Edifice Rex

The establishment hated him, but resort-goers thought his designs were the best thing since room service. If it was fun, funky, and Fifties in Miami Beach, chances are Morris Lapidus dreamed it up.

The old man doesn't have to wait long to prove his point. Where upward-flaring, stainless-steel columns once graced the grand, sweeping entranceway of the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort and Spa on Miami Beach's Collins Avenue, spindly shafts now stand. "I hate to go back into these places," he mutters as he steps from the car. Bowed forward from age and an aching back, he clamps his hands behind his waist for balance and heads into the building he designed 40 years ago, pausing not a moment to assess the newest damage done to his creation. "I didn't want to come here anyway."

Ninety-year-old Morris Lapidus wanders around the lobby, studying the changes that numerous designers have wrought on his original structure, searching for evidence of what made the Fontainebleau one of the most famous hotels in the world A and one of the most reviled among architectural critics. "The whole thing is different," he snaps in his crusty Brooklyn accent, his mouth fixed in a droop of displeasure. "They've wallpapered all these rosewood panels." It's a decades-old design change that Lapidus has seen many times before in this lobby, but it still upsets him.

A fit, compact man who moves with the ease and coordination of someone 30 years his junior, Lapidus wanders over to the elevators that connect the lobby with the shopping arcade below. They, too, are a years-old perversion, slicing straight through his original design. "It destroyed everything," he says. "There used to be islands and carpets and chairs here. But now there's not a single place to sit down. And the mural set it all off. They got rid of it, too.

"The planter under the staircase was mine," Lapidus goes on, "but it had a couple of marble statues. Where they are, I don't know." He turns his weary eyes back toward the center of the room, as if looking for vestiges of the exciting lobby he created, with its colossal chandeliers and ostentatious stairway and faux columns flooded with light, features of an aesthetic that in many ways defined the gilded glamour look of Miami Beach in the Fifties. "Some day," he says, "somebody's going to paint these columns." Then, under his breath: "Nothing surprises me any more."

After a life like Lapidus's, that's not hard to believe. From his humble beginnings in the ghettos of New York, he became one of the nation's premier store-designers during the Thirties and Forties, revolutionizing the aesthetic of commerce. As a hotel architect in the next two decades, he was made wealthy by clients, adored by hotel guests, but excoriated by critics and members of the architectural establishment, who considered his work kitsch, schlock. Other Lapidus projects included dozens of apartment and office buildings, hospitals, a school, synagogues, theaters, restaurants, and one of the first pedestrian-only, open-air commercial boulevards in the U.S.: Lincoln Road Mall.

By now much of Lapidus's work has vanished. Nearly all the hotel interiors have been remodeled, some of the buildings have been torn down, the storefronts and shops have long since disappeared. But the past couple of years have seen a resurgence of interest in his work. He is the subject of a recently published book in Germany, he has been invited to lecture at the University of Miami and at Yale University, and his work is to be showcased at an upcoming exhibit at the Bass Museum of Art. Perhaps most significantly, he has emerged from a nine-year retirement to design the interior of a new restaurant on Lincoln Road. "If I don't die a hero, I'd die a martyr," he muses. "So I think I'll stay around a little longer."

But for a man who spent so much of his professional life as a critical outcast, he adapts to the new role of the beloved one with some awkwardness. Even as he continues his tour farther up Collins Avenue to the Eden Roc Hotel, whose owner is currently restoring some of his neo-baroque interior designs, he carries on his quiet tirade against the shortsighted designers and hoteliers who corrupted his ideas.

"Miserable day," he says to the hotel's owner by way of greeting, although not unkindly. "Not as bad as yesterday, I guess." Accompanied by the manager, a chubby, overly genial sort, Lapidus points out that a huge chandelier that once adorned the lobby is long gone. He gestures to a white, paneled wall where he once commissioned a Chinese artist to paint a mural depicting Marco Polo's journey to China. The mural, he says, was stripped and covered years ago. "This is criminal," he snorts. "They ruined it. This has been my trouble with every hotel I designed."

In an upper-floor suite overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the manager hopefully displays several restored Lapidus creations: the upholstered headboards, the lamp with oval shades and a base formed by three miniature Roman columns, dresser knobs embellished with the hotel's calligraphic initials. The architect surveys the room and, to the manager's visible relief, says he likes it. But downstairs in the main dining room, Lapidus again turns morose. Mirrors cover walls where copies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masterpieces once hung, another years-old redesign Lapidus still isn't used to. Artificial plants occupy niches where he had placed whimsical statues of satyrs playing golf and tennis and pursuing other resort activities. "All kinds of innovations that I had, all gone," he pronounces.

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