A large Miami Beach hotel and its history could be demolished

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MIAMI BEACH – The baby-faced Beatles spent nine sunny days in Miami Beach in 1964, basking in the winter heat as thousands of young fans thronged to catch a glimpse of the four Liverpool boys enjoying a bit freedom by the ocean.

They stayed at the grand Deauville Beach Resort on Collins Avenue, and it was their “Ed Sullivan Show” live broadcast to 70 million people from the hotel’s Napoleon Ballroom – after their first show in New York – that helped cement the extraordinary popularity of the Beatles in the United States and Deauville’s status as a South Florida cultural landmark.

In its heyday, the hotel hosted the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra. The Deauville was unmistakable, welcoming visitors with a dramatic porte-cochere fashioned in parabolic curves above the driveway entrance, a hallmark of its post-war modernist architectural style. On the front panel, a star punctuated the letter “i” of his name. It sounded like something out of “The Jetsons,” embodying the promise of the future.

Today, the Deauville is closed, surrounded by an ugly chain-link fence and signs prohibiting trespassing. Soon it is likely to be torn down, much to the chagrin of conservationists, who fear the hotel’s slow demise will set a troubling precedent in their efforts to protect South Florida’s history.

“We’re talking about salvaging trinkets from the building, which is pathetic,” Jack Finglass, the outgoing chairman of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board, said at a meeting last week. “It’s absolute horror.”

Miami Beach owes much of its iconic status to the preservation of its Art Deco District, known worldwide for the string of pastel-colored boutique hotels with names like the Colony and the Delano that line South Beach’s Ocean Drive. .

But it hasn’t always been easy for conservatives to persuade residents and local officials elsewhere in South Florida — a relatively young metropolitan area, as far as big cities go, and constantly reinventing itself — to invest. in the maintenance and protection of older structures. Always focused on the next big thing (Luxury Real Estate! Big Tech! Crypto!), the region often shows little appreciation for its past.

“South Florida is a place of pioneers,” said Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. “In this race for progress, people forget what draws us to this place, whether it’s the palm trees or the open skies and the low-rise feel.”

Deauville owners closed the hotel following an electrical fire in 2017. The city of Miami Beach sued them, hoping to force repairs. But the owners said they didn’t have enough insurance money to do the necessary work and so little has changed, even after the city began imposing fines of $5,000 a day. Last year.

This month, the city recommended demolition after the owners filed an engineering report concluding the building was unsafe. Attention to the structural condition of older buildings, particularly those by the ocean, has increased since the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium last June in nearby Surfside, killing 98 people.

Prior to its closure, the Deauville — built in 1957 and later included in a historic neighborhood that seeks to preserve an architectural style known as Miami Modern, or MiMo — was seen as an economic engine for North Beach, which could still use pedestrian traffic. The area is much less touristy than the clubby South Beach or the majestic Mid-Beach, home to the famous Fontainebleau Hotel.

That Deauville’s owners and city officials allowed the hotel to deteriorate to such an extent would seem anathema to city leaders who have cultivated Miami Beach as a place that cherishes the juxtaposition of old and new. But historic preservation has always been a challenge in an area awash with waves of newcomers and visiting residents, said Beth Dunlop, former architecture critic for the Miami Herald.

“Miami is a place where the land has always been more valuable than the building, and it’s still a place where people come to reinvent themselves,” she said. “And they think they can reinvent the place too.”

“There is no shared history,” she added, “and when you have no shared history and no shared culture, you have no shared commitment to maintaining that history or this culture.”

What troubles conservationists most about the Deauville case is that a local ordinance intended to prevent what is known as “negligent demolition” – the forced demolition of a neglected building – n failed to protect the hotel of nearly 540 rooms. Some accuse the city of not having insisted enough to fine the owners of Deauville or for justice to act sooner.

Many have accused the hotel owners of letting the building rot on purpose, to avoid costly repairs and to be able to rebuild from scratch. The four-acre property, valued a few years ago at $100 million, is owned by a corporation registered in the name of the Meruelo family, which operates other hotels and casinos and also works in construction.

Jose Chanfrau, a lawyer for the Meruelos, rejected the idea that the owners intentionally let the building fall into disrepair after the fire and other damage caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The owners spent “millions of dollars to save the hotel,” he said in a statement. “The property is committed to bringing Deauville back to its glory days.”

The hotel represented a time when South Florida’s population was exploding, said Ellen Uguccioni, trustee emeritus of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, attracting young families with disposable income to what was once considered a town of retirees.

In 1964, the Beatles seemed to be having such a good time that they stayed longer than in other American cities, frolicking in the waves and writing songs, according to Bob Kealing, a curator working on a book about the era. of the Beatles. in Florida.

“They could go waterskiing. They could go to nightclubs. They could discover the beaches,” he said. “They met Cassius Clay,” then a 22-year-old boxer at 5th Street Gym who would become known as Muhammad Ali.

Mr Kealing and three other Beatles aficionados have set up a group to try to save Deauville in the hope that the 60th anniversary of the visit can be commemorated there in February 2024.

“Now that sounds like a pipe dream,” Mr Kealing said with a deep sigh.

For now, conservators are hoping to slow the likely demolition by asking the city to conduct its own technical inspection. The city’s building manager was granted access to Deauville on Friday. (A hazmat suit was needed to protect against mold.) But campaigners want a more detailed examination, believing it might be possible to save the hotel’s Napoleon ballroom, if not the tower of the hotel’s bedrooms. ‘hotel. In the event of total demolition, Miami Beach would be legally entitled to limit future construction to the same size as Deauville.

Although they’ve talked about bringing the hotel back to its peak, the owners haven’t made any commitments.

The angst over Deauville’s fate comes at a time when conservationists are pushing Miami Beach to do more to protect older single-family homes. Many of the older beach houses have been razed to make way for massive new mansions, often built with white concrete and glass.

“We have a ton of people coming in with a lot of money to buy really good homes,” said Miami Beach Planning Board member Tanya K. Bhatt. “We had a house demolished because the owners claimed there was a cockroach infestation.”

Mayor Dan Gelber has resisted calls to save older homes, some dating back to the 1920s, in part because such protections could prevent homeowners from making the improvements needed to deal with one of the most serious threats. of Miami Beach: sea level rise caused by climate change.

But conservatives scored a victory on Tuesday: The preservation board moved closer to designating a 6,000-square-foot residence at 93 Palm Island that was built in 1922 as historic.

It was once owned by mobster Al Capone.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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