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07.23.2012
Comment> The Lapidus Touch
Sean McCaughan looks back at Miami's architectural flamboyance as reimagined by new docudrama Magic City.
In Magic City, the lobby staircase aims for a Lapidus "stairway to nowhere" look.
Courtesy Starz

A fictional proxy of that most famous of Miami Beach hotels, the Fontainebleau, has a starring role in Magic City, a new period docudrama from Starz set in early postwar Miami Beach. The fake hotel in question is called the Miramar Playa, and was thought up by Mitch Glazer, the show’s producer. Along with the rest of the show, it is a phantasmagoria of midcentury Miami architectural flamboyance, of woggles, cheese holes, zigzags, and bean poles (thin steel decorative poles that had a habit of jauntily going through things like tables and birdcages), inhabited by mobsters, Cuban refugees, and leggy models on beach blankets. But the more Magic City becomes distinctly Miamian, the more it becomes distinctly about architecture. Magic City is “International Style” glamour in a sticky bathing suit.

Magic City is the loosely disguised story of the famous Fontainebleau Hotel and its owner Ben Novack, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. There have been some name changes (Novack is now Ike Evans) and personality overhauls (Novack was a tough guy in with the mob; Evans is a good guy who makes big mistakes) but many of the story lines are based in truth. In spite of copious on-screen nudity, pure history turns out to be more thrilling than the show’s fiction: the Fontainebleau was the biggest and most luxurious hotel in Miami Beach, and the first hotel built at that scale since the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was built with Mafia money, and was a place famous for its decadence and debauchery, for headliners like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in the La Ronde supper club, and for high-stakes gambling tucked away in cabanas and hotel suites. Sean Connery played James Bond there, Miss Universe was crowned there, and in 1972 both the Democratic and Republican national conventions were held there.

The cast of Magic City channels James Bond.
 

Magic City is a show about a hotel and about the very specific city within which that hotel lies, and by extension, a show about that city’s architecture. And it’s about a specific time. Miami Beach had just woken up from the architectural slumber of the Depression and World War II, launching into a feverish building boom wearing new architectural clothes. It had also just imported an architect from New York with a lot of new ideas, named Morris Lapidus.

Lapidus built or decorated hotels all over Miami Beach, where his populist take on modernism became the new look of South Florida. With shocking singularity, he invented, using his expertise as a highly innovative retail architect, the entire look of Miami Beach in that era. Although it was Novack’s hotel, the Fontainebleau was the creation of Lapidus, whose designs have made him a legendary figure of Miami Beach history.

The Miramar Playa hotel is the Fontainebleau, more or less, with elements from other hotels liberally thrown in, making the result a slightly odd mash-up. In addition to bits of the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, there are also elements of Melvin Grossman’s slightly more subdued Deauville Hotel farther north on the beach and the smaller DiLido (now a Ritz Carlton) designed by Lapidus and Grossman together. The curve of the Miramar tower is a play on the Fontainebleau’s famous arc, but here it is a less elegant freeform curve to the Fontainebleau’s pure semicircle. The pool deck used for exterior shots is literally that of the current Deauville, one of the most boring lidos on the beach, and a far cry from the glory of the Fontainebleau’s grounds.

The lobby is the heart of the mess. To the left is the Eden Roc’s rotunda, with a tray ceiling hanging from skyhooks. To the right is Lapidus’s famous “staircase to nowhere,” a motif he used at many hotels. This one is most like the Fontainebleau’s, with clunkier details. The check-in counter is straight from the Eden Roc, but it is recessed into a wall from the DiLido. Perhaps most jarring of all is the Miramar’s color scheme: its blasé browns and golds are copied from the contemporary DiLido, going for a restrained luxury that wasn’t at all Lapidus’ taste. Any Lapidus original would have burst with brightly colored designs and patterns, often simultaneously.

Past the premiere, the locations in Magic City feel more comfortably natural, and less obvious in their boldness. There’s also more of Miami. The first episode said loudly, “We are at the Miramar Playa. Wish you were here.” By the third episode, Evans and his family move out into the city, where they have dinner at a stand-in for the Wreck Bar at the Castaways, a long-gone classic Miami dive.

 
Lapidus' Fontainbleau Hotel reimagined as the Miramar Playa in Magic City.
 

The broader range of Miami’s architectural evolution also emerges, and the city’s various styles lend some symbolic power to the plot’s themes. The real life Mediterranean Revival estates of Carl Fisher’s island developments contain an older, prewar, generation of Miami Beach wealth populated by white Gentiles with names like Firestone and Honeywell. They exclude Jews from their domains, like the classic Miami Beach Bath Club, just as they were excluded from Palm Beach society. We see this side of Miami Beach in the character of Meg Bannock, whose oceanfront estate was sold to Evans to become the site of the Miramar. Again, fiction mirrors the real story: the Fontainebleau was built on the site of the 15-bedroom Firestone estate.

As Miami’s old gentile population fades out, the nouveau mobsters move into Med Revival palazzos. Not incidentally, the house used as mobster character Ben Diamond’s house happens to be next door to the one used as Bannock’s new place.

Other Miami sites have made cameos. South Beach is a sleepy land of retired Jews from New York, and Ocean Drive is one long shuffleboard court. The Beaux Art Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami is the DA’s office in the show. The University of Miami campus, a beautifully Pan-American composition by Marion Manley, Miami’s first female architect, isn’t literally in the show, but an interesting substitute for its sleek subtropical look is. Magic City uses the Bacardi Building on Biscayne Boulevard as a convincing stand-in, providing a rare, fortuitous glimpse inside the building, an iconic tower floating over a sunny plaza that does a good job of copying Manley’s architectural work.

Magic City is not a Miamian Mad Men, a show that uses the advertising industry as a way to analyze a fantasized historical American past. Magic City is about a city that could not possibly have happened anywhere else. Magic City is about the sudden growth of a new Miami, more specifically, a new Miami Beach in the decades after World War II. It is about that new city and its growing pains, where a lot of strange things were allowed to happen, as if the Floridian peninsula was another country and not quite the U.S.A.

Strongly rooted in the history of Miami, Magic City straddles the line between straight-up historical documentary (as ridiculous as that sounds for a sexed-up drama) and surreal vacation fantasy. The strong architectural identity of the Fontainebleau, and every other notable building used in the show, makes historical inaccuracies all the more keenly felt to those who know what to look for. As for Lapidus, it almost seems strange that, for his epic architectural influence, and his influence on the look of the show, he hasn’t been bestowed with the honor of a character. If only, when the show returns next season, Lapidus could have a walk-on part, perhaps, as the designer of a hotel to rival Miramar Playa in all its gilt pattern gaudiness, as he did at the Eden Roc in real life.

Sean McCaughan

Sean McCaughan is the editor of Curbed Miami.