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Architecture of Joy: Morris Lapidus in Miami Beach

Updated on July 2, 2016
Morris Lapidus
Morris Lapidus

Few American cities have been as successful as Miami Beach at preserving their architectural heritage. We all share that iconic vision of neon-encrusted Deco hotels fronted by a brace of royal palms swaying in the breeze.
The Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board has done an admirable job of keeping the landmark symbols of 20s and 30s design at the forefront of their agenda.

But a newer genre of architecture and design faces a perilous future despite the efforts of the board and others who value this rapidly vanishing art form.

The Modern period from 1950-70 embodies that post-war, "life of leisure" mentality and one architect, more than any other, is responsible for solidifying this vision of Miami Modernism or MIMO.

The architect is Morris Lapidus (1902-2001). Haven't heard of him? That's not surprising. Most people haven't, but Lapidus designed more than 1000 buildings throughout the world including at least 46 in the Miami area.

His "big three" hotels on Miami Beach, The Fontainbleau (1954), Eden Roc (1955), and The Americana (1956), clearly defined his place at the forefront of MIMO design.

But buildings of this period are in a uniquely dangerous position. They're not quite old enough for most people to consider them treasures, yet they are old enough for many people to feel they are "outdated."

Lapidus buildings are being demolished at an alarming pace, replaced in many cases by boring tower hotels designed to maximize occupancy and profits.

Perhaps the most recent and glaring example of this is when, shortly after dawn on Sunday, November 18, 2007, The Americana (Sheraton Bal Harbour) was imploded to be replaced by a "ritzy" 350-unit condominium and new luxury hotel.

The Americana was once perhaps one of the most glamorous resorts in all of South Florida. It's famous visitors included Frank Sinatra and the "Rat Pack" who held court at the hotel's Carnival Supper Club. And even President John F. Kennedy slept there just days before his assassination in 1963. Likely the hotel's most memorable feature was a cylindrical glass atrium in the lobby containing tropical vegetation and two live alligators.

Even Lapidus' most famous landmarks, The Fontainbleau and Eden Roc are currently under "renovation" but this so often includes tactics more similar to destruction.

The current owners of Eden Roc recently sent a request to the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board "requesting a Certificate of Appropriateness for the partial demolition of the hotel’s existing balcony railings and the installation of new glass railings, and modifications to the existing pool deck and cabanas, including the construction of a new 3-story stair enclosure."

And in a 1993 tour of his masterpiece Fontainbleau, Lapidus told the Miami New Times: "I hate to go back into these places... The whole thing is different... They've wallpapered all these rosewood panels... Nothing surprises me any more."

But despite the dangers facing these structures, visitors to Miami Beach can still find glimpses of the Lapidus vision in some very unassuming places.

Two examples of this are the Lincoln Road Pedestrian Mall, and the Best Western Atlantic Beach Resort (formerly the Lucerne Hotel).

Walk into the lobby of the Best Western Atlantic Beach Resort and you are immediately transported into 1958. The reception desk is designed to look as if it were some enormous, futuristic piston set in place by a gigantic spring spiraling down from the ceiling.

To be sure most of the original decor had been replaced, and, as expected, not a single employee knew about the hotel's architect or it's important place among his historic works. But there are a few remnants of the original Lapidus design.
The signature cantilever balconies, seen from the pool or beachside, are a gleaming white emblem of an architectural era.

Though the cursive "Lucerne" sign from the hotel's streetside front is long gone, a search of the grounds will reveal a small white gate at the north side of the building that still bears a lovely cursive "L" and a matching one on the gate of the parking garage.

But perhaps the most accessible location in which to witness Lapidus' brilliant foresight is the Lincoln Road Pedestrian Mall.

In the 1940s Lincoln Road was a main street with elegant shops and cars parked up and down the road. It was known as "The Fifth Avenue of the South." But then many of the shops began to move to the Bal Harbor area leaving the former shopping district with a vacant feeling.

In 1959 Morris Lapidus presented his plan for an open-air, pedestrian mall, one of the first in America and a daring proposal. "A car never bought anything," Lapidus said in defense of his idea where six blocks were completely closed to automobile traffic.

The Lincoln Road Mall prospered for several years, but then saw more than 20 years of abuse and neglect. But a 1990's effort to restore the mall, respecting Lapidus' original concept was a thorough success and the mall is now a magnet for open-air shopping, dining, partying and people watching.

On a recent weekend in February we enjoyed the Spicy Cashew Chicken at Nexxt Cafe, Sampled a "Gelattaccino" at Gelateria Parmalat;, browsed the Sunday street market, stopped into one of the three (yes T-H-R-E-E) Starbucks, shopped for new frames at SEE Eyewear and window shopped at BCBG Max Azria, the largest in the state.

Morris would be elated.

In opposition to the traditional "Less is more" motto that preceded him, Lapidus replied no. "More is more!"

And luckily, some are beginning to see his work as the groundbreaking structures they are.

After recent outcry over the proposal to partially demolish the balconies of Eden Roc. The request was withdrawn by the applicant.

So go search out these treasures and experience them while you still can.


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