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 The Fontainebleau of Miami Beach - Fabulous Once More

Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

“When I bought the Fontainebleau out of bankruptcy 26 years ago, I turned the management over to Hilton. I’m a developer. And today, the thing that really turns me on as a developer is the construction of Fontainebleau II which will be called the Fontainebleau Tower. That, and the opening up of this venerable lobby.”

Master builder Steve Muss - click to enlarge
Master builder Steve Muss

We are talking to Steve Muss in the grandiose lobby of Miami Beach’s most famous hotel. He’s a big man, outspoken, with a barely concealed sense of humor lurking behind an imposing presence. “If I had to write a book, it would be the rise and fall, the rise and fall, and the rise of Miami Beach to its present zenith. The Fontainebleau would be part of it,” he says. “Only that story is the rise, the fall, and the rise again.”
But of course, the story of the hotel -- so famous it doesn’t even have a sign with its name out front -- is embedded in the larger story of Miami Beach from post-war heyday to subsequent decline, and starting with the restoration of deteriorated Art Deco structures in South Beach in the late 1980s, transformation from seedy to spectacular. The revitalization has moved north, up Collins Avenue where the white stucco and blue glass Fontainebleau curves and winds its way along the Miami shore embracing Steve Muss’ 36-story Tower which architect Morris Lapidus, who saw the plans just before he died at the age of 98, called the exclamation point to his original vision.

The 1950’s are the new Deco, they say. Glitz and glitter are back. So is the Lapidus credo (and the title of his autobiography): “Too much is not enough.” Today with postmodernism hip once more, the trio of fabulous Belgian chandeliers in the Fontainebleau lobby, each of them 1,800 crystal strands forming concentric circles or ovals depending on your perspective, are sensational again.

“Without having a lot of respect for Lapidus’ vision 26 years ago, we put an escalator in the lobby,” says Muss. “But now, having gained that respect, the escalator is gone. The furniture is being replaced. All the carpeting is coming off the marble floors. And the bow tie motif is coming back.” He’s referring to the black marble triangles in the corners of the square white tiles that meet to form the image of bow ties, a signature of both Lapidus and Ben Novack who built the Fontainebleau half a century ago on the 20 acres that had been the Firestone Estate.

Round or oval – it depends on your perspective - click to enlarge
Round or oval – it depends on your perspective

It’s a heady introduction to the storied property with the swirling stairway in the lobby that led to nowhere. Today it will bring you to a mezzanine where the Hilton offices are housed. But half a century ago, it served a different purpose. When guests came down from their rooms for dinner and an evening at La Ronde, the Fontainebleau’s nightclub, the women would get off the elevator on the mezzanine while the men would continue on to the lobby. Then they would proceed past the soaring oval columns to the foot of the stairs where they’d watch the ladies in couture gowns and glittering jewels descend.

“The thing about Lapidus is that everything was about making an entrance,” says Lisa Cole, the Fontainebleau’s Director of Public Relations. “It was all about sweeping curves and circular lines. In the 1950’s when everything was boxy, his curves and zig-zags were revolutionary.”

The revolutionary-looking 920-room hotel attracted the glitterati of the mid-century generation according to Mac McSwane, who has been a Fontainebleau bellman since the hotel opened in 1954. “You’re not going to get the history from anybody else,” he says. “I saw Betty Grable and Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Judy Garland, the Beatles, Elvis. They all entertained at La Ronde. I took care of all of them. Sammy Davis was the nicest.

“I took care of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Golda Meir,” continues the spirited half-Irish, half-Cherokee McSwane who at the age of 82 swears he will never retire. “I was their personal concierge.”

McSwane embodies the living history of this legendary property. He shows us the ballroom. It’s the largest in Florida. “This ballroom can hold 9,000 people,” he says. “It was built to be a casino. That never came to be, but national political conventions were held here, both Democratic and Republican.”

Up on the penthouse floor, he points out Marilyn Monroe’s suite: #1782 and JFK’s: #1784. “You name them: Elvis, the Gabor sisters. They were all here. So were the gangsters. The James Bond movie “Goldfinger” with Sean Connery was filmed here. So was “Surfside 6” and “The Bellboy” with Jerry Lewis. I played the part of the bellboy.”

The self-described million-dollar bellman and three-time winner of the bellman of the year award, laments the lost glory of the old days. “We used to have a dress code. I’d keep jackets and ties in my locker.  The marble floor used to be polished every night. Back then, everyone used a bellman. Now they roll their own luggage. But,” he adds, “it’s coming back.”

Mac McSwane at the foot of the stairway that led to nowhere - clcik to enlarge
Mac McSwane at the foot of the stairway that led to nowhere

In 1978 when Miami Beach’s best days seemed to be history, real estate mogul Steve Muss took over a bankrupt Fontainebleau. By bringing Hilton into the picture, restoring a property that had of late suffered from neglect, and focusing on a convention and family crowd, he succeeded in stemming the decline and breathing new life into the hotel. One of the first things Muss did was to remove the drapes from lobby windows. “I want to see the ocean, the beach, the pool,” he said. “He did the pool over before had had the rooms renovated,” Lisa Cole notes. “Then he added Cookie World – a children’s fantasy water playground with a waterslide, raft ride, and Cookie – a gigantic water spraying octopus. It’s for the kids, but everyone loves it.”

Lisa Cole, the Fontainebleau’s Director of Public Relations

For today’s visitor, there are many things to love about the Fontainebleau. Among them are bliss-inspiring views of the pristine beach fronting the Atlantic or the yacht-lined bay with towers of the city of Miami visible in the distance; the half acre swimming pool shaped like a three-leafed-clover with waterfalls spilling over rock grottos; a welcoming and engaging staff that runs the check-in and out process, so often an ordeal in a hotel of this size, with streamlined efficiency; and Bleau View, the award-winning restaurant with a crescent-shaped wall of windows overlooking the rock grotto pool and ocean beyond.

Guerda Amorose, guest servant agent who helps run a streamlined check-in and out - click to enlarge
Guerda Amorose, guest servant agent who
helps run a streamlined check-in and out

Bleau View is a comfortable open space; its cuisine has Mediterranean influences. Among offerings are Tuscan style chicken, grilled salmon, shrimp scampi, a range of pastas and individual pizzas. There are many creative touches like the colorful salad of red and white endives, walnuts and raspberry yogurt. There are seasonal specialties like Florida’s famous stone crabs. There are complex preparations like the delicate and crusty pan-roasted baby quail with porcini mushrooms topped with spinach and apricot and peach glaze, and classic ones like the sirloin steak in wine sauce that was tender enough to cut with a fork. And of course, there is the flagship of Florida desserts: luscious key lime pie.
The time of our visit was but a month before the opening of the Fontainebleau Tower which houses 462 condominiums (a second condominium tower, the 18-story Fontainebleau III: Ocean Club is well under way). Owners have the all the hotel facilities at their disposal and the option of participating in the hotel’s rental service when they are not in residence. Ten years in the planning and costing $400 million, Fontainebleau Tower will be linked to the hotel via a three-story glass breezeway with shops on the top and bottom level. The middle level will bring guests into a lobby restored to reflect its original post-war glamour and grandeur. With a major addition: “Immediately,” says Steve Muss, “there will be a view of the sea. The driveway will rise 26-feet up from Collins Avenue. You’ll pull up to the hotel, get out of the car, and you’ll see beautiful waterfalls and the ocean. That’s the point of the Fontainebleau. It’s all about where we’re at.”

Fontainebleau Hilton Resort
4441 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33140

Phone: 305-538-2000; 1-800-548-8886
Web:  http://

Photos by:  HarveyFrommer and Photo of Steve Muss by: Lisa Cole.

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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

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


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