Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau is a masterpiece of tropical modernism, with its oceanfacing curved exterior a perfect example of the International Style

This year, the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects commemorated its 100 years with an online competition, inviting the design-bedazzled public—some 2.4 million voters—to choose the 100 most architecturally significant buildings in Florida built over the last century. Naturally, the Fontainebleau hotel won: Since 1954, when original owner Ben Novack hosted an opening gala that launched the hotel into the pantheon of knock ’em-dead glamour, the Fontainebleau has been a loud, flashy, and at times positively ungracious winner.

Architecture is destiny, and Morris Lapidus, who would go on to design the adjacent Eden Roc Renaissance Miami Beach and countless other great buildings here, created a kind of enduring design poetry, a masterpiece of tropical modernism. The grand arc of the exterior wall facing the ocean is a perfect example of the International Style. On the Collins Avenue side, the rigorous modernism is softened with Miami Beach kitsch, from sculptures of bathing beauties to Lapidus’s trademark illuminated “cheese hole wall.” A born showman, Lapidus created a hotel-as-stage set that was ready for a Busby Berkeley musical: The “staircase to nowhere” led to a coat check room, ideal for entrances of the if-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it school.

From the start, the Fontainebleau was the very best and worst of taste that inspired modern Las Vegas. Steve Wynn, the casino mogul who now has his eye on Miami, spent a lot of time at the Fontainebleau in the 1950s. Pop history moments abounded as well: Goldfinger skulking in his penthouse, Surfside 6, Elvis Presley appearing on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1960 and mingling with the Rat Pack afterward.

By the 1970s, the Fontainebleau had fallen into a state of frayed opulence, like the ancestral mansion of some old dowager short on cash. In 2008, current owner Jeffrey Soffer, having dropped a billion on the property he acquired in 2005, then spent $10 million on reopening festivities that included a Victoria’s Secret lingerie parade with Heidi Klum, Usher channeling Sammy Davis Jr. in a bowler hat, and guests Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow.

As befits a hotel where Meyer Lansky did business in his cabana, the Fontainebleau has also turned up in Scarface and The Sopranos, and partially inspired the STARZ mob/hotel drama Magic City. In the newest twist to the Fontainebleau saga, the 1950s empress of the Fontainebleau, Bernice Novack, and the hotel’s crown prince, Ben Novack Jr., were both brutally murdered in 2009; Narcy Novack, Ben Novack Jr.’s widow, was convicted of orchestrating both murders this past June. It’s not a pretty story, but then again, the Fontainebleau has always been a passion play of light and darkness— an architectural miracle forever tainted by the short-order workings of mortals.

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