With the well-appointed Tides hotel solidly leading the way, the prodigal suntan capital is growing up

Todd Eberle

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."

The fact that this debate is going on at all shows how far Miami has come on the preservation department. Twenty years ago, people were concerned with saving the city's historic properties from demolition any way they could. Now they argue about the best way to save them. A current favorite among the preservation community is the Delano's next-door neighbor, the 160-room National, which has just undergone a very faithful restoration. The public rooms at the National evoke the glamour of 1940's Hollywood films. The lobby, with Deco railings and chandeliers, dark-wood paneling, and heavy club chairs looks like a first-class waiting room in some long-lost train station.

The setting is ultimately more Rosalind Russell than Madonna, however, and the question is whether the National will find an audience. As the debate continues, Whorisky, who moved to Miami from Cambridge, Massachusetts, a decade ago, is clear about one thing. "Right now Miami is the best possible place to be for an architect," he says. "Not to mention an architecture critic."

Thirty-five-year-old Whorisky is one of a whole new breed of bright young creative people who have been attracted to the possibilities offered by a resurgent South Beach. For New York­based artist Michelle Oka Doner, who grew up on the Beach in the 1950's and whose father was the city's mayor from 1957 to 1962, what is most exciting about her former hometown today is that it offers "the possibility of a great creative community." Comparing it to New York City's SoHo in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Doner, who now keeps an apartment in South Beach and has just done a half-mile-long bronze and terrazzo installation at the Miami International Airport called A Walk on the Beach, says Miami is attracting "a new layer of settlers who can still find a place to live at reasonable prices and find people on the same creative wave-length."

Doner also points out that Miami's "Latin-ness" is part of its appeal. "After 500 years, there is a real resurgence of Latin culture," she says. "And a lot of this is based in Miami. It has energy—it's still fertile, still connected to the earth. It's something we've lost in the rest of America, but Miami has it now." And happily, Miamians, not just Latinos but other ethnic groups as well, are embracing the city's Spanish past and present.

It was the stirrings of this fresh energy that struck 35-year-old actor-director John Rodaz when he was cast 10 years ago out of New York to appear in a Miami theater production. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami since the age of two, Rodaz had headed to New York right after high school to study theater at NYU. After graduating, he'd spent the next five years as a Manhattan-based actor. "I rediscovered my hometown," Rodaz says of his return to Miami. "The city was not the one I grew up in—it was going through changes, cultural changes—there was a pioneer feeling." Back in New York after the close of the show, Rodaz abandoned his dream of starting an off-off-Broadway theater in the East Village. Instead, he moved back to Miami and founded AREA, a lively little company based in a 50-seat storefront theater on Lincoln Road.

Today, Rodaz and his Ecuadoran wife, Maria—whom he met during a preview of AREA's first production, back in 1989—run one of the city's most successful small theaters. With some 50 productions behind it, AREA has offered audiences an eclectic mix of plays and playwrights—from established names like Sam Shephard, David Mamet, and Harold Pinter to rising talents like Jose Riviera, Loretto Greco, and Nicky Silver. AREA's productions—even Latin American plays—are done in English, although the group recently experimented with an English and a Spanish version of Peruvian playwright Mario Vargas Llasa's La Chunga.

Although AREA's audience tends to be young—ranging from 25 to 45 years of age—and largely made up of locals, Rodaz points out that he doesn't "cater to an audience . . . we just try to do work that is challenging to us—and we hope other people feel the same way. We're not careless, but we do like to take risks." For an artist, it's almost too good to be true. Indeed, according to Maria Banda-Rodaz, one of the biggest problems AREA faces is its success. "We're outgrowing our space," she says. "We're limited to plays with small casts—even five or six actors put a strain on our small stage and our small budgets." So AREA has begun to search for larger quarters. Where?"South Beach. Where else!"

Another South Beach cultural institution experiencing growing pains is the Bass Museum of Art, housed in a landmark Art Deco palazzo in a park not far from Lincoln Road. With a lavish permanent collection of old masters and Flemish tapestries, as well as a growing number of contemporary works (including many by Latin American artists), the museum also hosts as many as 10 temporary exhibitions each year.

"We are bursting at the seams," says Bass executive director Diane Camber, who was one of the original prime movers in the late 1970's battle to get South Beach's Art Deco district placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Mrs. Camber is smiling because the Bass is about to break ground for an $8 million addition that "will take us into the 21st century." Designed by heavyweight Japanese architect Irata Isosaki, the new structure will double the museum's space and will be followed by a second wing of equal size in the early 2000's.

For Camber, the runaway success of the Bass—especially with South Beach tourists, who now account for 60 to 70 percent of the museum's visitors—is particularly sweet, since it vindicates her initial faith in the city some two decades ago, when many officials thought the best way for Miami Beach to stage a comeback was to demolish the old Deco buildings and replace them with high-rise casino hotels. "We have shown that art and culture can draw tourists just as much as sun and fun," she says.

Meanwhile, two other South Beach museums, both less than two years old, are wooing visitors away from the beach. At Washington Avenue and Third Street, an enchanting Art Deco synagogue that was Miami Beach's first Jewish house of worship is now the Sanforld L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida. Inside this beautifully restored 1936 structure, the saga of Jewish life in Florida—from 1763 to the present—unfolds through well-mounted displays of historic religious objects, family heirlooms, and photos, newspaper clippings, and video clips. The museum is full of surprises.

In 1846, for instance, when Florida was admitted into the Union, its first senator was David Levy Yulee, who was also the first person of the Jewish faith to serve in the U.S. Congress. During the middle of the19th century, the Florida city of Fort Myers was named for a Jewish West Point graduate, Colonel Abraham Myers. And in 1885, the first Miss Florida, Mena Willam, was Jewish.

A few blocks north of the Ziff museum, at Washington Avenue and 10th Street, the imposing Wolfsonian museum takes over an exotic 1926 furniture warehouse inspired by the 16th-century library of Salamanca, in Spain. The Wolfsonian now showcases one of the world's most extensive collections—some 70,000 objects—of decorative, architectural, graphic, and propaganda art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pet project of millionaire, bon vivant, and patron of the arts Mitchell (Mickey) Wolfson Jr., the museum that bears his name scored a major hit with its inaugural exhibit, "The Arts of Reform and Persuasion 1885­1945," which focused on how design was used to carry messages—from selling products to promoting controversial ideas such as Nazism and communism. Lifting South Beach to a whole new level as an important exporter of culture, this award-winning exhibit is currently on an international tour that will end in Japan in the summer of the year 2000.

Indeed, Mickey Wolfson compares South Beach today to Paris at the end of the 19th century. "It had a booming economy and was very liberal," he says. "The city welcomed Argentines, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Romanians, Americans. . . . We have the same exiles here. They come from all over the world, and they are allowed to express themselves—in literature, architecture, painting, music, or food. There's something unique here, something ineffable that has to do with people not being judgmental. Rules were always meant to be broken in Miami."

No wonder Gianni Versace loved it.

  • Catch Albita's act. The soulful Cuban chanteuse performs most weekends in the restaurant Yuca's cabaret (501 Lincoln Rd.; 305/532-9822).
  • Sink a few at Putt Modernism, a pair of high-concept miniature golf courses with holes designed by artists Cindy Sherman, Michael Graves, Alison Saar, Jenny Holzer, and Sandy Skoglund (Artcenter South Florida, 1035­1037 Lincoln Rd.; Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave.; for information, call 305/673-7530).
  • Take a dip in the Raleigh Hotel's scalloped pool (1775 Collins Ave.; $15 for a swim). Widely considered the most beautiful pool in America when it made its debut in 1940, it still has few rivals.
  • Recharge with a café cubano (sweet espresso) or a cortadito (mini-cappuccino) at one of South Beach's many takeout windows (try the one at 11th Street and Collins Avenue).
  • Sign up for the Miami Design Preservation League's Magnificent Mid-Beach Walking Tour, which focuses on the city's 1950's and 1960's architecture (305/672-2014).
  • Visit Fairchild Tropical Garden, one of the world's best—very impressive, considering that Miami is not in the tropics (10901 Old Cutler Rd., Coral Gables; 305/667-1651).
By Gianni Versace and Richard Alleman