During the mid-Fifties when Morris Lapidus was designing Bal Harbour's Americana Hotel, he wanted monkeys to swing from the vines in the lobby's glassed-in terrarium. The restrained Tisch family, then-owners of the hotel, balked. Ultimately only a few baby alligators got to scamper around the terrarium's tropical foliage and accompanying small pool. But the idea was typical Lapidus, a one-time retail-store designer turned maverick architect alternately denigrated and celebrated for his dramatic flair. Modern buildings, boxy and boring according to the International Style, curved and undulated in his plans. Fixtures became more than just givers of light: They were theatrical spots strategically placed to illuminate and amaze. Interior design wasn't limited to one stodgy style but expanded to encompass an eclectic blend of Chinese, Italian, Art Deco, and French decor.
"From my very first design, I realized I'm designing for people," Lapidus explains. "I'm not designing for my client, for the critics, or for the architectural magazines. I'm people oriented. I want them to feel comfortable, to get some happiness out of my structures." Among Lapidus's creations that have given great joy to many: the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, the Crystal House apartments, and most notably, Lincoln Road.
Commissioned in 1960 to help revitalize the once-thriving area, Lapidus closed Lincoln to traffic and created the country's first outdoor pedestrian mall, decorating the district with fountains, planters, sculptures, and benches. (Original plans had the road extending from the beach to the bay.) "There was no shopping area like it," boasts the architect, who established his first Miami Beach office there. Business on the road soon picked up, but not for long. By the mid-Seventies and throughout the Eighties, the area became a virtual ghost town. An influx of culture in the late Eighties helped bring it back to life. Artists began renting low-cost studio space from the South Florida Art Center. The Miami City Ballet and the New World Symphony moved in to buildings on the mall, as did a clutch of galleries, restaurants, and stores.
At 96 years old, Lapidus has lived to see his reputation decimated by critics (they deemed the Americana, now the Sheraton Bal Harbour, a "monument to vulgarity") and then restored by scholars and fans. He has also survived to witness Lincoln Road's many incarnations. The latest was supplemented by a $16 million redesign, initiated in 1995 by Miami Beach Community Development Corporation. The project wraps up April 13 with three events. At its annual meeting MBCDC celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the Miami Beach historical district's listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Afterward on the road, the City of Miami Beach dedicates a plaque in honor of Lapidus at his sun shelter on Euclid Avenue. Following that will be an inauguration of a new gateway structure designed by architect Carlos Zapata at Washington Avenue. (All sharp angles, shiny materials, and subdued colors, Zapata's works include the Beach's futuristic Publix and the interior renovation of the Albion Hotel. He is a partner in Wood and Zapata, the firm charged with renovating Lincoln Road.)
Soon home to an eighteen-screen movie theater and, to the dismay of many, the Gap, Lincoln Road is once again a cherished place to shop, eat, meander, and watch the past and present converge -- especially for its designer. "I can't walk Lincoln Road like I used to," says Lapidus, who strolls with the aid of a walker, "but I love to go out there and have lunch or dinner." And sentiment is stirred up when he does: "Once again it's what I started out doing in 1927: pleasing people. Here I am pleasing people, and they love it."
Miami Beach Community Development Corporation meets at 4:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 13, at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Ceremonies honoring Morris Lapidus and Carlos Zapata begin at 6:00 p.m. on Lincoln Rd. Admission is free. Call 305-538-0090.