Just for a moment or two, imagine yourself alongside the renowned architects who were flown in to town this past week by German developer Thomas Kramer and his company, the Portofino Group. For six days, you, along with town planners and local officials and community leaders, would participate in a conference, known as a charrette, to ponder the fate of South Pointe in Miami Beach. During the past year and a half, Kramer has purchased nearly 35 acres of property in the area below Fifth Street, at a cost of nearly $30 million.
You and the other members of the charrette would be discussing how best to develop Kramer's properties and the land around them.
But before you all rolled up your sleeves and got to the drawing board, Kramer had thoughtfully rented a trolley to take everyone on a pleasant excursion around South Pointe. A tour guide had been hired to describe various points of interest along the route.
The engine is starting up outside. Can you hear the tour guide calling?
After the trolley tour, all of you should have a better feel for the area. Then we'll return you to Joe's Stone Crab so you can all get down to work. Mr. Kramer has rented the entire restaurant for our use for the next six days. Isn't that wonderful?
We're heading north on Ocean Drive now. If you look to your right, you can just about see the Atlantic Ocean. Do you see that big, new-looking building? That's Penrod's, a local restaurant and nightclub complex. Mr. Kramer doesn't own it, of course A at least not yet. But he does own all the land around it.
And farther up the block is the Ocean Haven Hotel, which Mr. Kramer purchased...I'm sorry, was there a question? You're asking what's going on over to the left, across the street near First Street? Don't pay that any mind. It's just an, ummm, a wrecking ball. All right now, group, if everyone will look over to the right...I'm sorry, yes? You want to know why those bulldozers are there? As I said, it's, er, nothing, really. They're just, er, knocking down the old Leonard Beach Hotel.
Yes, you're correct, the Leonard Beach is the oldest standing hotel in Miami Beach. Or at least it was until Mr. Kramer had it torn down on Monday and Tuesday. Why? Oh, structural problems. When Mr. Kramer bought the hotel, he gutted it and made it into a nightclub. The remodeling weakened some of the building's columns and support beams.
Yes, I guess you could say that wasn't very smart. Sad? I suppose you could call it that. I was talking to Paul George, a local historian, the other day. He says the Leonard was a real jewel. Built back in the Twenties. He also told me the hotel was the site of some of the earliest Jewish services in Miami Beach. Long before any temples were built in this neighborhood, people would gather in one of the rooms upstairs to pray. "That place was an early landmark for the Jewish community," is the way he described it.
In fact, Paul George told me, for many years the Leonard was a vital part of this entire neighborhood. And what a neighborhood it was! You had the Miami Beach Kennel Club down the block, and across the street was a lodge called Smith's. Families would come across the bay on a ferry, rent a Smith cabana, and spend the day swimming in the ocean.
Of course, the Leonard outlived all those places. The building weathered the great hurricane of 1926 A the eye passed right over the southern part of Miami Beach. Everything else around the hotel was destroyed by the 130-mile-per-hour winds. That storm was a killer, worse than Andrew, but the Leonard survived.
And through it all, the place maintained a certain charm. Never overpriced. Very reasonable. It had that beautiful courtyard in the center, and the rooms were specially designed with plenty of cross ventilation, to take advantage of the ocean breezes.
Then, in the Forties and Fifties A when Miami Beach was really hot A the neighborhood was alive with young people. Nights, they'd meet in the courtyard, stare up at the stars, walk across the street to the beach. It was lovely.
Yes, you're right, neglect pretty much destroyed this area in the Sixties and Seventies. It wasn't until the late Eighties that anyone thought about trying to salvage the Leonard. A man named Gerry Poplar found a partner to invest in the building with him. They brought in artists from New York, each of whom painted a different room in the hotel. To give it a sense of style again, but an updated sense. And it worked! The room rates were low, and the people started coming back.
Then last year, Poplar sold the hotel. He says Mr. Kramer promised to preserve the integrity of the building, and that he had the money to really make it a vital part of this neighborhood. "If I had known that this was what he was going to do with it, I would have been more leery about selling it to him," Mr. Poplar told me not long ago. "When he ripped out all the rooms to do Hell, he destroyed the building. Before that, it was fine. There wasn't anything seriously wrong with it."
Yes, the nightclub was really called Hell. Mr. Kramer spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remodel the building. He installed toilet seats with razor blades embedded in them and he redecorated the rooms in the themes of the seven deadly sins. For the grand opening, he threw a wild party. But just a few weeks later, the club closed.
I probably shouldn't tell you all this, but last week when they were preparing the building to be torn down, the demolition company found a bumper car room upstairs. A ten-foot-square room, with one electrically powered bumper car that Mr. Kramer would ride in for fun. Can you imagine?
Mr. Kramer said the demolition company had to save his little red bumper car, so they hoisted it out on a crane and delivered it to his house. At least he saved that.
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You probably all know that most of the landmarks south of Sixth Street are gone. The city passed legislation protecting buildings in the Art Deco District, but they declared this entire area blighted. That way buildings can be bought and razed, regardless of their history.
In fact, that's really why all of you came to town. Isn't this exciting? Mr. Kramer wants to do some wonderful things to revitalize South Pointe.
Just look at everything he has accomplished already.