Monday, October 1, 2012

Florida History: Eden Roc - Fountainebleau war and the "spite wall"

Fountainebleau (foreground) and nearly
hidden and adjacent Eden Roc

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By Jane Feehan

The Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach is easily spotted with its iconic signage. It seems to  beckon visitors along the 4000 block of Collins Avenue to appreciate its glamour before considering the Fountainebleau, the area’s flagship hotel next door. Competition between the two is tightly woven into Miami Beach history, and their ups and downs reflect economic recessions and recoveries of years past.

Partners Ben Novack and Harry Mufson built the Sans Souci Hotel in 1949 on Miami Beach with architect Morris Lapidus completing its design. They then collaborated on the Fountainbleau Hotel, constructed on beach front property once owned by the Firestone family.  The partners commissioned Lapidus to design the building and opened the Fountainebleau hotel in 1954 to great fanfare. The hotel was spectacular, drawing national attention and some scorn.

Shortly after, Mufson bought property just north of the Fountainebleau from the Warner estate, which belonged to one of Hollywood's Warner Brothers. He wanted to build his own hotel, the Eden Roc. Novack was not pleased, ending his partnership with Mufson.

Mufson, founder of the Jefferson department store chain, again engaged Lapidus to work his design magic. For ideas, the architect traveled to the elegant Eden Roc in France, a known Kennedy family vacation destination. He returned with Italian Renaissance objets d’ art and blended them with elements of his unique style.

The glamorous $13 million Eden Roc opened its doors in 1956, attracting Hollywood movie stars, including Elizabeth Taylor. Among its regular winter visitors was a young Steve Wynn, future Las Vegas impresario, and his parents. (Wynn today says Mufson is one of his all-time heroes.)

Closely watching his competition next door, Ben Novack decided to take revenge. In 1961 he built a 14-story tower with more than 350 rooms on the north side of the hotel. All rooms faced south; there were no windows on the north side and the wall remained unpainted in stark view of Eden Roc guests. Not only was it an eyesore, Novack’s “spite wall” blocked the afternoon sun from the Eden Roc’s pool deck.  Mufson obtained permits to extend the deck away from the building toward the beach to claim its share of the sun.

Mufson sold the Eden Roc in 1965. The hotel operated through a severe recession during the 1970s under several owners, as did the Fountainebleau, and shut down for about a year in 1975-76. Bob Guccione and his Penthouse Corporation placed a bid on the Eden Roc in 1978 hoping to convert it into a casino but a gambling referendum failed so he withdrew the offer.

The hotel was sold in bankruptcy proceedings for $4.6 million in 1980.  A month later the new owners sold it to Saudi Sheik Wadji Tahlawi for $12.5 million. In 1981,Stephen Muss then Fountainebleau owner (he bought it for $28 million in December, 1977 and later chose Hilton to run it), hoped to acquire the Eden Roc to make it an unattached annex of his  property. The deal fell through.

In 2008, Eden Roc owners constructed the 21-story Ocean Tower, finally defeating Novack’s wall of spite. Today, with 631 rooms, the Eden Roc operates as a Magellan hotel -- and both hotels again claim their place among Miami Beach’s best.

Miami News, Jul. 8, 1981
Bramson, Seth. Miami Beach. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing (2005)
South Beach Magazine, Jan. 9, 2008

Tags:  Eden Roc Hotel history, Fountainebleau  Hotel history, Miami Beach history, Miami hotel history Ben Novack, Harry Mufson, Morris Lapidus, Miami  Beach during the 1950s, film industry researcher,   historical researcher

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