May 24, 2017
Models lounge on the beach of the Surf Club, circa 1945. A new book, The Surf Club, chronicles the madcap nights and languorous days at the members-only Miami social club (Assouline; $75)
The Surf Club, historically one of Miami’s most elite social clubs, was a playground for wealthy beachgoers when it opened in 1930. Set on more than six acres of coveted beachfront along Collins Avenue at 90th Street, the club was a haven for high society, hosting famous personalities such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Winston Churchill, who painted seascapes while seated at his oceanfront cabana. From debutante galas and black-tie nights to fashion shows and over-the-top parties, the Surf Club was always glamorous. “This was a very elegant social club decorated in a fashion you don’t see today.... extravagant shows with everything you can conceive of, including elephants and camels,” says 94-year-old Stanley Whitman, owner and developer of the Bal Harbour Shops, whose mother was a founding member. By the 1950s, the club had hit its celebrity stride. Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra were among the many boldfacers who visited. But over time, the establishment fell on hard times.
Last year, because of shrinking membership and rising costs, the members-only club (and its extremely valuable property) was sold to a Turkish conglomerate for $116 million. Some members—now trading their swimsuits for lawsuits—claim they were cheated out of their compensation by the club.
Meanwhile, the Surf Club property is on the verge of a transformation. The new owners hope to breathe fresh life into the Mediterranean-style compound. In his signature style, where buildings blend with nature, architect Richard Meier has designed three 12-story glass-sheathed buildings (two residential and a hotel) to reflect the ocean and the sky, and create a concert of light around the historic clubhouse, which will be preserved. Legal quarrels aside, the Surf Club appears to have a bright future as a jewel in the crown of Miami’s modern beachfront redevelopment—a testament to the city’s ability to reinvent itself.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HISTORYMIAMI