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Preserving the Past While Looking to the Future at Miami Beach's National Hotel

On Collins Avenue where hotels huddle shoulder to shoulder, the 150-room National -- wedged between the high-tech Delano and the minimalist Sagamore -- stands out as a splendid example of Art Deco architecture and design. Miraculously spared the wrecker's ball during the 1970s when so many pre-war structures gave way before ruthless bulldozing, the tall white tower topped with a romantic cupola sets a standard other historic properties are now forced to meet.

"The status of this hotel is taken very seriously by the city," says Yaser Mohamad who is director of F&B and catering at the National. "The Landmarks Commission approves of the way it has been kept, not only the Art Deco features, but the 1960s and 1980s innovations as well."

We'd been here before, in 2003 when the hotel was still owned by the Kraus family who had purchased the property in the early 1990s, neglected but with all its essential elements intact. In two hotel-wide renovations, they restored the building into the masterpiece it once had been. Then several years ago, they sold it to the Drays, serious Art Deco collectors and connoisseurs, who share the Kraus' commitment to retaining its history and glamour.

The original materials and museum-quality artifacts that we so admired are still there: the swirling terrazzo floors, the chrome circular railing that lines the bar and stairway to the lower level, the mezzanine overlooking the lobby, the diamond shaped frosted-glass sconces and steel-banded mirrors, the circular glass and steel Art Moderne fixtures, the bar and desks of dark oak, the Martini Room with Cuban cigar paraphernalia that had so enchanted us the first time around. Of course, they were. As part of a landmarked property, elements like these could not be tampered with.

Nevertheless, change is in the making, starting with a hotel-wide project of room renovation. Those in the tower, which was built in 1939, will retain the Art Deco look, Yaser told us, but the "cabana rooms," those in the pair of low-rise buildings that line the 205-foot canal-like infinity swimming pool which begins below the dining terrace in the rear of the hotel and runs to the end of the property before the beach, will become Floridian-style getaways with hardwood floors, contemporary furnishings, and a riot of colorful fabrics. "These rooms are surrounded by gardens," Yaser said. "It's only natural they reflect the tropical look."

Change is also afoot in the dining room we remembered so well. Named Tamara after the Art Deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, the magnificent ceiling mosaic based on her painting “Girl with Gloves” still shimmers above. But  its menu now has a Mediterranean focus and a young, enthusiastic  American chef, Matt McDonald, whose experience -- he began his career at the age of 16 -- belies his youth. Matt's been at the National for only five months, and claims "We haven't started yet." Still he managed to put together an impressive array of dishes for our dinners from filet mignon with a mash made of white truffles, soup and vegetarian dishes to order, and excellent grilled salmon and snapper. "There is some of the best fish in the world in the Keys," he said. " I have a boat; I know the local fishermen. I call them and ask 'What are we catching today?' Miami is like a great grocery store making it possible to rely on ingredients that are local and fresh."       

Among Matt's plans are a tapas style menu for dinner, and bistro style menu for lunch, But he's taking his time. "You don't make decisions right away. You have to wait and see what's going on, what people want.

"But there'll definitely be a relaxed and fun environment," he adds, "a place where you don't need a tie."

That the National already is -- a relaxed and fun environment in a beautiful Art Deco landmark with the white sands of Miami Beach just on the other side of the fence.

Worth a second stay.

The National Hotel -- South Beach
1677 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, FL 33149

Phone:  305-532-2311

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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