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Restored Fontainebleau Graces Miami Beach
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Restored Fontainebleau Graces Miami Beach

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Restored Fontainebleau Graces Miami Beach

Restored Fontainebleau Graces Miami Beach
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The Fontainebleau Hotel was once the height of Miami Beach sophistication. Now the hotel will reopen after a $1 billion renovation, but it's not clear the Florida economy is ready to support it.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Miami Beach this weekend, an icon will be reborn. In the 1950s and '60s, the Fontainebleau Hotel was the resort in South Florida. You might catch a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis there. More recently, the Fontainebleau offered luxury, but it lost much of its luster, until now. As NPR's Greg Allen tells us, new owners have spent $1.5 billion restoring the Fontainebleau to its former glory.

GREG ALLEN: Even if you've never been to Miami Beach, you may know the Fontainebleau from the James Bond film "Goldfinger."

(Soundbite of opening scene of movie "Goldfinger")

ALLEN: An aerial shot of the crescent-shaped high-rise opens the film, with the camera panning in on the pool area - Miami Beach luxury, circa 1964. It's the place where Bond first meets his arch nemesis. It's also where Jerry Lewis cavorted in "The Bellboy."

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Unidentified Announcer: Filmed completely in fabulous Miami, where bellboy Jerry turns the fantastic Fontainebleau Hotel into his own private madhouse.

ALLEN: The Rat Pack, Judy Garland, and JFK all stayed here. It was big, flamboyant, and designed by an architect whose name became nearly synonymous with Miami Beach, Morris Lapidus. Lapidus died in 2001. In a 1991 interview with NPR, he talked about the hotel's eye catching interior design.

(Soundbite of 1991 NPR interview with Morris Lapidus)

Mr. MORRIS LAPIDUS (Architect): I used every trick in the book, dramatic lighting, a huge, curving stairway which was going nowhere at all. People felt like they were on stage.

ALLEN: Lapidus later designed other famous Miami Beach hotels, including the Eden Rock and the Americana which was torn down last year. Marianne Lamonaca, curator at Miami Beach's Wolfsonian Museum, says Lapidus almost singlehandedly created a new style for resort hotels.

Ms. MARIANNE LAMONACA (Assistant Director for Exhibitions and Curatorial Affairs, Wolfsonian Museum): In a way, I think of them almost as a precursor of the theme parks that we know today. You know, this large landscape which was beautifully manicured. And so, all of this was to build this sense of luxury and fantasy that people really were looking for in the era right after the war had ended.

ALLEN: As the years passed, the Fontainebleau's star dimmed a bit. It continued to operate mostly as a convention hotel. But then came a new owner. Since buying the Fontainebleau a few years back, Jeffrey Soffer has spent $1.5 billion building two new hotel condominium towers and doing a complete makeover of the original 1954 building. The new Fontainebleau opens for guests tomorrow night. Chief Operating Officer Howard Karawan says one area he's particularly proud of is the lobby.

Mr. HOWARD KARAWAN (COO, Fontainebleau Hotel): As you see as we are walking in, the old bowtie floor...

ALLEN: Right, so these are parquet tiles with the bowtie inserts.

Mr. KARAWAN: Right. And this, unfortunately, was in pretty deplorable condition.

ALLEN: Karawan says he judges hotels by their lobbies and truth to tell, the Fontainebleau's is stunning. It still features Lapidus' staircase to nowhere, plus elaborate crystal chandeliers and a high-tech bar and reception area. And that's just the lobby. There are also 1,500 rooms, 11 restaurants and lounges, and a series of pools, including an adults-only, European-style topless area. The guiding idea behind the renovations, Karawan says, is to build on Lapidus' original vision in creating a space that encourages people to mix.

Mr. KARAWAN: People want to participate, and they want to be the star. They want to be part of the show. They don't want to be disjointed and - disjointed from the action. And that's really what Morris was all about.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: Morris Lapidus, then, would no doubt have been pleased with the Fontainebleau's recent reopening celebration. The party included a Victoria Secret fashion show and, just like in the good old days, lots of Hollywood stars. It's all part of a strategy to polish and rebuild what Karawan says is one of the Fontainebleau's most valuable assets - its name.

Mr. KARAWAN: I don't think there is many brands in the world - maybe the Ritz in Paris, maybe the Plaza in New York - where there's a single standalone hotel, not a chain, that has such recognition. And in the resort industry, I don't think there's any single entity that has the recognition that the Fontainebleau has across the world.

ALLEN: It's a brand Fontainebleau management hopes to bring soon to other cities. Another Fontainebleau is under construction in Las Vegas. And there are plans to roll out more resort hotels carrying the brand over the next few years. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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