by Art Levy
Updated 6 yearss ago
At a press conference in 1952, developer Ben Novack announced that he was going to build "the largest luxury hotel in Miami Beach" and that Morris Lapidus, a New York architect, was going to design it.
It was true that he planned to build a major resort hotel on the site of the old Harvey S. Firestone estate off Collins Avenue, but Novack hadn't even spoken with Lapidus about the possibility. After reading about the press conference in a newspaper, Lapidus telephoned Novack, whom he'd worked with before, and asked if he really was going to get to design the Fontainebleau Hotel.
Novak said no.
"Ben explained that he simply used the first name that came to his mind when the reporters asked who was going to be his architect," Lapidus wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "Too Much is Never Enough." "He told me he would be glad to have me as an associate architect again and as the interior designer but that he really would be looking for a prominent architect to plan the hotel."
Lapidus seethed. Known primarily for designing retail stores and hotel interiors, he wanted to be the top guy on the Fontainebleau — and manipulated the tightfisted Novack into giving him the job by offering to work for $80,000, about $100,000 less than the customary 4% fee that an architect would get for Designing a project of the Fontainebleau's magnitude.
When the hotel opened in 1954, the public loved it. The critics, not so much. But Lapidus, credited with pioneering Miami Beach's lavish midcentury hotel-resort style, never had to work at a discount again.
Less than two years later, Lapidus got another job offer — from Harry Mufson, Novack's former business partner. Mufson, who had fallen out with Novack, had purchased the property just north of the Fontainebleau and wanted Lapidus to design a hotel for him, too.
As a courtesy, Lapidus told Novack of the offer. Novack was livid. He told Lapidus if he took the job, he would never talk to him again and would bar Lapidus from the Fontainebleau forever. Lapidus accepted Mufson's offer anyway and created the Eden Roc.
Side by side, the two Lapidus hotels thrived, hosting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis and Elizabeth Taylor and becoming the epicenter of Miami Beach glitz and glamor.
Novack still wasn't happy. In 1962, he built a 14-story addition on the northern edge of the Fontainebleau's property that was positioned to cast a shadow on the Eden Roc's pool for much of the afternoon. The tower faced the Eden Roc with a vast blank facade that locals nicknamed the "spite wall."
The wall, in fact, had one set of windows, incorporated into Novack's suite, presumably so he could look at the shaded pool below. The tower spurred a case heard by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Novack, saying that the Eden Roc had "no legal right to the free flow of light and air from adjoining land."
The Eden Roc hired Lapidus to design a new pool on the opposite end of the property from the original one, and over time the animosity faded. Mufson died in 1973 at age 64. Novack owned and operated the Fontainebleau until 1977, when he filed for bankruptcy. He died in 1985 just a week after his son asked a judge to find his father mentally incompetent to handle his own finances. Lapidus died in 2001, but with a professional reputation that had grown over The years.
In 2008, the Eden Roc put an end to the spite wall for good by building a 21-story tower of its own that blocks the view of Novack's wall.
Both hotels have had numerous owners over the years and have come back from hard times. The Eden Roc, part of the Destination Hotels & Resorts chain, and the Fontainebleau, owned by a group led by billionaire Jeffrey Soffer, are back in the middle of Miami Beach's social scene. Today, the hotels are part of the Morris Lapidus Mid-Century Historic District, which protects the buildings from demolition and regulates proposals for alterations.
Debbie Tackett, preservation and design manager of Miami Beach's planning department, says that over the years the city regularly got development proposals that involved demolishing the hotels. No longer, she says — the uniqueness of the building has guaranteed their survival, and some visitors come to Miami Beach just to see them.
"What I think was so revolutionary about Lapidus' work, especially with the Fontainebleau," she says, "is that it really transformed this idea of resort architecture. He created places so joyous. His idea was to make people feel glamorous and special and happy just to be there."