the Leslie, the Cavalier) into hip, young, and moderately priced getaway spots. In restoring the Tides, however, Blackwell has taken off in a decidedly grown-up direction.

For openers, Blackwell coaxed John Pringle, a dapper 72-year-old Jamaican hotelier, out of retirement to help with the Tides project. It was Pringle who turned the Caribbean into one of the world's toniest vacation spots in the early 1950's, when he founded the legendary cottage colony Round Hill on Jamaica's north shore. In its heyday, Round Hill—thanks to its lush setting and to Pringle's charisma—attracted a mix of Hollywood stars, New York society figures, and European royalty. If anybody could bring the proper expertise and the right touch of class to Blackwell's Tides, this was the man.

And so Pringle, who compares South Beach to the St.-Tropez of 30 years ago ("It's that amazing!"), spent much of the past year consulting with architects, decorators, and the Miami Design Preservation League; training the staff in the vagaries of dealing with the rich and well known; and even checking the padding in the furniture. Thanks to this attention to detail, guests at the Tides find some of South Beach's largest, quietest, and most comfortable bedrooms and suites (the hotel's original 112 rooms were combined and reconfigured to make 45), each with three phones, modem hookups, voice mail, super-soundproofed windows, sleek built-in hutches that serve as dressers, and big white bathrooms stocked with Aveda products.

"I don't want the place to get too piss-elegant," Pringle says, holding forth over dinner in the small chic dining room just off the Tides' terrazzo-tiled lobby. "I mean, look over there," he goes on, indicating two minimally clad gym bodies that have wandered into the lobby. "I want people to walk around like that—that's what makes Miami Miami."

Typical of Pringle's esoteric take on the South Beach resort experience are the slate chalkboards he has installed in the foyer of each guest room. Although these are a handy way for guests to communicate with the housekeeping staff, Pringle sees other possibilities: "You spent the night with someone, and you can leave a message saying, 'Darling, last night was fabulous!' " Another Pringle touch is the high-powered telescope in each room, which can be used by closet voyeurs to zero in on the beautiful people and the beautiful beach that lies just across Ocean Drive.

Even without the telescope, the views of the beach are captivating. At sunrise, if you raise your blackout curtain, you'll see the white sand bathed in pale-orange light, and you may be tempted to abandon your enormous bed, slip into a bathing suit, and hop over for an early-morning swim. From the water, Ocean Drive, with its line of pastel Art Deco buildings, is like nowhere else on earth.

Another glamorous symbol of the new, grown-up South Beach is the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. Originally Miami Beach's poshest shopping street—with such big-name department stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and I. Magnin, and first-run movie houses that frequently held glittering, Hollywood-style premieres—Lincoln Road in its heyday was known as the Fifth Avenue of the South. Like Miami Beach, the road hit the skids in the late 1960's, and by the early 1980's had become a no-man's-land of drug dealers, abandoned storefronts, and untended landscaping.

But after $17 million and two years of seemingly endless construction, which caused many locals to lose faith in the project, Lincoln Road—with its reflecting pools, fountains, and lush trees and plantings—has emerged from the makeover as one of the country's most beautiful promenades. Home to vibrant sidewalk cafés and trendy restaurants like actor Michael Caine's South Beach Brasserie, this ten-block-long, mainly car-free stretch of Miami Beach is also a vital cultural hub, with galleries, bookstores, theaters, South American TV and recording companies, the New World Symphony, and the Miami City Ballet all based here. It's also one of South Beach's liveliest people-watching scenes: a constant parade of bladers and bikers, models and muscle boys, street musicians, tango dancers, tots in high-tech strollers, dogs on retractable leashes, and senior citizens—some with walkers, others with Walkmen.

One senior citizen who's a big fan of the new road is the 95-year-old Miami über-architect Morris Lapidus, who frequently lunches here. Amazingly vigorous, both mentally and physically—no walker needed here, thank you very much—Lapidus was responsible for perking up Lincoln Road in the late 1950's, when he turned the thoroughfare, which at the time was losing business to newly built hotel shopping arcades, into a pedestrian mall. "A car never bought anything," he explains, ensconced on a gold divan in his appropriately opulent apartment overlooking Biscayne Bay in a Miami Beach building he designed in the 1960's.

Lapidus is most famous as the architect of what is still Miami Beach's best-known resort hotel, the Fontainebleau. When it made its debut in 1954, the great crescent-shaped high-rise—with its over-the-top columns, monster chandeliers, and staircases leading nowhere—was a much bigger hit with the public than with the architectural establishment, which lambasted it as the epitome of Miami Beach bad taste.

"I was a non-person," Lapidus says, looking back philosophically. Nonetheless, the former designer of store interiors went on to create many more hotels and apartment buildings, not only in Miami but in New York, the Caribbean, Africa, and Israel. He still consults on a variety of projects—and he's finally getting the critical recognition that eluded him for so long. Like the city that made him famous, Lapidus has rolled with the punches and survived.

Lapidus has plenty to say about the new Miami ("It's finally going to be a great resort city"). He approves of what French superstar designer Philippe Starck has done with hotelier Ian Schrager's Delano—especially since, as he says, "Starck used my ideas and carried them further. I oversized my furniture, but he oversized his ten times." On the other hand, Lapidus hates the controversial name-TK building that houses the China Grill restaurant at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. "At first I thought it would be great; now I say it's a monstrosity—that round glass-brick tower has no reason for being there."

One of Lapidus's favorite Miami-based architects is the 36-year-old Ecuadoran Carlos Zapata. The best example of his work can be found in another reborn Miami hotel: the 1939 Albion, which is owned and managed by the heirs of Steve Rubell, late partner of Ian Schrager in New York City's Morgans, Royalton, and Paramount hotels. Occupying an off-beach site on a still-unrenovated block of Lincoln Road, the six-story "nautical" Art Deco-style hotel is another symbol of Miami's ever-broadening personality: it's aimed at sophisticated travelers for whom sun and sea are not the prime focus.

Instead, the Albion seduces with sexy urban-tropic views, as well as a Zen garden of a "beach" at the rear of the property, overlooking a 60-foot-long aboveground pool from which you almost expect to see Esther Williams emerge. The three portholes along one side of the pool offer views of the swimmers to guests sitting in the garden.

In revamping the Albion, Zapata created a clean, minimalist look for the 110 guest rooms—fat white beds with blond headboards, asymmetrical armchairs, built-in aluminum bedside tables, slate-tiled bathrooms with aluminum basins. In the public rooms, the architect has been more adventurous, turning, for example, one wall of the lobby into a 500-square-foot "vertical pond" (as in waterfall). But his bar is the best—a sleek space with a 40-foot-long aluminum counter, surreal fiber-optic non-lighting booths divided by panels of thick glass set at odd angles. This cool new hangout was recently named the best new bar in Miami by the ultrahip New Times weekly newspaper.

On another front, as high rollers like the Rubells, Schrager, Blackwell, and others continue to bring in big-name architects to transform aging Art Deco properties into trendy new hotels, some purists are questioning the nature of these restorations. According to architectural writer Peter Whorisky, who writes a column for the Miami Herald, many in the preservation community feel that Philippe Starck, for example, went too far when he virtually gutted the Delano's original lobby to create his surreal stage set of fat columns and gauzy curtains for the hotel's glamorous clientele. "It comes down to thrills versus historic integrity," says Whorisky, who likes the Delano—"You walk in, and your jaw drops"—even though he feels Starck broke a few too many rules. "If architects ignore the rules," Whorisky says, "you end up with a soulless eclecticism, a place without an identity."

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