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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A grand Miami Beach hotel, and its history, might be torn down

The hotel, which played host to The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and John F. Kennedy, is shuttered and is likely to be demolished, to the shock of preservationists.

By Patricia Mazzei

The baby-faced Beatles spent nine sun-kissed days here in 1964, basking in the warm winter as thousands of young fans thronged to catch a glimpse of the four Liverpool lads enjoying a bit of freedom on the ocean shore.

They stayed at the grand Deauville Beach Resort on Collins Avenue, and it was their live “Ed Sullivan Show” broadcast to 70 million people from the hotel’s Napoleon Ballroom — after their debut show in New York City — that helped cement the Beatles’ extraordinary popularity in the United States, and the 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 and Frank Sinatra. The Deauville was unmistakable, greeting visitors with a dramatic porte-cochere fashioned of parabolic curves over the driveway entrance, a feature of its postwar-modernist architectural style. On the sign out front, a star dotted the letter “i” in its name. It looked like something out of “The Jetsons,” embodying the promise of the future.

Today, the Deauville is shuttered, enclosed by an ugly chain-link fence and No Trespassing signs. Soon, it is likely to be demolished, to the shock and disgust of preservationists, 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 saving trinkets from the building, which is pathetic,” Jack Finglass, outgoing chair of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board, said at a meeting last week. “This is an absolute horror.”

Miami Beach owes its iconic status in no small part to the preservation of its Art Deco district, known the world over for the string of pastel-colored boutique hotels with names such as The Colony and the Delano that line Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, respectively, in South Beach.

But it has not always been easy for preservationists to persuade residents and local officials elsewhere in South Florida — a relatively young metropolitan area, as far as major cities go, and one under constant reinvention — to invest in the upkeep 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 that rush to progress, people forget about what attracts us to this place, whether it’s the palm trees or the open sky and the low-rise feel.”

The Deauville’s owners shut down the hotel following an electrical fire in 2017. The city of Miami Beach took them to court, hoping to force repairs. But the owners indicated they did not have enough money from insurance to do the necessary work and so little changed, even after the city started imposing fines of $5,000 a day last year.

This month, the city recommended demolition after the owners filed an engineering report that found the building to be unsafe. Attention to the structural condition of older buildings, especially ones by the ocean, has grown since the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed in June in neighboring Surfside, killing 98 people.

Before its closure, the Deauville — built in 1957 and included later in a historic district that seeks to preserve an architectural style known as Miami Modern, or MiMo — was considered an economic engine for North Beach, which even now could use the foot traffic. The neighborhood is far less touristy than clubby South Beach or stately Mid-Beach, home of the famed Fontainebleau hotel.

What most troubles preservationists about the Deauville case is that a local ordinance intended to prevent something called “demolition by neglect” — the forced tear-down of an unkempt building — failed to protect the nearly 540-room hotel. Some accuse the city of not pushing hard enough to fine the Deauville’s owners or to get the courts to act sooner.

Many have accused the hotel owners of letting the building rot on purpose, to avoid making expensive repairs and be able to rebuild from scratch. The 4-acre property, valued some years ago at $100 million, is owned by a corporate entity registered to the Meruelo family, which runs other hotels and casinos and also works in construction.

Jose Chanfrau, a lawyer for the Meruelos, dismissed the notion that the owners intentionally let the building fall into disrepair after the fire and further damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.

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

For now, preservationists hope to slow down the likely demolition by asking the city to conduct its own engineering inspection. The city’s building official was granted access to the Deauville on Friday. (A hazmat suit was necessary as protection from the mold.) But activists want a more detailed review, thinking it may be possible to save the hotel’s Napoleon Ballroom if not the tower of hotel rooms. In the event of a total demolition, Miami Beach would be legally entitled to limit future construction to the Deauville’s same size.

Despite their talk of returning the hotel to its prime, the owners have made no commitments.

The angst over the Deauville’s fate comes at a time when preservationists have been prodding Miami Beach to do more to protect older single-family homes. Many older Beach homes have been razed to make way for massive new mansions, often constructed with boxy white concrete and glass.

“We have a ton of people coming in with big money buying perfectly good homes,” said Tanya Bhatt, a member of the Miami Beach Planning Board. “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 might impede homeowners from making improvements necessary to deal with one of Miami Beach’s most serious threats: rising sea levels caused by climate change.

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

It once belonged to the gangster Al Capone.

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