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A Tale of Two Hotels:
The Palms and the National of Miami Beach

The charismatic George McKenzie welcomes guests to the Palms - click to enlarge
The charismatic George McKenzie welcomes guests to the Palms

 

“Hello! Hello!” cried Sunshine, the turquoise and orange parrot. “Bye-Bye,” croaked Chance, his red and green mate, simultaneously welcoming and bidding us farewell at the Palms Hotel. We’d just arrived in Miami Beach this warm and sunny April day from our home in New Hampshire where snow still covered the ground. Sorry Chance, no chance of our leaving any time soon.

From its Collins Avenue perch at the very top of swinging South Beach, the Palms is close by the action of Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road. But walk up the stairs to its broad white verandah, enter through the pair of towering colonial doors opened by the charismatic George McKenzie, and the high-powered SoBe scene gives way before an ambience of tropical tranquility.

With 242 rooms, the Palms is hardly a small hotel. Yet it gives the impression of a boutique property. There’s an intimacy, a welcoming aura enhanced by the dispenser of mango infusion beside the front desk. One sip and you’re in a Florida state of mind before you’ve even signed the guest register.

The big dilemma this day of our arrival was where to sack out. In no time, we had checked in, unpacked, and were on the gardened path that extends from the Palm’s rear verandah to the sea, passing Sunshine and Chance who were preening each other, nibbling birdseed, and calling out to passer-bys. To our left, a carpet had been laid across part of the lawn leading to a white gazebo gleaming in the afternoon sun. In a few hours a bride and groom would walk down the aisle and take their vows in as blissfully romantic a setting as could be imagined (small wonder Saturday night weddings at the Palms are booked through 2005). Sheltering palms were throwing graceful shadows across a profusion of  bougainvillea blossoms, bright birds of paradise, jasmine and orchids. At the end of the path, we crossed a redwood boardwalk, which runs for maybe half a mile along the shore, onto a beach of soft white sand. 

Pool attendant Jeremiah Crawford, who comes from Memphis Tennessee, had offered to set up chaises for us beside the splendid winding pool as blue as the Miami sky. Or perhaps we'd prefer a hammock under the trees or a recliner beneath a thatched dome on the lawn?  But once on the beach, we succumbed when beach attendant Rodrigo Fernandez, who comes from Argentina, suggested we head for that pair of chaises under a striped umbrella at the very edge of the shore.

The dilemma: where to sack out --  before the pool or the sea?  - click to enlarge

The dilemma: where to sack out --  before the pool or the sea?  - click to enlarge
The dilemma: where to sack out --  before the pool or the sea?

A pair of rocky walls maybe fifty feet into the sea runs parallel with the shoreline creating a circular bay and making of the beach a private little cove that just fits into the hotel boundaries.  “There’s nothing else quite like this in Miami Beach,” Palms’ public relations director Heather Niven told us when we met for drinks later that day. “This portion of the beach was badly eroded until about six months ago when it was part of a beach re-nourishment project that included the construction of the jetties. We’re delighted with the way it worked out. It’s ideal for families and also a great background for photo shoots.”

Petite and vivacious, her mass of dark hair pulled back from her face, Heather is a natural when it comes to publicizing the many fashion-related events held at the Palms. “Later this year we’ll be hosting the Elite Model Competition for 14 to 21-year old aspiring models,” she said. “They’ll stay here, we’ll hold all the competitions and interviews, and they’ll get the chance to make contacts, sign contracts, even win scholarships.”

The Palms is a popular corporate destination with ample meeting space, Heather told us. A number of conferences went on during our stay. Had we not been told, however, we’d never have guessed as the arrangement of meeting rooms and the spaciousness of public rooms precluded any sense of congestion.

Heather was one of the few native Miamians we met at the Palms, although her parents are Cuban Jews who arrived after Castro came to power. Jeff Lehman, the general manager, is from Los Angeles.

The owners, Hans-Joachim Krause and Ursula Krause are from Germany. And then there were Daniel Arocho at the front desk, the New York-born son of Dominican and Puerto Rican parents, George, the doorman from California, the pool and beach attendants, and housekeepers from Chile and Costa Rica. . .

“It’s the eclectic mix of people in Miami Beach and the Palms in particular that are such a draw for me,” Jeff Lehman told us when we met him for lunch on the broad terrace that runs across the width of the rear of the hotel and serves as al fresco restaurant, open air cocktail lounge, and back porch with comfortable Caribbean-style rattan chairs, floors of planked wood, and Bombay ceiling fans that spin gently in the breeze.

Although still a young man, Jeff has decades of experience in the tourist trade. “My senior year of high school, while my friends were deciding whether to go to Stanford or UCLA, I opted for Maui, Hawaii where I became a pool attendant at a beach hotel,” he said. He’s remained in the industry ever since having seen the world from the decks of cruise ships and behind the front desks of hotels. “Experience has been my teacher. There isn’t a job in the business I haven’t had from door man to front desk to housekeeping. There isn’t a guest or employee experience I can’t relate to.”

In the late 1980’s the ebullient young hotel exec was back in the United States working as trouble shooter for Bass Hotels. “At one point, I was sent to Cocoa Beach, and it was there that I heard about Miami Beach and in particular the development of South Beach,” he told us. “But I had come from L.A. Nothing that was happening in Florida could be really hip, I thought.

“Then in 1992, I invited my two brothers to come to Cocoa Beach to watch a night launch. I thought we’d go down to Miami and pick up a cruise. But when I got to South Beach, I took one look at the place and said, ‘I’m going to live here.’ It was so alive. I loved the night life. The people were beautiful. And the Art Deco renaissance was just taking off.

“I got a U-Haul and moved down,” Jeff said. “I had been working for 14 years. Now my goal was not to work for 18 months. I lay on the beach, went to clubs, got to know Miami Beach.

Jeff Lehman came to South Beach and stayed - click to enlarge
Jeff Lehman came to South Beach and stayed

He continued, “To keep my unemployment going, I had to apply for jobs. When I got to the Palms, I thought I’d take the job of front office manager, even though it was a step down, and do my 40 hours a week for a while. But what  happened was I got to know the Krause family. They were terrific. Their work ethic, their guest ethic was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. From the day I started, they made me feel the place is mine, the guests are mine. It’s never like I’m working for somebody. It’s more like I’m working with this family. And this attitude is picked up by the entire staff.”

Built in the 1960’s as the Sea Isle Hotel, the Palms had become the Miami Beach Ocean Resort by the time the Krauses bought it in the early 1990’s. Originally they depended primarily on a German and otherwise international market, but of late, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the downturn in the South American economy, the crowd has become largely domestic. In 2001, a seven million dollar renovation under the direction of award winning designer Patrick Kennedy refurbished every room and all public spaces inside and out, and the hotel became the Palms South Beach.

Five years earlier, the Krauses had bought a second Miami Beach property further downtown on Collins Avenue. The 150-room National, built in 1939, was a long neglected Art Deco masterpiece. To Jeff Lehman, it represented the creative opportunity of his professional life

“I was getting bored. I wanted my own hotel,” he told us. “When I learned the family had bought the National, I knew my future had to be in that hotel, in that neighborhood, on that street, on that oceanfront. My soul was in it. I moved over as Operations Manager.

“My first job was to get services and operation up to our desired level, which was tough because a hotel built 60 years ago doesn’t have the bells and whistles of a new hotel. The next focus was on architecture and design. The National had lost its architectural identity. The pool was a small square shaded by the buildings for most of the day. Cabana rooms facing the pool had open corridors like a public housing project. There were gaudy chandeliers and a 1955 white T-bird in the lobby that made no sense whatsoever.”

The high tech Delano and the minimalist Sagamore hotels on either side of the National had already been remodeled when work on the National began. “Remodeled, not restored,” Jeff said. “The Design Preservation people told us ‘Don’t even think anything but Art Deco restoration.’

“I had always been impressed with the great Art Deco buildings in L.A.,” he added. “Now I found myself  moving in a new and unexpected direction. In restoring an Art Deco hotel, I was becoming an art historian of sorts, helping to preserve a valuable piece of our American cultural heritage.  We worked with the Design Preservation League, the Historic Preservation of the City, anybody who could give us insight into the way it once was. We found the original blueprints by architect Roy France who designed many 1940’s Miami hotels and discovered originally a mezzanine overlooked the lobby. We had one put back in.

Topped with domed Moorish tower: the National Hotel - Click to Enlarge “We scoured the world for Art Deco features and furnishings. There are nearly 120 period light fixtures in the lobby area alone. The wall of floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves in the ballroom was found in Chicago. It’s used for wine storage and as a wall against the kitchen which was moved from one side of the hotel to the other.”
   
Jeff put the fingertips of both hands together, leaned back in his chair, and smiled. “The restored National opened in 1997. About a year and a half later, I moved up to general manager,” he said. “It’s been a great success. We’ve received many awards. And I’ve remained very involved in the Art Deco preservation movement.”
 

Well this was something we had to experience first hand. So that very evening, we drove down Collins Avenue to the glamorous white building fronted with pillars and topped with a domed Moorish tower where we arranged to meet friends for dinner at Tamara, the National’s French-fusion restaurant.

To put it mildly, the place did not disappoint. Like a mini version of the Hotel Martinez, the world-famous Art Deco palace in Cannes, the National is a treasure house of  museum quality Moderne artifacts and furnishings from the original swirled terrazzo floors, to the wood framed sofas upholstered in prints that evoke the 1930’s, to the three oak barber cabinets arranged against the lobby wall that serve no particular purpose but bespeak the era, to the host of sconces and lighting fixtures including an enormous and  magnificent steel chandelier in the ballroom, to the curved oak reception desk, the steel and brass-framed diamond-shaped mirrors, and the etched glass doors. At the rear of the hotel, a 205 foot-long-rectangular pool lined with palm trees and looking like a set from an  Esther Williams movie stretches all the way from dining terrace to beach. Art Deco with a southern feel.

  Mark Thomas, the National’s food and beverage manager, escorted us into Tamara, the intimate dining room overlooking the pool. It sits beneath a spectacular glass-mosaic atrium modeled after “Girl with Gloves,” the Tamara de Lempicka painting which hangs in Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.
  “A little more than a year ago, we were tossing around ideas about this restaurant which was called Café Mosaic at the time,” Mark said. “I suggested we name it Tamara, after Tamara de Lempicka, to give it a distinctive personality. Then the thought of French food popped into my head. It suited the Art Deco mood of the hotel. There aren’t that many French restaurants in the Miami area. So we’ve become a destination as well as hotel restaurant which makes us unique especially in South Beach.”
   

Tamara’s executive chef Greg McDaniel, who comes from Colorado and began his cooking career when he was 15, was off the night of our visit. But we did get to meet sous chef Frederic Delaire. The Bordeaux native also started when he was 15 and at some of the premier kitchens in France.  But he is very much at home in the relaxed South Beach scene.

“When I came to Florida, I began at a restaurant specializing in typical American foods from pot pies to French fries. I got a real exposure to authentic American cooking,” Frederic said. “What I’m trying to do here is use the French cuisine as a basis but move out to include Asian influences, Italian touches, and the wonderful Floridian products – the fish caught off the coast like scallops, sea bass, and flounder, the vegetables, and of course oranges -- we use a lot of orange in flavorings. There is such a varied population living here and such a range of tourists, we felt we needed to appeal to a range of diners.”

The philosophy became clear as we sampled a parade of memorable dishes beginning with a Provencal-style dip in lieu of butter for the breads made of extra virgin olive oil with crushed olives and a little garlic. Barely seared gray tuna was layered like a Napoleon but with parmesan crisps instead of pastry and served with guacamole and micro greens in a balsamic vinegarette; jumbo shrimp nestled in an al dente risotto; scallops a l’orange combined delicate seafood morsels with the Florida-defining fruit and Asian bean sprouts. There was also local sea bass on a pancake of eggplant caviar topped with slithers of crisp eggplant skin;  rare beef tenderloin; and filet mignon with an actual piece of foie gras, and grilled zucchini, eggplants and carrots Provencal style.

Tamara’s wine list focuses on the French and Californian; many were priced quite reasonably, we thought. We had a 1995 Burgundy, Vin Pommard that was full colored, firm and flavorful. For dessert, we sampled the French-Key Lime connection/confection – a pancake-shaped graham crust topped with meringue that was quite wonderful.

Like Jeff Lehman, Mark Thomas came to South Beach for a look around, returned home (to Denver) in time to pack his bags, load up a U-Haul and return. Like Jeff Lehman, Mark Thomas landed at a Krause hotel never planning to stay and did. Only he’d dropped in at the National during his first visit, sat on the couch opposite the pool and thought “Wow! It must be great to work here.”

His first enthusiasm has not abated. Mark would not let us leave before we saw the Martini Room, adjacent to Tamara, barely visible behind wooden blinds. “In the 1940’s and 50’s, this was the cocktail lounge and card room. Today it’s used for private functions although we open it for drinks and dancing to a d.j. on weekend evenings,” he said.

  We walked into the hushed high-ceilinged space with dark oak floors and doors. Directly ahead, embracing a pair of tall draped windows was the original u-shaped wooden bar facing a mirrored commode that held the bottles and glasses and was topped with a clock. A tall narrow glass-fronted cabinet displayed an array of cigars; smartly framed cigar paraphernalia decorated the walls. The ambience was 1940’s film noir, locale: Havana; screenplay: adaptation from a book by Graham Green.
   
 

One could linger a while in the Martini Room, dream up smoke filled-scenarios of high-stake poker games, murder and mystery. But it was Florida 2003, not 1943. And tomorrow was another day in the sun.      

Strolling down the gardened path on our way to the beach the next morning, we had stopped to chat up Sunshine and Chance when we spotted Jeff Lehman. We had to tell him about our evening at the National. What a staggering responsibility it must be, we said, for one young man to run not one, but two high-end, well-run, active properties that attract both a corporate and tourist trade. But he demurred.

“I spend mornings here at the Palms and afternoons at the National,” he said. “I love the challenge here. I couldn’t imagine not having both hotels. The owners are very involved; they’re in touch daily. I’m kind of like the adopted person in this family operation. They’ve allowed me to come in and bring in the best hotel people I can find -- like Ed Ponder, our award-winning chief concierge who services both properties. I know where to find them and how to keep them by respecting them for what they do, paying them well, and communicating to them my goals and the reasons for them. It’s the why that enables them to develop their own self motivation.”

We could not resist asking the inevitable, unaswerable question: “Which do you prefer, the National or the Palms?”

He laughed indulgently. “Naturally, the National will always be my special love. But the Palms is where I got my first chance in Miami Beach. There’s always a place in the heart for the first one. But there’s also a place in the heart for the one you especially love.”

The Palms South Beach
3025 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33140

Phone: 305-534-0505 or 800 550-0505
Web: http://www.thepalmshotel.com

The National Hotel South Beach
1677 Collins Avenue
Miami Beach, Florida 33139

Phone: 305-532-2311 or 800-327-8370
Web: http://www.nationalhotel.com
Email: sales@nationalhotel.com

The Palms and the National are members of the Summit Hotels and Resorts

Photos 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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