Luxury Hotels and Urban Hostels: Carl Fisher, Resort Architecture, and the Contrasting Worlds of Miami Beach's Pre-Depression-Era Lodging contrasts two approaches to hotel building in Miami Beach during the early to mid-1920s. Keith D. Revell describes how luxury resort hotels, exemplified by Carl Fisher's Flamingo (1920), offered recreation activities and elaborate venues for socializing for successful businessmen and their families. While these hotels projected affluence and exclusiveness, most of the city's hotels were urban hostels: small in scale, with limited amenities, integrated into the urban grid, and serving a broad array of middle- and working-class visitors. Although both luxury hotels and urban hostels were decorated with Spanish colonial motifs, they differed markedly in size, siting, function, and audience. Luxury hotels and urban hostels thus show how different approaches to city building and urban image making—one developer led, the other market led—shaped the nation's premier winter resort in the early twentieth century.
In December 1920, Carl Fisher, an Indianapolis-based automobile headlight manufacturer who eight years earlier had invested his fortune in the desolate barrier island of Miami Beach, wrote to a friend: “The Flamingo is an extravagant hotel—it just has to be. It has probably cost more money for the number of rooms than any other hotel in the United States. We had to build it in spite of hell, high water and the Union—and she is built!” (Figure 1). Six months later, after a successful first season, Fisher was looking to sell the Flamingo. “Running hotels is not part of our business,” he told a prospective buyer. “We have a large amount of land to sell but we were forced to build the Flamingo. If we can sell the Flamingo even at a loss, to ourselves on our cost, of $250,000 or $300,000, we would be willing to sell same and start immediately on a new hotel.”1 Despite his desire to sell the establishment, by 1926 Fisher had reluctantly become Miami Beach's premier innkeeper, with five hotels and a thousand rooms, and all the attendant chores of caring for guests, managing staff, and minding budgets.
This essay focuses on resort hotels as landscapes of leisure and as alternative approaches to city building that shaped the image and urbanism of pre-Depression-era Miami Beach. Intensely class-conscious and suspicious of real estate speculation, Fisher intended Miami Beach to be a rich man's winter playground, and he deployed his own assets toward that end. When Miami Beach finally boomed in the mid-1920s, thanks to his tireless efforts, Fisher's hotels conveyed affluence and exclusivity. Yet other parts of the city not under Fisher's control embodied more modest and market-driven—as opposed to developer-driven—urban and architectural approaches.
Incorporated in 1915, Miami Beach had a high number of hotels relative to its population: from seven in 1921, when the population was under 1,000, the count grew to seventy-one by 1931, when the population had risen to just 6,494. Most of these hotels were not luxurious. Instead, they were urban hostels built mainly by small-scale investors seeking to profit from rising real estate values on the urban periphery. Generally small in scale, spare in ornamentation, and aesthetically derivative (often amateurishly so), these structures offered guests few amenities, relying instead on their proximity to the beach, street, and city outside to provide recreation and amusement for their middle- and working-class visitors (Figure 2).2 Luxury hotels like Fisher's were usually much larger and richer in ornamentation, and some were aesthetically noteworthy. Set amid elaborate landscaping and decorated on all sides, such hotels were intended for wealthy patrons who expected abundant amenities and entertainment venues separate from the surrounding city.
Thus, Miami Beach before the early 1930s offered two separate resort environments: an affluent enclave, built by wealthy developers, with large luxury hotels surrounded by a domesticated natural world; and a middle- and working-class resort town, built by small-scale investors, with modest hotels embedded in a dense urban entertainment center. By contrasting Fisher's grand resort hotels with their smaller urban counterparts, this essay shows how different approaches to architecture and urbanism were inscribed in the landscape of this iconic American resort town. It contributes to the growing literature on hotels as agents of place making, embodying and shaping tensions arising from urban growth, cultural transformation, and evolving expressions of social class.
Scholars now recognize hotels as both crucial tools for urban development and revealing markers of urban identity, facilitating urban expansion and fostering new conceptions of consumerism and modernity in cities large and small. In addition to providing accommodation and anchoring economic activity, hotels in earlier eras—especially large, luxurious ones—served as measures of their cities' progress. Historian Molly Berger has argued that “luxury hotels were novel, inspired, and highly visible expressions of a city's ranking in the world” and “a recognizable way to trumpet local initiative as well as to assess development against national standards.”3 Hotels also served a broad cross section of customers, from elites to business travelers and conventioneers to middle- and working-class families on vacation to various urban dwellers in search of inexpensive short- or long-term lodging.4 This range was fully evident in Miami Beach, despite the city's almost monolithic image as a luxurious tropical fantasy providing escape from the frigid, industrial North.
Florida offers a particularly compelling setting for the study of hotels, given the state's prominent roles in tourism and image making. In his landmark study of the hotel as “a patterning device that shaped specific aspects of American life,” historian A. K. Sandoval-Strausz writes that “the most elaborate example of hotel-driven settlement” took place in Florida, where hotels were powerful agents of city building and cultural change.5 The grand winter resort hotels built by Henry Flagler and Henry Plant brought “Gilded Age splendor” to Florida, as historian Susan Braden has shown, “transforming a sparsely inhabited, scraggily beautiful near-wilderness into what they promoted as the ‘American Riviera.’”6 Flagler's hotels helped to attach a Spanish colonial heritage to Florida, one that minimized the state's role in the Confederacy and offered an exotic but uncontroversial image, fueling growth by giving physical form to a largely invented sense of place consistent with sanitized expectations of progress.7 In Miami Beach, hotels served both to forge an urban civilization from the wilderness and to etch upon that landscape an imagined vision of what Florida had been and would become.
Miami Beach, as urban design and environment, has been subject to surprisingly little scholarly attention. To be sure, Miami Beach hotels built from the 1930s through the 1950s, from the art deco boom through the creation of Morris Lapidus's Fontainebleau, have been studied as aesthetic statements and contributions to the culture of consumerism.8 With the exception of architect Allan Shulman's analysis of the art deco district, however, less notice has been given to hotel urbanism, and very little (beyond descriptions of a few grand hotels and private homes) has been written about Miami Beach architecture prior to the 1930s.9 Before it emerged as an iconic showplace of art deco, Miami Beach was a city of Spanish colonial revival architecture. Hotels played a major role in that transformation.10 As a city directory published in 1927 put it, “The style of architecture at Miami Beach is mainly Spanish and Moorish, with clear cut, pleasing lines and coloring that harmonizes with the surrounding palm trees, hibiscus, oleander, bougainvillea, avocado and mango foliage.”11 Hotels of the pre-Depression years, such as the Mare Grande of 1926, typically displayed an eclectic Spanish colonial vocabulary that gave the city aesthetic coherence and muted differences in class between urban hostels and luxury hotels (Figure 3). Much the same effect was achieved during the 1930s by art deco, even as other aspects of the city illustrated its class differences.
This essay examines the contrasts between urban hostels and luxury hotels in Miami Beach from the city's founding in 1915 to the beginning of the Depression, revealing differences in city building and resort image-making efforts that were present from the first decade of the city's life. On the one hand, large-scale promoters like Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family created luxury hotels to facilitate city building and enlarge their personal fortunes; their hotels anchored a real estate build-out aimed at creating a low-density city of vacation homes, one that validated advertising images of the city as a winter playground for the wealthy. Over time, most of these luxury hotels shed their city-building functions and operated increasingly as autonomous resorts, providing private leisure worlds for wealthy patrons.
On the other hand, smaller-scale hotels, serving a range of middle- and working-class vacationers, cropped up on the island's ocean side, between the city's southern tip and the Collins Canal—an area subsequently known as South Beach (Figure 4). These urban hostels—the products of myriad individual decisions rather than a single developer's master plan—established a pattern of middle- and working-class urbanization that pulled the city in social and economic directions that were different from those envisioned by Fisher, directions that would shape the course of city building throughout the art deco boom and beyond.
Hotels and Development in Miami Beach: Contrasting Approaches to the Resort
Miami Beach before 1930 was marked by hotels and hostels distinguished by social class, physical context, orientation toward the city, and availability of amenities, among other variables. Luxury hotels typically stood apart from the urban grid in garden settings (“the resort hotel in the garden,” as Shulman termed it), surrounded by golf courses, tennis courts, polo fields, and landscaped driveways.12 Their massing and ornamentation indicated that they were to be seen from all sides, serving as dramatic backdrops for the recreational and leisure activities taking place around them (Figure 5). Equipped with impressive lobbies, substantial kitchens, capacious dining rooms, lounges, card rooms, tea gardens, shops, and other amenities, they were self-contained and inward-looking, with complex floor plans that accommodated their many functions. Built by large-scale real estate developers, they served, at first, as temporary lodgings for well-heeled clients who might be persuaded to buy sites nearby for their winter homes.
Urban hostels, by contrast, represented a more diverse and fragmented social world, serving middle- and working-class visitors on vacation, people traveling for work, and those in need of temporary housing. Integrated into the urban grid while advertising their proximity to the ocean, they were generally located close to the city's amusements (drink stands, ice cream parlors, shooting galleries, recreation halls, and so on), and they offered a minimal slate of in-house amenities, including public restaurants (as opposed to guest dining rooms). Typically, they abutted the street and occupied their entire lots, with simple, boxy massing, modestly decorative façades, and limited decoration (if any) on side and rear walls (Figure 6). Prior to 1930, both urban hostels and luxury hotels, such as Fisher's King Cole Hotel (1926), were mostly Spanish colonial revival in style, contributing to a relatively coherent civic aesthetic even as they pulled the city in distinctive social and economic directions (Figure 7). Between these extremes were also hybrid types—luxury hotels integrated into the urban grid and a few urban hostels that were larger than all but the grandest luxury hotels.13
Although property ownership changed considerably in Miami Beach between World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression, city building there was dominated by three primary landholders: the Collins–Pancoast family, Carl Fisher, and the Lummus brothers. The Collins–Pancoast family initially owned a vast stretch of the island between Fourteenth and Sixty-Seventh Streets, a large section of which was occupied by avocado orchards before it was developed into neighborhoods filled with single-family homes. In 1913, Fisher acquired a swath of land at the south end of the Collins–Pancoast family property, 1,800 feet wide and running from the bay to the ocean, in exchange for funding John Collins's then-stalled cross-bay causeway—the first automobile bridge between Miami and Miami Beach. Fisher soon expanded his holdings and took the lead in the city's resort development. J. N. Lummus, the city's first mayor, and his brother J. E. Lummus—both Miami bankers—purchased 500 acres at the island's southern tip in 1912 and began selling property to recoup their investment. By 1916, they had sold most of their holdings. The varying approaches to sales among Fisher, the Collins–Pancoast family, and the Lummus brothers resulted in a fragmented pattern of landownership in the South Beach area. As historian Howard Kleinberg has noted, “All three entrepreneurs had different selling styles and ambitions for their portions of Miami Beach, although Fisher and Collins were much closer to each other in goals for their property.”14
By the 1920s, when hotel building intensified, the city had two main arenas of development: a large section of South Beach, formerly owned mainly by the Lummus brothers, with multiple small landowners buying and selling property as circumstances and opportunities permitted; and considerably larger tracts to the north and west controlled by Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family, both of whom sought to apply more coordinated approaches toward developing their real estate empires.
The major Fisher- and Pancoast-built luxury hotels of the era—the Lincoln (1916), Flamingo (1920), Nautilus (1924), Pancoast (1924), King Cole (1926), and Boulevard (1926)—were essential elements of a resort-building project led by large landowners. Unlike so many of the hotels and hostels built in South Beach, they were intended for wealthy visitors—“merchant princes” and “debutantes”—who expected elaborate recreational facilities, impressive venues for staging social functions, and thematic ornamentation conveying an exoticism appropriate for the warm-weather fantasy concocted by Miami Beach boosters.15 Each of these luxury hotels was, to a great extent, self-contained, providing visitors with a world unto themselves, set apart from the middle- and working-class city located on the ocean side of South Beach.16 Fisher envisioned Miami Beach as the “Winter Home of Prominent Americans,” who would build their winter houses on lots purchased from his development company, on land that he had cleared of mangroves or created by dredging sand and gravel from the bottom of Biscayne Bay.17
An exemplar of Rooseveltian masculinity, Fisher had a zest for physical competition that led him to take up boat racing and polo, among other sporting pursuits. Images of wealth, health, and athleticism suffused his vision for Miami Beach, prompting him to build polo fields, tennis courts, golf courses, a motorboat racing course, and an exclusive fishing lodge—the famed Cocolobo Cay Club, a thirty-minute boat ride south of Miami Beach—all of which he saw as “necessary attractions of the Beach” for the class of people he hoped would buy his properties.18
Fisher's hotels were unquestionably tools in a real estate scheme in a state bursting with aspiring land barons, yet they also expressed his goals as a resort developer, one who might endow the world with something of substance, a monument to his own tenacity and genius that would serve as evidence that he was more than a plucky huckster who simply got into the market at the right time (Figure 8). He wanted his work as a developer to be seen as one of his prospective clients described it in a letter in 1924: “The splendid work you are doing to turn the waste spaces of the earth into places of beauty for the benefit of mankind is on par with statesmanship.”19 Acutely aware of the range of cultural, economic, and class distinctions among his fellow Americans, Fisher did not want to sell to just anyone. He aimed for prominent people, men who had made their fortunes as he had, proving themselves capable of succeeding in the rough-and-tumble world of commerce and ascending through the social hierarchy to ever-higher levels of respectability and esteem. His own desire for legitimacy made him skeptical of speculators, and he did everything in his power to discourage the image of Miami Beach as the product of a bull market, even though the Florida land rush of the mid-1920s advanced his short-term goal of selling property. Fisher decried the “sharpers,” “crooks,” “land sharks,” and “speculators” who “came in like a swarm of locusts” in 1925, potentially undermining what he had labored to forge from the sand. For Fisher, Miami Beach was no real estate bubble. “All gold mine areas have the same boom we had,” he wrote in 1926, but, he insisted, Miami Beach had real value beyond a temporary spike in prices. Fisher's hotels reflected his yearning to create affluence—not merely profit—with all its accoutrements, and thus secure his status as something more than a salesman who made good.20
It would be an exaggeration to say that Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family were in conflict with the Lummus brothers or subsequent property owners in South Beach, for all of them were united in their interest in boosting Miami Beach's growth and long-term value. However, differences of approach were evident early on. There was a shared culture of aspiration in Miami Beach, apparent among both tourists and property owners. As in any newly established urban community, real estate acquisition and rising property values offered a means to economic and social mobility. But not everyone who bought property in Miami Beach was investing in the same way. As J. N. Lummus later recalled: “The Lummus Company had auctioned off lots and sold other lots. Fisher and Collins had auctioned off lots and sold more lots, but the mere fact of owning a lot did not mean that the purchaser intended to build a house.”21
Unlike other places incorporated into Dade County at this time, Miami Beach—a barrier island—was not well suited as a suburb of Miami and thus not likely to be developed predominantly as a city of homes. Yet first-class hotels, winter residences, and shops catering to the wealthy were not the only options open to property owners there. Lots were sold and resold, especially in South Beach, and the emerging city's character fluctuated with new waves of owners who had their own purposes, aspirations, and resources. “South-enders,” as Thomas Pancoast called them, were a large and changeable group, disposing of their property unimpeded by zoning ordinances (which were not adopted until 1930) and willing to support any activity that would inflate their property's value.
Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family had related but narrower interests: they wanted growth, but of a kind that would transform Miami Beach into a winter playground and home site for the country's emerging business elite. By retaining partial ownership or including restrictions in deeds, they aimed to exercise control over the parcels they sold. Yet once sold, land might still be resold, subdivided, mortgaged, or developed by new owners in ways inconsistent with the idea of an exotic, upper-class haven. For that reason, hotel building took on special importance as a definer of place.22
Carl Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast Family, Luxury Innkeepers
Early on, Fisher hoped that his extensive investments in urban infrastructure and recreational facilities, along with the prospect of rapidly rising real estate values, would entice others to build the remaining crucial feature of his vision for Miami Beach: a good number of luxury hotels, which would serve as temporary lodging for prospective home-site buyers.23 When no such hotels were built, however, Fisher reluctantly established the first major hotel on the island, the Lincoln, in 1916 (Figure 9).24 Compelled to provide housing for his “fine class of customers,” stretched thin financially, and faced with serious operational difficulties (such as problems with obtaining building supplies and securing adequate labor), Fisher approached hotel building as a necessary early stage in his larger program of selling real estate and creating his elite resort.
The Lincoln, which opened to guests in early 1917, was originally constructed with 34 rooms; in 1920 it was enlarged to 68 rooms, and in 1924 it was enlarged again, to 102 rooms.25 The hotel's modest beginnings reflect the fact that it was conceived as a place where Fisher could house the overflow of guests hosted at his home, the Shadows, a short walk away on the oceanfront. Putting a bright face on the hotel's modest scale, Fisher's promotional literature described the Lincoln as an “ideal winter home” that “appealed to the visitor, not through use of orchestras and similar glamour of hotel life, but by establishing an environment which while not staid, nevertheless was different. Its life has been quiet, homelike, comfortable and attractive”—homelike being a middle-class shibboleth that appeared frequently in advertisements for a range of Miami Beach hotels.26 The Lincoln also gave special rates to the polo players Fisher hired to stage exhibitions intended to impress his wealthy guests.
Modest though it was, the Lincoln occupied an entire block along the southern side of Lincoln Road (later “the high class business street of the Beach”) between Drexel Avenue and the Congregational church on the west and Miami Avenue (later Washington Avenue) on the east; its primary orientation was not toward the urban grid to the south but toward the golf course across the street and the indoor tennis court one block northeast.27 The original structure suggested a Spanish colonial villa, with a barrel-tile roof, a small loggia entrance, and chimneys with bishop's-arch caps; most of the first floor was taken up by a large dining area and servants' quarters. Fisher expanded the hotel in 1920 in the midst of labor and financial troubles, giving the exterior of the new wing a massing similar to that of the existing wing, but with almost none of the earlier one's ornamentation. In lieu of barrel tiles, the new wing had a Spanish mission–style parapet, pilasters on the façade, pent roofs above the windows, a larger lobby, and more guest rooms.
Even in its expanded form, however, the Lincoln was inadequate, leading Fisher to build the Flamingo in 1921 (see Figure 1). Burdened with crippling financial pressures, he did so reluctantly.28 Convinced that a first-class hotel was necessary to fulfill his plans, persuaded that no one else would build one, and dangerously stretched financially, Fisher created the Flamingo as a glamorous luxury hotel—one built, as much as possible, on the cheap. Toward that end, he took the advice of Coral Gables architect Walter DeGarmo, with whom he consulted on the Lincoln's expansion. According to DeGarmo, Spanish-style architecture provided just the sort of low-cost, high-class approach that Fisher needed. As he wrote to Fisher in 1919: “To my mind this Spanish style of treatment with a few spots of concentrated ornament and big wall surfaces of pleasing texture and color is particularly adapted to this country with its tropical climate and Spanish traditions. Another advantage of this scheme is the economy of construction and operation, that is absolutely essential in a profitable hotel.”29
Fisher first engaged the Philadelphia architectural firm of Price & McLanahan, which had designed the massive Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City (1915), but he became annoyed when the bids for the firm's 300-room design exceeded a million dollars: “We are now building a hotel of 200-rooms that will, in our estimation, be suitable for this work,” he scolded. “I will admit, of course, that this hotel is not going to be as fancy or as expensive as your design, but it is going to be what we earnestly and honestly tried to impress you with as required. I feel honestly Mr. McLanahan, that you really paid no attention whatever to our requests for a simple, practical hotel.”30
Fisher then dismissed Price & McLanahan and hired the Indianapolis firm of Rubush & Hunter to design “a simple, practical hotel.” He soon fought with his new architects over design elements that he wanted, such as a low-ceilinged lobby with rustic Spanish furniture and flamingo murals. Preston C. Rubush and his decorating consultants complained that these elements were “making it look like a Dutch saloon or a museum of natural history in place of a fine hotel lobby” (Figure 10).31
The resulting building, a product of grand visions carried out while “cutting out as many frills as we can,” still showed the earmarks of other luxury hotels built during this era.32 Opened in January 1921, the original eleven-story, 168-room Flamingo (soon to be enlarged) sat on nearly 17 acres at the city's western edge, overlooking Biscayne Bay—specifically, the yacht basin and regatta and boat racing course that were the hotel's focal points. Almost all images of the complex show it as viewed from the bay, emphasizing that the hotel was oriented toward the water, not toward the city. This impression was strengthened by the siting of the first expansion wing, located to the south of the original building and curving slightly toward the water. A long, palm-lined entrance drive set the hotel apart from the city, while tennis courts and putting greens cushioned it on the east. On the west, the teahouse and dance floor (with orchestra), with its “gaily painted chairs and tables and china with the waitresses in stunning Jap costumes,” lay between the hotel and yacht docks. Seven cottages, rented for extended stays by guests with their own servants, surrounded the main building and gave a taste of what it might be like to own a winter home in Miami Beach. The extensive grounds hosted supporting buildings (laundry, power plant, bakery), while the main building contained a Western Union office, grill, barbershop and salon, private maids' and chauffeurs' quarters, and millinery and jewelry stores.33 Spare in architectural details, the Flamingo represented Fisher's first attempt to set the standard for Miami Beach hotel architecture, to create an experience of high-class residence, recreation, and camaraderie for those able to afford it.
By the mid-1920s, Fisher's improving finances and his ability to raise money through partnerships allowed him to construct three more luxury hotels at key locations. The Nautilus Hotel, designed by Schultze & Weaver—known for such upper-class hotels as the Biltmore in Los Angeles (1923) and, later, the Waldorf Astoria in New York (1931)—opened in January 1924. Less austere than the Flamingo, with a richly appointed lobby and lounge, the Nautilus also exhibited Spanish colonial motifs, along with baroque, Renaissance, and neoclassical touches on its façade and interior (Figures 11 and 12).34 Sited on 21 acres, the 189-room Nautilus had all the appurtenances expected of a luxury hotel: dining room and grill, Spanish tea garden and dance floor (with orchestra), seven shops, broker's office, putting greens, tennis courts, garage for private vehicles, and extensive servants' quarters. In keeping with Fisher's vision of wealth, athleticism, and real estate sales, the Nautilus was bordered on the east by polo fields and a network of wide driveways. On the west, the hotel grounds included two private islands in Biscayne Bay, both accessible via small pedestrian bridges. One of the islands featured yacht docks and later a swimming pool, and the other was a “bungalow island” with sixteen “alluring villas, faintly suggesting the gracious formality of Spain” and serving as demonstration homes.35
The Boulevard, which opened in 1926, was the most unusual of Fisher's hotels, revealing the competing forces that shaped his decisions (Figure 13). It was an urban skyscraper with eighteen storefronts, situated on the north side of Dade Boulevard and the canal that separated South Beach from the northern part of the city—a location that largely isolated it from urban foot traffic. Originally, Fisher intended the project as something less luxurious than it became, its initial target market being “employees of the Fisher Properties, school teachers in Miami Beach, city officials and business people who desire to live in Miami Beach during the season, as well as in the summer months, in addition to the northern visitors which it will attract.” However, as costs topped a million dollars, the seven-story structure now had more than 230 rooms, an impressive lobby with 26-foot ceilings, handwrought iron lighting fixtures with amber lights, an “old Spanish garden” patio with a fountain donated by the architect, William F. Brown, and a tiled roof colonnade—all of this making it something more than typical workforce housing. Designed along “old Spanish lines,” the Boulevard was “fringed by the sporty fairways of two golf courses” and had its own large putting green, making it “the natural rendezvous of golfers.” Its proximity to the golf courses and its isolation from the most densely developed areas of the city explain why Fisher categorized it as one of his “Royal Family of Miami Beach Hotels.”36 In contrast to the nearby urban hostels built at the same time (discussed below), the Boulevard possessed the key elements of Fisher's vision for Miami Beach: ready access to active leisure, separation from the urban grid, association with residential real estate sales and land development, and costly aesthetic refinements.
The Miami architectural firm of Kiehnel and Elliott, known for its work in the wealthy Miami suburb of Coral Gables, designed Fisher's King Cole Hotel, which opened in January 1926 (see Figure 7). Set on a 480-foot stretch of Lake Surprise at the northern edge of Fisher's polo fields (at Forty-Eighth Street), the King Cole was “a resort for followers of polo,” designed to feel like an “exclusive club.” Looking like a grand Spanish hacienda, the King Cole presented an image of rustic elegance where men on horseback could pause to enjoy refreshments before congregating with their wives for a convivial evening of music and dancing. Like the Flamingo and the Nautilus, the King Cole had a “cottage colony” with “spacious villas architecturally vieing [sic] with each other,” promoting real estate sales, providing a social venue, and assuring increases in property values. “Almost hidden away in a grove of palms” and “bordered by a bougainvillea-draped wall,” the sixty-room King Cole was the smallest of Fisher's hotels—“expected to be one of the most exclusive winter hotels in the city.”37 Its low, overhanging roofs accentuated its relaxed, comfortable isolation from the most urbanized areas of the city.
Indeed, Fisher's hotels were increasingly characterized by their separation from the city. Once their function as real estate sales offices and client lodgings diminished, their form, siting, and amenities facilitated their withdrawal from the city-building process. As the Miami Herald noted in January 1925: “While the Lincoln, Flamingo and Nautilus have played a most important role in the development of Miami Beach it has come to pass that they are now looked upon as something entirely apart from the city, and are simply individual winter homes.”38 Fisher's hotels thus realized his vision of an exclusive resort city of upper-class winter residences, providing recreational spaces for wealthy men and entertainment and social spaces for their families.39
The Collins–Pancoast family, meanwhile, entered the luxury lodging game with the Pancoast Hotel in 1924 (Figure 14). Although John Collins first invested in Miami Beach as a place to grow fruit, by 1912 his family, led by Thomas Pancoast, founder of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and the city's second mayor, was dedicated to building the same sort of resort as those built by Fisher, one with “wide palm shaded streets, magnificent hotels and beautiful homes.”40 Like Fisher's hotels, the Pancoast was physically isolated from the city but with convenient access to golf courses, polo fields, and bathing casino, as well as the hundreds of home sites for sale to the east of the family's avocado orchards. Nestled in a grove of coconut palms just 30 feet from the ocean, the Pancoast sat well north of the most densely developed parts of the city, at Twenty-Ninth Street and Collins Avenue on a narrow stretch of land bordered on the west by Indian Creek. A landscaped driveway surrounded by gardens and bird path (for “lover's lane walks”) provided a buffer between the hotel and the road. More than Fisher's hotels, the 117-room Pancoast trumpeted Spanish colonial style. Miami architect Martin Hampton, known locally for his work in Coral Gables, prepared for the commission with a six-week trip to Europe to make “a study of Old Spain of the days of the Moors.” The result was “a true creation of those ideas obtained among ancient Spanish abodes and castles.” A seven-story watchtower crowned the asymmetrical clustering of four-story wings on the north and south, two three-story wings on the east, and a central structure of five stories. The picturesque placement of promenade verandas, courts, arches, and balconies, modeled on Moorish palaces in Andalusia, completed the “illusion of the Castilian presence, whispering of the romance and mysteries of centuries gone.” Equally lavish attention to every aspect of the interior—from the “antique parchment” finish of the walls to the massive “grotesque-looking” Florida cypress beam ceilings—conveyed “a general feeling of age” and “the effect of having been long faded by time.” Hampton placed the hotel's shops, servants' quarters (for chauffeurs, maids, and nurses), and bathing lockers on the ground floor, beneath the entertainment spaces on the second floor; the latter included a dining room served by an elaborately equipped kitchen, a lounge, a lobby, a card room, and a veranda positioned to take best advantage of sea breezes, “nature's best medicine for city-racked nerves.”41 Like Fisher's hotels, the Pancoast created a private social space, ensconced in nature, with access to recreation appropriate for an emerging commercial elite.
Miami Beach's Pre-Depression Urban Hostels
The hotels described above embodied the idea of Miami Beach as a resort for wealthy visitors during a brief winter season, generally lasting about ninety days, from Christmas to early April. In contrast, the city's urban hostels, representing approximately three-quarters of its total hotels in 1926—but only one-third of its total hotel rooms—provided lodging for a much wider array of visitors, people unable to afford upper-class accommodations but still drawn to the seaside resort.42 Some of the middle- and working-class tourists who stayed in urban hostels (and rental apartments) came to Miami Beach for the reasons that the chamber of commerce preferred to advertise: the natural wonders of a beautiful island “where palm fronds rustle a song of tropical winds and clouds”; salubrious weather; unspoiled but easily accessible white sandy beaches; dazzling foliage; seas overflowing with game fish; wholesome recreation; access to churches; clean, uncrowded streets; intriguing Spanish colonial architecture; and the chance to see the playgrounds, hotels, and homes of the nation's most successful businessmen.43 However, such images fail to illuminate the process of urbanization then occurring in South Beach, where the tourist city took a form that was quite different from the one envisioned by Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family.
Unlike the luxury hotels, which stood isolated in landscaped settings, most urban hostels appeared in clusters within a densifying urban grid. The largest and most important of these clusters—“the amusement center of South Beach”—was located at the southern tip of the island (Figure 15). Nearly thirty hotels were gathered there around Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and their cross streets, along with the two oldest bathing casinos on the beach, Smith's and Hardie's; a handful of hotels stood just north of Fifth Street along Euclid, Washington, and Collins Avenues. Two other notable clusters emerged in what would later become the city's principal nightlife districts: at the corners of Alton Road, Lincoln Road, and Dade Boulevard (to the northeast of the Flamingo Hotel, near the entrance to the first causeway to the mainland), and in the blocks across from the Roney Plaza Hotel and Fisher's bathing casino, near Twenty-Third Street.44
Bathing casinos are an underappreciated feature of Miami Beach's tourist infrastructure. As was the case with the hotels, the patrons of the casinos were divided by class. Carl Fisher's Roman Pools, with its incongruous Dutch windmill, was intended in part for use by the guests in his hotels and was known as a fashionable gathering spot during the 1920s (Figure 16). As one observer recalled, “Everyone who was important, or wanted to be important, or thought they were important made their appearance at the Roman Pools between 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. each day.”45 Several other less exclusive casinos operating during this period (Smith's, Hardie's, Cook's, Furry's, Dixie Bath House) were clustered in the South Beach amusement district, along Ocean Drive just north of Biscayne Street, where tourists accessed recreational facilities that the urban hostels, because of their small size and limited budgets, could not provide. For a modest fee, casino patrons could enjoy ocean bathing, swimming pools, and access to lockers and showers. The casinos also featured athletic exhibitions (such as swimming, diving, and canoe jousting), swimsuit contests, music and dancing, and food served at grills and restaurants. Casinos rented out facilities for social events as well, and held their own teas dances and nighttime theme parties.46
The casinos at the South Beach amusement center anchored dozens of small businesses that served the middle- and working-class tourist trade. Rather than yachting and polo, the South Beach amusement center offered the sorts of entertainment found on seaside boardwalks, with a carnival atmosphere characterized, as real estate broker J. B. Van Urk complained, by “the promiscuous display of the human anatomy (both men and women) on the streets of Miami Beach.”47 Here, tourists could find a profusion of restaurants, movie theaters, arcades (such as Satin's Recreation Parlor and Omen & Gillespie Amusements), ballrooms (the Roseland Dancehall and Trotter's Ballroom), a billiard parlor, an archery range, cigar stores, confectioners, ice cream stands, drink stands, fruit stands, sandwich shops, soda fountains, novelty stores, and delicatessens—a collection of amusements more reminiscent of Atlantic City or Coney Island than of the nearby exclusive enclave of Palm Beach.
Illegal gambling also drew tourists to South Beach, and here the tensions between social classes sometimes spilled into public view. Miami Beach's bathing casinos, at least in some cases, were not simply bathing casinos but also actual gambling establishments. Dan Hardie, former Dade County sheriff and owner of Hardie's Casino, argued publicly that gambling made Miami Beach a “fun-loving city.” During the tourist season especially, Miami Beach became a “wide-open town,” with a notable variety of small-scale gambling (keno, slot machines) conducted in plain sight. Periodic efforts to prevent gambling were resisted by merchants and business owners who agreed with Hardie that gambling was critical to the city's appeal. Ed Wheelan, owner of Wheelan's Fish Grill in South Beach, noted that “our visitors come down here expecting to play.” South Beach restauranteur Mike Gilroy captured the view of many when he told the city council (usually cooperative on such matters) that “open gambling is not essential but it is indispensable.”48
Although the lively world of South Beach generally coexisted peacefully with the more staid winter refuge of the elite, conflict between the two erupted briefly in 1931 when members of the Committee of 100—a group of nationally prominent businessmen with homes in Miami Beach—demanded that the city council stop the flagrant gambling on display in South Beach. South Beach merchants protested vigorously, fearing that a “closed” town would ruin their winter season: “Millionaires Want Closed, Tradesmen Open Winter City” was the headline on one account. This battle between the “social and financial elite” and “bourgeois businessmen and shopkeepers” placed the mayor and council in the uncomfortable position of taking sides in a class war over urban image:
Miami Beach shares this problem with most communities that have attracted rich men well along in years who would build homes, not industry or commerce in their new environment. The scramble of mercantile development about them irritates them instead of inspiring them. They grow socially finical, and the neighbors must be hand-picked. And often, as at Miami, they would have even the hoi-polloi free of crude persons who patronize gambling resorts, speakeasies and the like.49
The controversy quickly abated, but it showed how different, and sometimes incompatible, the city's contrasting social worlds had become: one with gambling resorts, ice cream stands, scantily clad tourists, and shopkeepers eager for any business they could get, and the other with polo matches, charity balls, vacation homes, and “prominent Americans” anxious to protect the elite image—and property values—of their winter hideaway.
The urban hostels of Miami Beach, along with a substantial number of apartment buildings, supplied lodging to the tourists who swam at the casinos, dined at the restaurants, snacked at the drink stands and lunch counters, played at the amusement parlors, walked the streets in bathing suits, and gambled openly. Unlike the city's luxury hotels, shaped by the broad ambitions of Fisher and Pancoast, urban hostels such as the thirty-room Hotel Leonard (1925), built by real estate broker H. E. Glickman and owned by Nathan and Jack Schreiber of Detroit (a banker and a motion picture theater operator), were built by a variety of investors, speculators, small business operators, hotel brokers, and owners of individual plots of land (Figure 17).50 Urban hostel development in Miami Beach was market led, not developer led; it was the product of multiple individual choices, not the unified vision of a single major developer.
Hostel builders, owners, and operators reflected the fragmented process of real estate development in South Beach. In only one case was an urban hostel builder operating on the same scale as Fisher and Pancoast. N. B. T. Roney, a New Jersey lawyer who first purchased land in Miami Beach in 1918, eventually acquired substantial properties in South Beach, where the city's urban hostels were located. He constructed two of these, including the sixteen-room Haddon Hotel (1922), at Collins Avenue and Fifth Street, along with numerous commercial buildings (Figure 18). Roney built just one luxury hotel—the Roney Plaza (1926), designed by Schultze & Weaver—although his large stretch of beachfront property could easily have supported others.51
Many urban hostels were speculative ventures, and leasing agreements were common. Hostel builders leased their small buildings to operators, some lured by brokers' advertisements and inflated claims of returns, which assumed full occupancy year-round. P. J. Davis, owner of a construction company, built the Alton Hotel in 1924 and immediately offered to sell or lease it.52 H. M. Hardee of Norfolk, Virginia, built the three-story Southland Hotel and Apartment Building that same year and leased it to an operator.53 In 1924, Theo Staats of New Jersey took a five-year lease on the Casino Inn from the realty company that owned it.54 Charles Fowler of Boston built the Riviera Hotel and Apartments in 1924 for $250,000, leased it in 1925 for $500,000 to Albert Imbrey of New York, and then foreclosed a year later when Imbrey failed to keep up with the payments; he then ran the property himself.55
Some hostels were operated by widows, such as Mrs. E. Lyons of New Orleans, who ran the Seaside Inn on Ocean Drive, and Mrs. Beatrice Bartholomew of Ohio, who built a hotel/apartment building on Washington Avenue.56 In other cases, hotel ownership and operation were but one stop in a string of entrepreneurial ventures. Charles DeCromer established his reputation in the lodging industry by leasing the Seacrest Hotel from its second owner, Walter Payne. When his lease expired in 1924, he purchased the Carol Grill on Collins Avenue, which he rechristened Charley's Grill and Hotel. DeCromer later moved the business to the Bridge Inn (thirty-nine rooms) on Dade Boulevard, near the newly completed Venetian Causeway to Miami, and opened a nightclub there featuring cabaret performances.57 Hostels were thus a key part of the commercial real estate world in Miami Beach, where sales were frequent and foreclosures commonplace. Those who ventured into the market had a shared interest in drumming up business, advertising the city to paying customers, and making Miami Beach a bustling summer resort, not just a winter haven.
Urban hostels were, in most cases, much smaller than luxury hotels. Charley's Grill (at Fourth and Collins) had only five guest rooms, though it also housed a restaurant, a “tea dansant” ballroom, and a “luxuriously equipped” gambling parlor with a “beautifully wrought roulette wheel.” At the other end of the spectrum, the Commoner Hotel (four blocks west on Michigan Avenue) had 172 rooms, making it the largest of the pre-Depression-era urban hostels. Located close to casinos and public transportation, its chief virtue was its affordability: “Cutting Expenses? The ‘high cost of living’ won't worry you over here at the Commoner,” read one of its ads. The Commoner was an outlier, however; among the city's urban hostels during the mid-1920s, the median number of rooms was thirty-two.58
Typically, urban hostels abutted the street. Like small urban hotels built elsewhere in the United States during these years, Miami Beach's urban hostels were both low-cost lodging and commercial real estate. The Altonia Hotel (1926), at the corner of Lincoln and Alton Roads, had forty-eight guest rooms and numerous storefronts (Figure 19). Advertised as “a good place to live,” the Altonia offered guests “the best for less,” along with easy access to bus and streetcar lines.59 The fifty-room El Paso Hotel (1926) on Fifth Street was similarly close to public transportation, casinos, and Flamingo Park (see Figure 6). Run by hotel broker Walter Reid, who also operated the eighteen-room New York Hotel (at Fifth and Meridian), the El Paso had a 16-by-35-foot storefront available for lease on the ground floor, linked to its “spacious lobby” and “sun-parlor.”60 N. B. T. Roney's first hotel, the Haddon, leased space to several businesses, including Jack's Restaurant. Even those urban hostels not located on commercial thoroughfares tended to be placed close to the street, occupying most of their lots and leaving little space for landscaping or leisure activities. The thirty-three-room Madrid Hotel, built by Roney in 1923 near the beach at Fourth and Collins, is one example (Figure 20).61
Because they occupied their entire lots, urban hostels often took a box-with-façade approach to design, with widely varying results. The sixty-room Mare Grande (1926), located on Ocean Drive just north of Fifth Street, was built by Ida Groves, a thirteen-year resident of the city who had made her name as a “pioneer in the building of apartment houses in Miami Beach”; Groves was the first woman to become a member of the city's chamber of commerce (see Figure 3).62 Less sophisticated in design than the Nautilus or the Roney Plaza, the Mare Grande nonetheless showed pride of ownership and a sense of place, with its hanging balconies, bold moldings, transom windows of glass brick, quoins, and rooftop colonnade. The Mare Grande's façade echoed elements of the adjacent twenty-two-room Miami Beach Hotel (1924), built and operated by Chicago-born Frank Novak and his son, Frank Jr., the latter a “musical prodigy” who conducted the orchestra at Hardie's Casino (Figure 21).63 The Mare Grande stood only a few feet from the Miami Beach Hotel, and the façades of the two buildings combined to give the street a nostalgic Spanish colonial atmosphere.
Even when urban hostels were built, as they often were in the city's early years, beside plots without adjoining buildings, they were generally decorated only on their front façades. Characteristic of this were both the relatively simple eighty-room Meridian (1926) and the more ornate Ambassador (1927) (Figure 22). In other cases—such as the Novak-owned Ocean Beach Hotel on Ocean Drive near Sixth Street—urban hostels were simply boxes with no decoration at all (Figure 23). But such austerity was not universal to hostel design. The 160-room Hotel Parada (1927), built and owned by J. Garrett Fitzgerald, a construction contractor from Chicago, was laden with ornament and amenities; along with a coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch, the Parada had a small courtyard for afternoon teas and evening dances, not unlike the sorts of social spaces found at luxury hotels (Figure 24).64
Still, the Parada was unusual—urban hostels generally had few of the amenities found at places like the Flamingo, Nautilus, King Cole, and Pancoast. Guests in urban hostels relied on outside urban amenities, compelling the “Chamber of Commerce and many real estate investors and residents” to be “active in advocating more amusements at night for the city.”65 Although they occasionally advertised roof gardens or solariums (for rooftop sunbathing), urban hostels tended to emphasize their proximity to independently operated casinos, restaurants, theaters, parks, shopping, and public transportation. The Hotel Warrinn (1926), for example, was adjacent to Smith's Casino and advertised its “live and let live rates,” free use of the casino's pool, and proximity to the Biscayne Plaza Theater (Figure 25).66
Miami Beach's urban hostels fulfilled a variety of functions for a diverse middle- and working-class market. Some provided little more than rooms for business travelers, while others announced their guests in the local paper, emulating the social notices provided by luxury hotels. In some cases, urban hostels served as workforce housing for seasonal labor, such as dressmakers and milliners catering to the visiting elite staying nearby. The short-lived Stag Lodge was an “exclusive hotel for men,” with “the charms of environment and refinement of a cheerful club.”67
Although local folklore suggests that Jews were excluded from most of Miami Beach until the 1930s, at least three kosher hotels were in operation by 1925, all in the most densely developed area of South Beach. The fifty-room Nemo Hotel at First Street and Collins Avenue was built in 1921 by jewelry manufacturer Samuel Magid of Providence, Rhode Island. Located across the street from Smith's and Hardie's Casinos, the Nemo had five storefronts and a restaurant serving strictly kosher cuisine.68 Two years later, in 1923, R. Siegel and M. Levin opened the Sea Breeze Hotel, where “dietary laws” were “absolutely adhered to” and meals were available for Passover (Figure 26). Located a block north of the Nemo on Collins, the Sea Breeze had a plain façade dominated by alternating pairs of hanging balconies and window boxes; it also had a terrace, later covered with an awning, where guests could sit and gaze down upon the street.69 The third kosher hotel, the Leonard, sat just across from Hardie's Casino and provided its guests with a homelike dining room (see Figure 17).70
Miami Beach's urban hostels of the pre-Depression era took the city in cultural and urbanistic directions quite different from those associated with the luxury hotels built by Fisher and the Collins–Pancoast family. Serving a diverse audience of middle- and working-class tourists, urban hostels eschewed the exclusivity that Fisher promoted with his “Royal Family of Miami Beach Hotels.” Unlike Fisher's elite-oriented, low-density enclaves, the city's urban hostels were features of a seaside boomtown, the result of multiple dreams and schemes, built without a singular vision of resort development. Because they were too small to offer much in the way of social or recreational amenities, they relied on the surrounding city to provide their guests with entertainment and leisure facilities. In this symbiotic urbanism, they supplied lodging to patrons supporting other businesses; meanwhile, those businesses gave hostel patrons reasons to come to Miami Beach. Those hostels located on commercial streets frequently doubled as lodging and storefront real estate. Consequently, while most luxury hotels stood alone on large plots of land, urban hostels depended on their densely built urban context. Luxury hotels had the most direct influence on the city's image in the pre-Depression era, establishing Miami Beach as the nation's premier winter resort and a dazzling center of affluence forged from the wilderness, but urban hostels established an approach that would dominate the city's next phase of hotel urbanism. Luxury hotels would not reappear in significant numbers until after World War II. By that time, urban hostels had transformed Fisher's outpost of wealth and social exclusion into a more raucous and inclusive center of accessible and affordable recreation and escape for people of almost all classes.
Miami Beach's pre-Depression-era hotels contributed significantly to the process of urban image making in that city. Beyond this, the city led the way as the Florida Sunbelt became a key arena for redefining class identity—in terms of work, domesticity, and leisure—in the 1930s and after. Rapid real estate development there created new routes across class lines by drawing in a cross section of Americans, including small proprietors such as the owners and operators of urban hostels in Miami Beach and the new commercial and industrial elite represented by Carl Fisher and others. These groups established their claims on class identity in many ways, including through the architecture and urbanism of their work and leisure landscapes. This article has shown how different approaches to city building—developer led and market led—were manifested in the pre-Depression-era hotels of Miami Beach.