Avra Jain: Modern-Day Julia Tuttle

Unlike her male counterparts, Jain is approaching the revitalization of the city in a completely different way.
Unlike her male counterparts, Jain is approaching the revitalization of the city in a completely different way.
Photo by Stian Roenning

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

Just a few yards from the buzz of Biscayne Boulevard, Avra Jain sits by the pool at the Vagabond Hotel, the iconic Miami Modern structure that until a couple of years ago seemed doomed to linger in a state of blight. Today, the crackling paint and overgrown vegetation are gone, replaced by sleek chaise longues and playful water features.

Jain, whose fit, 53-year-old frame is matched by a cheerful and energetic demeanor, is largely responsible for the Vagabond's transformation. She's a former engineer and Wall Street trader who began fixing up apartments around downtown and SoHo in New York as a hobby. Eventually, she left her job when the opportunity to do a loft conversion in Tribeca came calling. During this time, she would bounce back and forth between New York and the '80s and '90s bohemian scene in South Beach. She moved here permanently in 1998 to be with her partner. But although love might have brought her here, Miami and its real estate potential have kept her interested.

Likened to Julia Tuttle, the mother and founder of Miami, she retorts, "I'll take that," and laughs at the comparison.

"Doing infrastructure work is a whole other thing," Jain says of Tuttle. "She bridged this city to the rest of the country, and she convinced a lot of wealthy men to participate, which is pretty remarkable."

OK, so maybe the comparison is a stretch. But because the Magic City is the only major U.S. municipality founded by a woman, it's hard not to compare. Along Miami's Upper Eastside and into Little Haiti and Lemon City, Jain has carved out a slice of what has been universally considered blighted parts of Miami. But unlike her male counterparts in Wynwood, Edgewater, the Design District, and downtown, Jain is approaching the revitalization of the city in a completely different way.

"A lot of them do it because it's cheaper to build new," Jain says of why developers sometimes knock down historic structures. "They build a new building and say, 'We're being sustainable.' But you just knocked down a building. That's not very sustainable."

However, instead of tearing things down and erecting shiny, mixed-used loft spaces overlooking Biscayne, Jain did something unheard of outside Miami Beach's Art Deco District -- she rehabbed the Vagabond into a boutique hotel, complete with a picturesque pool and a restaurant helmed by the 25-year-old culinary wunderkind Alex Chang.

"In the 1950s, this was the affordable extension of all the glamour happening on Miami Beach," Jain explains.

Some of that glamour rained down on mainland Miami, which included an outpost of the Playboy Club at 7701 Biscayne Blvd. and the Robert Swartburg-designed Vagabond Motel at 7301 Biscayne Blvd.

Eventually, the glamour left all of Miami, including South Beach, and would not return until Gianni Versace and supermodels called the area home in the '90s. But while Miami Beach has returned as a tourist mecca, Biscayne has had trouble shaking off its recent red-light-district past.

"This was a great opportunity to bring back the history of Miami," she says.

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