Kitsch Highway

Dust rises from the dirt trenches in front of the Thunderbird Resort Motel on Collins Avenue at 184th Street, where a state highway renovation project lately has created an obstacle course for summer tourists. Repairs are in progress at the motel as well. On a recent afternoon, two painters perched on scaffolding touch up the bright colors of a Miami architect's vision of Native American culture, retracing the giant eaglelike chevron emblazed on the facade of the building, one of the higher structures along the crowded Sunny Isles strip.

The Thunderbird was one of many motels that architect Norman Giller designed for the stretch of Collins Avenue between 155th and 194th streets, the oceanside location of a postwar fantasy that became known as Motel Row. Predating Disney World and Morris Lapidus's kitsch palaces farther south on Miami Beach, the Sunny Isles motels built by Giller and a handful of other pioneers were early monuments to the newfound leisure time of the modern era's middle class.

When construction began on the Thunderbird in the spring of 1955, the strip already looked like an oversize miniature golf course, lined with a carnival arcade of flashing lights and beckoning figures that included the concrete sphinxes that still guard the Suez; the "oasis" in front of the Sahara Motel, inhabited by five sculpted camels and two robed Arabs, whose thuggish features make them look more like Gerard Depardieu than Lawrence of Arabia; the Colonial Inn's genteel white horses and carriage; the Day-Glo Tiki masks mounted by the doors of the hot-pink and white Waikiki; that motel's Swinger Lounge, decorated with sequined hula girls in relief. Blue Grass, Tahiti, Bali, the ingenuously named Sun City, and dozens more were designed to appeal to new tastes for reasonably priced vacation adventures.

It was Giller, a Florida native who has lived in Miami since 1929, who started it all. In 1949 his firm built what is believed to be the first two-story motel in the United States A the Ocean Palm at Collins Avenue and 157th Street, still in business today. "Up until then, motels only had one floor, since the whole idea was that you could drive your car right up to the room," remembers Giller, now 77 years old and still active. (He works with his son out of their office on Arthur Godfrey Road, tackling projects such as the renovation of the Netherland on Ocean Drive.) "My clients weren't sure if people would walk up an extra flight," Giller explains. "It turned out they would -- the place was full from the first season." And the resort motel was born.

Economical but packed with amenities that included newfangled air conditioning, multiple swimming pools, and organized recreational activities (they frequently took place in the cocktail lounge), the mod new motels were described in the press as an affordable option to Miami Beach's more distinguished hotels. "The architecture is flamboyant, super-modern, tropical," gushed an article about Motel Row in the July 1952 issue of Tourist Court Journal. "The atmosphere is deluxe, almost pleasantly snobbish."

The first motels settled on predictable seaside names such as the Green Heron and the Castaways. But as the area became more thickly settled, the owners chose increasingly exotic monikers, which also served to provide decorative themes, carried out in the lobby areas and guests' rooms, and culminating in the eye-catching concrete sculptures outside, some up to 40 feet high.

"The motels were geared toward the family tourist," Giller points out. "They presented a more economical alternative to the hotels in Miami Beach. And to make that alternative more attractive, they began to use the various themes. That made them a tourist attraction. It gave people a place to take pictures of themselves and send them home."

"It was a thing we did to differentiate ourselves," adds Mel Rubel, the 74-year-old owner of the Blue Mist on Collins and 191st, a two-story building flanked by the "Maids of the Mist," a pair of curiously monstrous goddesses who wear ocean waves for dresses and who hold crescent moons over their heads. Created by a mason with artistic ambitions who happened to be working on the construction site, the "maids" still stand at the Blue Mist. "There were so many motels," notes Rubel. "This was a way that the guests could remember which one they were staying in."

Giller explains that the client usually picked the theme for the hotels he designed: a rustic look and a pelican logo for the Driftwood; a Roman soldier in a toga and kicky sandals for the Dunes; an Egyptian look for the Suez; an American Indian motif for the Thunderbird. The architects themselves often designed the sculptures and the painted logos, although occasionally an outside artist was commissioned.

"We would use the motif throughout the building, and make the design of the motel half modern and half thematic," Giller says. Sometimes the choice for a decorative theme was left up to the architect himself. Giller's firm came up with the name the Fountainhead for the motel they built at 160th Street and Collins, commemorating the 1943 Ayn Rand novel about the trials of a misunderstood and visionary modern-age architect, Ö la Frank Lloyd Wright. Waterfalls ran down the hotel's facade. "Oh, yeah, we really had fun in those days," Giller sighs wistfully.

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