Woggles and Cheese Holes, The History of Miami Beach's Hotels

. October 14, 2008

By Douglas Hanks III, The Miami Herald

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

MAIMI, FL, December 8, 2005. Carl Fisher helped transform Miami Beach from an isolated swamp to a thriving resort city. But he wasn't a big fan of the ocean.

When the industrialist scouted sites for his Flamingo Hotel, Fisher ruled out the island's ample beachfront. A yachtsman, Fisher saw the placid Biscayne Bay as the perfect venue for boat races, and for attracting the wealthy, refined traveler who liked to watch them.

And so Miami Beach's first huge hotel -- 11 stories tall, with a lighted dome that changed colors throughout the evening -- opened in 1920 not on prime oceanfront but on the western end of 15th Street.

Fisher's waterfront priorities give a taste of how much Miami Beach's hotel industry changed in the eight decades since the Flamingo's first guests shelled out their $15 for a night's stay. Veteran Miami journalist Howard Kleinberg charts the evolution in a new book, Woggles and Cheese Holes, The History of Miami Beach's Hotels.

Commissioned by the hotel industry's largest local trade group, the 124-page book recounts a familiar story of Miami Beach's building booms and lean times, and of developers taking big bets and sometimes coming up disastrously short.

The title comes from the Beach's most famous and controversial hotel designer: Morris Lapidus, the architect of such iconic resorts as Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, and the Americana in Bal Harbour.

For the San Souci lobby, Lapidus wanted curving carpet shaped like a "woggle" and columns coming out of holes in the ceiling and floor like cheese holes.

Those kinds of flourishes charmed the traveling public but often won scorn from architectural elites. Frank Lloyd Wright once compared the Fontainebleau to an anthill, and San Francisco architect Robert Anshen called the Americana a "monument to vulgarity."

Today, many scholars view Lapidus, who died four years ago at age 98, as one of the most important architects associated with Miami Beach.

"The critics died," Kleinberg said in an interview Wednesday. "He didn't."

The Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association hired the former Miami News editor to write the book, a follow-up to an earlier history of Miami Beach itself. Proceeds will return to the association, which receives a $225,000 annual subsidy from Miami-Dade tourist taxes.

Stuart Blumberg, president of the association, said he championed the book's publication to commemorate his 50 years in Miami Beach's hotel industry. Blumberg worked as a bellhop at the Americana while a college student and went on to executive positions at the Hilton Plaza and the Fontainebleau before running the Beach's chamber of commerce and hotel association.

"I want to leave a legacy," Blumberg said.

Kleinberg writes approvingly of Blumberg for nearly two pages, but the book also notes Blumberg did not support early efforts at protecting the city's Art Deco architecture -- a style credited with helping spark South Beach's 1980s revival.

OTHER TIDBITS

Among the book's other tidbits:

--In the 1910s, hotel guests could open up two of Miami's daily papers and read about themselves. Both the Herald and the Metropolis printed lists of guests checking into Miami's Royal Palm, Halycon and Seminole hotels. But the first Miami Beach hotels weren't considered posh enough to merit similar coverage.

--Lapidus so despised Fontainebleau owner Ben Novack that the architect dropped the 'c' from Novack's name in both of his autobiographies. Novack and Lapidus both claimed credit for the Fontainebleau's distinctive curved exterior.

--Though a few hotels promoted themselves as open to "Gentiles Only" through the 1950s, Kleinberg said he could find no evidence that any hotel posted a "No Jews, No Dogs" sign. The slogan has been cited as Exhibit A of the lodging industry's anti-Semitic past.

--Before "Art Deco" took hold, the nautically inspired architecture that characterized Miami Beach hotels built during the 1930s was known as "Zig Zag," "Streamline," and "Depression Moderne."

--As recently as 1971, a critic dismissed Art Deco as resembling "stranded ferry boats." Delano designer Philipe Starck caused a stir in the 1990s when he called South Beach's Art Deco district "a pink fluorescent machine to pick money from tourists."

--In 1968, Harry Singer ended his franchise agreement at the Hilton Plaza. He changed the name to the Hotel Plaza so he wouldn't have to throw out the china and towels bearing the HP monogram.

The book sells for $20 in hardback and $15 in paperback. For more information, call 305-531-3553.

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To see more of The Miami Herald -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Miami Herald

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