|Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback||
At 97, Morris Lapidus enjoys architectural 'resurrection'
MIAMI BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Long before South Beach became Miami's neon-lit hot spot, two ultraglamorous resorts -- the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau -- transformed the beach from a place to swim to a place to be seen.
In the pre-Disney 1950s, these castles in the sand were Florida's magic kingdom, where Americans could feel like movie stars, or even mingle with real ones. Jerry Lewis vacationed there, and Jackie Gleason was a fixture.
"I gave them the kind of backdrop to make them feel 'I really have arrived,'" said Morris Lapidus, the architect who designed them. His signature style was grandeur, pushed to the brink of excess.
"If you like ice cream, why stop at one scoop? Have two, have three. Too much is never enough," he's still fond of saying.
While the celebrities and snowbirds embraced Lapidus' colorful approach, his early work drew derision from critics and colleagues. But Lapidus kept designing, and as he approaches the century mark, he's finally enjoying the recognition that long eluded him.
Dazzled by Coney Island
Lapidus' elaborate style came from humble beginnings. The child of Russian immigrants, Lapidus grew up poor in a New York City ghetto. He recalls being dazzled as a boy by trips to Coney Island.
"I had never seen such buildings. This whirling, twisting, colorful world, and when we were ready to leave, the lights went on! I thought at first the place was on fire. And then my uncle said, 'No, those are just electric lights -- and they were marvelous.'"
Years later, he felt similar elation at the Fontainebleau's 1954 unveiling.
"I think the great moment of my life was the opening party," he said. "I walked out into the gardens and suddenly realized, 'I've done it.' And I'm not ashamed to admit it: I cried."
His son, architect Alan Lapidus, worked with his father for 18 years.
"His theory was if you create the stage setting and it's grand, everyone who enters will play their part. I will play the part of the rich and successful mogul. I could be James Bond in the Fontainebleau." (In fact, "Goldfinger" was one of several movies filmed there.)
The commercial success of the resort led to the opening in 1956 of an even grander hotel next door -- the Eden Roc, with its famous cruise ship-like top.
"I spoke to the owner and I said, 'You want something a little baroque? He said, 'I don't give a damn if it's baroque or Brooklyn. I wanted people to walk in here and fall flat on their back when they see an elegant hotel. Give me elegance!'"
Once again, Lapidus delivered, and the stars streamed in. Elizabeth Taylor celebrated a birthday there. Jayne Mansfield honeymooned.
But while Hollywood loved Lapidus' style -- marked by curves, amoeba-like shapes he called "woggles" and cutouts known as "cheese holes" -- critics hated it.
"At the time, he was a pariah. He was seen as unworthy to be called an architect," Columbia University architecture professor Gwendolyn Wright said.
"Superschlock," sniffed The New York Times. "Pornography of architecture," Art in America said. The Miami Herald weighed in, saying his hotels "probably aren't too disturbing to people who lost their eyesight."
"They couldn't think of enough bad things to say about me," said Lapidus, who was so distressed by the criticism that he almost quit.
"The deep hurt I felt being rejected by my own profession made me feel, 'Why save it for posterity?'" he said, squinting his eyes. "And I had all of my drawings, 50 years of drawings, dumped into a truck, and I sent them to the incinerator and said, 'I'm done with the profession.'"
Rebirth of cool
But Lapidus was far from finished, as evidenced by his many projects along Miami Beach's famed Collins Avenue. And just like the city where he made his name, Lapidus is making a comeback. At age 97, his work is considered cool.
The Lincoln Road Mall, a pedestrian shopping area he designed in 1960, was renovated recently and has become a popular alternative to flashy Ocean Drive.
In the last year, the New York Times, the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Constitution have sung Lapidus' praises, and Vanity Fair visited Miami Beach to interview the architect and photograph his apartment.
"I never thought I would live to see the day when, suddenly, magazines are writing about me, newspapers are writing about me," he said.
And many peers now speak glowingly of Lapidus.
"He is now being feted by the architectural profession in ways that he never enjoyed in the peak of his career, when there were so many people that enjoyed his work, but most architects didn't want him in the room," professor Wright said.
Appalled at Fontainebleau redo
Although his extravagant home is much the same as it was when he moved in 37 years ago -- including a crystal chandelier and a Lucite dining room set -- the Fontainebleau has undergone major renovations.
"It's a horror to me," he said. "This was once a grand lobby, and today as I look around, it might be a bus station. The carpet was put down covering the beautiful marble floor."
He's mystified by the addition of an escalator.
"I never understood it, and I still don't understand it. My original stairway is still there. People used to want to have their picture taken there. Now no one even looks at the stairway. It's a very sad thing to be here."
But Lapidus doesn't dwell too much on the past, thanks in part to Deborah Desilits, an architect who admired the Lapidus look and persuaded him to come out of retirement -- which he said feels like a "resurrection."
'An amazing gift'
Now they're business partners. He sketches the buildings, she carries out his designs.
"I think it's very precious to see someone at 97 who can still say 'Ugh! I hate that color,'" she said.
"It's an amazing gift that my father met Deborah. She brought him back," son Alan said. "My father went into a depression after my mother died and was withering away. And after he met Deborah, who encouraged him to talk, to give lectures, and above all to start designing again -- I spoke to him last week, and he sounds younger than I do."
Among the team's projects is Aura, a hip Miami Beach restaurant. One customer calls it "fresh and colorful," while another expresses amazement that a 97-year-old designed it.
"My mind is that of a young man," he said. "I can see beauty, I can see wonder, all the great things in the world. Now I have everything. I would say it is a happy ending, but I don't see the ending yet."
Fontainebleau Hilton Resort & Towers
|Back to the top||
© 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.