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Cover Story - February 2009

The Return of the Fontainebleau

Miami Beach’s Landmark Hotel Reopens After $1 Billion Renovation, Expansion

By Debra Wood

The landmark Miami Beach hotel, the Fontainebleau, once synonymous with panache and frequented by Frank Sinatra, Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, has reopened after an extensive renovation and again welcomed celebrities.

The Return of the Fontainebleau
Photo courtesy Fontainebleau Miami Beach
Paris Hilton, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson attended a recent reopening party at the resort.

“It’s a different glamour today, but it still has the intensity and freshness of the 1950s with a 2008 look,” says Donald F. Wolfe, a partner with Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates of Miami, the designer of the $1 billion renovation and expansion project for Fontainebleau Resorts of Miami Beach and Nakheel Hotels & Resorts of the United Arab Emirates. The owners did not respond to requests for information about the project.

“The goal was to update and preserve an iconic piece of architecture on Miami Beach,” says Rick Lee, senior vice president of HKS, the architect of record. “The owners wanted an up-to-date piece of architecture that would revitalize the property and at the same time respect its historical significance. That was a challenge.”

City of Miami Beach officials have praised the result.

“We’re glad to see it reopen,” says William Cary, who is the assistant planning director for the city and was significantly involved with the project’s design and final construction. “It has quite a sensational impact when you walk into the space.”

Senior city planner Debbie Tackett, calls it spectacular.

“The new and old work well together,” she says.

Recreating a piece of history

The Morris Lapidus-designed, crescent-shaped, Miami Modern-style hotel opened in 1954. It ushered in an era of pizzazz as celebrities and those who wanted to rub shoulders or say they stayed at the same hotel flocked to the oceanfront resort.

“[Lapidus’s] purpose in life was to create a sense of delight for the users of his architecture,” Cary says.

The Fontainebleau gradually lost its luster as other, more modern lodging properties and restored boutique hotels entered the market. Over the years, many changes to the property occurred. The Versailles hotel tower and ballroom, designed by A. Herbert Mathes, was started about three years after the curved Chateau building opened, and the Versailles connected to the Lapidus structure, altering its original appearance. 

“When the Fontainebleau opened, the critics were not kind, and [Lapidus] was disturbed by the critiques,” Cary says. That led Lapidus to destroy almost all of the original drawings, plans and renderings.

The city had access to a poor photocopy of some plans. The team and city relied on old black-and-white photographs, speaking with people and examining the original fabric to determine how the property looked soon after it opened. For instance, pulling up carpeting allowed the team to trace out original walls and reception desks.

“When you put all of these things together, you get back closer to what was originally there, but I would refrain from calling it a detailed restoration,” Cary says. “In order to restore, you would have had to remove those later connections to the lobby.

“Basically, it was a matter of restoring elements that were in areas where they could be re-created and reinterpreting them in a more modern sense. Morris Lapidus always said, ‘I create my architecture for the people of my time.’ We felt it was truest to his vision to redefine his architecture.”

Cary says Lapidus felt preservation should be left to the people using the buildings.

The city’s historic preservation staff deemed several components of the original hotel as significant, including the stairway to nowhere and columns in the lobby. Some of the original tiles on those columns could not be repaired, so the team re-created the effect with new materials.

Most of Lapidus’ bowtie floor had been destroyed after hotelier Stephen Muss bought the property out of bankruptcy during the 1970s and put in escalators to a commercial floor below. The current renovators used a computer-generated plan to replicate the floor and install new tiles.

“Where we could, we tried to maintain the original, and where could not, we replicated it as best we could,” HKS’ Lee says.

State building codes required some modifications. Cary says that codes prevent any stairway to have openings between rails of more than 4-in. The marble-treaded “stairway to nowhere” had an open metal railing system with a hardwood rail.

“It was impossible to retain that the way it was,”’ Cary says. “We had to allow a system to be designed which installed vertical glass plates along the steps.”

Interior designer Jeffrey Beers International of New York returned the reception desk area to its original location. However, this time instead of wood, the panels behind it feature blue-grey mirror glass with a polished nickel frame offset from the wall.

In the sunken garden lobby, about three steps down from the main lobby and overlooking the ocean, the historic preservation board approved the introduction of an illuminated blue glass floor with fiber-optic lighting beneath it and an elegant polished-nickel and glass chandelier.

“It creates a dramatic effect,” Cary says. “Lapidus was about effect.”

In certain areas, the team expanded the property and replicated certain architectural elements, such as a waved-formed canopy above the doors from the lobby to the pool area, which had been altered more than two decades ago.

The team created a three-dimensional survey of the main and secondary ballrooms, the lobby and the nightclub areas using laser scanners to identify existing components. HKS imported that into its CAD system.

“Without that information, we would be guessing where specific walls were, unless we went out there and pulled a tape measure,” Lee says. “Even if we were to do that, we would not come up with an accurate CAD depiction of the space.”

The current design team, including structural engineer Walter P. Moore and Associates of Austin, Texas, contacted the original structural engineer, Jacques L. Clarke of the former Oboler & Clarke of North Miami Beach, to learn how he designed lateral bracing for the concrete-frame and block Chateau building.

“By today’s standards, some of the things he did were innovative,” Lee says.

The guest rooms

Crews gutted the upper floors and re-created 846 guest rooms and suites in the original two buildings—the Chateau and Versailles.

“I don’t know that many people want to relive the 1950s style,” Lee says. “They were updated to current thinking.”

Fontainebleau Resorts added 658 junior suites in two new all-suite towers, also designed by Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates. City officials reviewed all of the designs.

“The opening event and seeing the spaces being used again in a way they were originally intended to be used would have been a great thrill for Lapidus,” Cary says. “There is no other venue like it, not only in Miami Beach but, possibly, in South Florida. It redefines glamour.”

Useful sources:
Fontainebleau Resort

Team Box
Owner: Fontainebleau Resorts, Miami Beach, and Nakheel Hotels & Resorts, United Arab Emirates
Design Architect: Nichols Brosch Wurst Wolfe & Associates, Miami
Architect: HKS, Dallas
Interior Design: Jeffrey Beers International, New York
Structural Engineer: Walter P. Moore and Associates, Austin, Texas
Forensic Engineer: Wiss, Janney, Eltsner Associates, Northbrook, Ill.
Contractor: Turnberry Construction, Aventura, Fla.

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