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The Luxury of Lapidus
Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach, by
In his autobiography, An Architecture of Joy, Morris Lapidus describes how he developed the design for his second Miami Beach hotel, the Eden Roc, in 1955. Since Lapidus and his client, Harry Mufson, had both worked previously with the developer Ben Novack (now their competitor) on the Fontainebleau Hotel next door, the style of that hotel—something referred to by its client as “modern French provincial”—was definitely out. Lapidus recalled that he had suggested something “contemporary,” but to no avail. “Nothing doing, Morris,” Mufson objected, “my guests aren’t kids out of school. They don’t go for that modern jazz. I want antiques and crystal and marble and fancy woods.” Mufson hoped to “make the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create my hotel.” The place had to be luxurious, but without the “French stuff” that the Fontainebleau was known for.(1) Next Lapidus showed Mufson a book about the architecture of the Italian Renaissance. The client liked what he saw, except for one thing: he wanted Lapidus to “leave out that heavy ornament.” When Lapidus suggested that perhaps what he was objecting to was “the Baroque influence,” the confused and exasperated Mufson could stand it no longer. “I don’t care if it’s Baroque or Brooklyn,” he screamed, “just get me plenty of glamour and make sure it screams luxury!”(2)
Mufson’s use of the word “glamour” to describe what he wanted in his new hotel provides us with a point of departure from which to analyze Lapidus’s architecture. The term “glamour,” which one reads and hears with increasing frequency between 1939 (when Glamour magazine was first published) and the Kennedy era of the early 1960s, can be defined in various ways: as “an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness” (Merriam-Webster), or “a magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or object” (Oxford English Dictionary). But what is perhaps most interesting about the term is that its meaning shifts so much; indeed, there seem to be almost as many notions of glamour—particularly about what constituted glamour in architecture, or furniture, or objects of everyday use—as there are social groups, or regional enclaves, or categories of wealth and status. Glamour was something that people talked a great deal about in this period—they wanted to look glamorous, they wanted to have glamorous things and live glamorous lives—without ever quite agreeing on what they meant.
Clearly some of the prevailing ideas about glamour came from Hollywood. In a recent interview at his Miami Beach home, Lapidus emphasized to me a point that he frequently makes in his writings: that both he and his clients had learned a great deal from the movies about what luxury and glamour might look like and how they might be staged.(3) Mansions filled with antiques, statues made of ebony and gold, jeweled tiaras and blazing chandeliers—these were the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Moreover, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, popular magazines like Glamour focused on the lives of movie stars, with ample illustrations of their European-style mansions, slinky evening clothes, and fancy limousines. Stars like Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Hedy Lamarr, and Clark Gable topped Glamour’s list of glamorous people in 1939; a combination of cool elegance and dazzling theatricality came to represent “glamour” for men and women who came of age during the Depression. Viewed from a considerable social distance, and embodying an image and way of life clearly beyond the reach of most Americans, glamour was the stuff of fantasy, a quality and atmosphere as different from most people’s lives as the Land of Oz was from Dorothy’s Kansas.
In the 1940s, though, the popular image of glamour seems to shift—in both the movies and the magazines. Frothy comedies set on ocean liners and featuring madcap heiresses and their swank suitors gave way to dark portrayals of the underside of the Hollywood fantasy. Films like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) and Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) served as cautionary tales about the dangers of dreaming about a movie star lifestyle; stories about how such ambition leads inexorably to deception, dishonesty, and even murder were played out in the film noir of the ’40s and early ’50s.(4) Even Glamour seemed to have turned away from the Hollywood dreams of the ’30s. The magazine’s favored scenes of the glamorous life became images of gracious New England gentility; articles featured elegant hostesses in country houses in Connecticut, tips on art appreciation, and even a photo spread about college girl fashions.(5) Instead of being offered the unattainable pleasures of the Hollywood life, Americans were confronted more and more by the lives of ordinary people coping with different challenges than those of the Depression era; instead of sitting in darkened movie palaces safely dreaming of the never-never land of Hollywood glamour, Americans in the postwar years had to come to terms with their own increasing prosperity, with the opportunity to own things and to create lives with some measure of material wealth. For many, the Hollywood fantasies of their youth persisted, but now had to be tempered and shaped to fit the demands of everyday life.
The story of how various notions of glamour were constructed and popularized in the postwar period is complex. Prosperity, productivity, social mobility, and mass media combined to create an environment in which questions of taste and individual style, as mediated through objects and fashions, became highly charged. Although the full story is too large to tell here, three generalizations about the period will be helpful: first, that men and women were increasingly aware of being observed and “read” by others; second, that objects played a greater role than ever in the process of image-making; and third, that tastes and fashions not only changed quickly but also differed radically from one group to another. For a client like Harry Mufson, or for an architect like Morris Lapidus, the question of what constituted “glamour” or “luxury” was extremely loaded: They not only had to find an answer for themselves, but they also had to guess what their audience, their customers—well-to-do suburbanites, many of whom were first- or second-generation Jews with families or grown-up children—would consider glamorous. What combination of architecture and decor would keep them coming to Miami Beach season after season?
It is well known that Lapidus, with Mufson at the Eden Roc and Ben Novack at the Fontainebleau, created an extremely successful response to this question in the 1950s, defining the glamour of Miami Beach for an entire generation. But it is also clear that the places they created were more than very successful hotels; they became stereotypes of postwar American consumerism, of pretense, artifice, and vulgarity. Indeed, it sometimes appears that the postwar world of middle-class American Jewry can be divided into those who vacationed in Miami Beach and those who refused to set foot in the place, setting themselves apart from “the sort of people” who went to the big hotels, with their ornate lobbies and swirling staircases, their vast restaurants and overloaded buffets. The Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc did not inspire neutral responses. Lapidus’s Miami Beach ouevre can thus be viewed not simply as an early instance of American Postmodernism avant la lettre, or even as an extravagant example of popular taste; analyzed on its own terms, his work helps us to understand the architecture, interior design, and way of life that represented glamour and luxury to one highly visible group of middle-class consumers at midcentury.
Surviving black-and-white photographs and contemporary views of the exteriors of the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc give us some idea of what the hotels looked like in their ’50s and ’60s heyday. But both hotels have been altered significantly since the 1950s. All of the interiors have been renovated, almost beyond recognition; the Fontainebleau is now less a resort than a busy convention hotel with a water-park landscaped pool; the Eden Roc has been remodeled recently to serve the young upscale tourist or business person looking for an elegant alternative to the round-the-clock entertainment scene in nearby South Beach.
At the Fontainebleau, Lapidus offered a mixture of sleek modern design—creating a sweeping curve of a building with ribbon windows that recalls Eric Mendelsohn’s well-known Schocken Store in Chemnitz of 1928-29—and highly theatrical, period-revival decor intended to overwhelm the visitor with color, texture, and opulence. No expense was spared (the hotel reportedly cost $13 million) in the manufacture of this ensemble. A 1955 article in Interiors reported that Lapidus had “put [his money] where it shows.” He had
bought up good French antiques from estates and New York dealers, stripped the frames, reupholstered them and refinished them with a lot of white and gold. He bought up a lot of white statues and stood them on rosewood planters; he made lamps out of bisque figurines and bronze blackamoors; he designed huge brass chandeliers and had them made. . . . In a typical lobby corner, an antique gilded wood escutcheon bearing the seal of the city of Paris hangs on a Florida coralstone wall over a Lapidus-designed, Valley [a furniture manufacturer]-made cabinet (white leather, brass, rosewood) on which stand a pair of ormolu figurine candelabras and a cupid-topped French clock.(6)
The dominant colors, beside the white and gold and black of the lobby furniture, were pink, slate blue, and gold; the garden lobby had a turquoise carpet and was furnished with gold and lucite chairs and sofas.
Although the Mayor of Fontainebleau, France, flown over for the opening, sniffily called the hotel “a bouillabaisse,” the correspondent for Interiors seemed to enjoy herself tremendously. “Architecture, decor and facilities,” she wrote, “are calculated to amuse, beguile, bemuse, entertain and generally overwhelm the 1,400 patrons who are gladly paying from $35 to $150 a day.”(7)
Born in Russia, Morris Lapidus came to the United States as a child. He received his bachelor of architecture degree at the Columbia University School of Architecture in 1926, following a brief stint as an actor and some work in theater design. Thus Lapidus knew well how to assemble the pieces of an interior that would suggest the wealth and luxury of the Upper East Side mansions of the Vanderbilts and Fricks.(8) Drawing on a style that had become a cliché even as early as the mid-19th century, decorators from Elsie de Wolfe in the 1910s to Lord and Taylor’s William Pahlmann in the early 1940s had used Louis XV and XVI furniture (both originals and reproductions), white paint and gilt, heavy brocades, rich textures, and pale tones to create an effect of Old World wealth.(9) For Lapidus’s clients and customers, such images were familiar from magazines and movies (Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura is a good example of this mimicry of haute bourgeois taste); indeed they had become a visual shorthand in the language of interior design, opulence, and glamour.
Yet Lapidus could also be a clever manipulator of modern architectural elements, like enormous plate-glass windows and sheer concrete walls, combining them with theatrical lighting and staging techniques. During his successful career as a store designer in the 1930s and ’40s, Lapidus developed design techniques to which he later gave such names as “The Moth Principle” (drawing people toward lighted interior areas), and “bean poles,” “cheese holes,” and “woggles” (free-form shapes used for lighting, carpet design, etc.).(10) Examples of all of these can be seen in the Miami Beach hotels and in his early work. What is apparent from the retail designs, particularly in such examples as the Seagram Bar or the Ansonia Shoe Store or the Bond Shoe Store, is what an accomplished modern architect Lapidus was in those years, despite the “baroque” ornament and theatrical lighting that one sees in some examples. He had a brilliant grasp of the techniques of merchandising, devices which he would later use so successfully in Miami Beach. Given the eclectic nature of his architecture, it is not surprising—though perhaps somewhat alarming—that Lapidus once identified the four greatest influences on his work as Talbot Hamlin, Sr. (his professor of architectural history at Columbia), Eric Mendelsohn, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Busby Berkeley.(11)
As a store designer and as a Beaux Arts-trained architect, Lapidus was intimately aware of the intense feelings about matters of style and taste that made the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc both so popular and so deeply loathed. For American consumers, and especially for the suburban nouveaux riches who felt themselves to be under constant scrutiny, the question of taste—good taste and bad taste, and how to tell them apart—provoked much anxiety during this period for various reasons, not least of which were changing notions of glamour and luxury. On the one hand, many shoppers wanted the color and ornamental style of the inexpensive consumer goods then plentiful in America; on the other hand, the critics and designers associated with elite institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the East Coast universities were making it clear that the more intelligent choices were International Style architecture and Scandinavian furniture. This conflict is summed up by Thomas Hine in Populuxe: “People wanted to be known for their good taste, but they also wanted to have great showy things that demonstrated that they had arrived. Populuxe [the popular consumer style of the 1950s] is vulgar by definition. It is the result of an unprecedented ability to acquire, reaching well down into the working class, to the sort of people who had historically been able to have only a few mean objects. These people did not acquire the good simple objects many tastemakers advocated. They had had it with simple, and now they wanted more.”(12) On the battlefield of design, good taste was represented by the likes of Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., champion of the “Good Design” program at the Museum of Modern Art, the goal of which was to educate the public and broaden the market for modern furnishings.(13) Yet despite the obvious highbrow appeal of the architecture and design programs that MoMA favored, they weren’t much fun—they had nothing whatsoever to do with the sort of movie glamour that so many ’50s suburbanites had dreamed of in their youth. As Lapidus knew well, for most Americans of the time, good taste, on the one hand, and the pleasures of shopping or vacationing, on the other, were almost mutually exclusive.
In light of these emotionally charged discussions of style, it is perhaps inevitable that Miami Beach, with its many Jewish residents and visitors and its increasing postwar visibility, would become one of the flashpoints for the formation of postwar Jewish identity as expressed through consumer taste and popular culture. For many American Jews, the Second World War and the years immediately following represented a period of introspection and change, both in their view of themselves and their status in the world. As described by historian Deborah Dash Moore, widespread experience of military service—which not only exposed young Jewish men (and some women) to new people and places around the world, but also taught them, first-hand, to recognize the slights and stings of anti-Semitism—and a growing awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust motivated many individuals and young couples to seek better lives beyond the narrow confines of their old neighborhoods in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Many simply moved to the suburbs of these cities, but some ventured further afield to the “frontier” towns of Miami Beach and Los Angeles.(14) As one man described it, “One quick furlough home” was enough to convince him “that my old neighborhood was a slummy shtetl, my hangout pals narrow-minded schlumps. Along with practically the entire West Side younger generation which fled either to Chicago’s northern suburbs or to California, I took off without a backward glance.”(15)
Yet as Moore demonstrates, Miami, unlike Los Angeles, was a place to which Jews came in order to reclaim old identities eroded by American assimilation or the upheaval of war; it was a place to revisit their roots. For this reason, European immigrants and Holocaust survivors especially found the place magical—something unknown in their experience, a chance survival of small-town, Eastern European Jewish culture along an unlikely stretch of sunny, beautiful, palm-lined beach. Isaac Bashevis Singer spoke for many when he described Miami Beach as “a paradise”:
When I first came to this country in 1935, I found that the winters in New York were terribly cold, like the winters in Poland. The winter of 1948 was particularly cold. People used to say it’s warm in Miami Beach in the winter, but I couldn’t believe it. I just could not believe that this is possible, that there is a place where it is warm in winter. I also heard about Miami Beach all kinds of stories that the place is vulgar, that the people are funny there. They said all kinds of things about Miami Beach, but if people are vulgar or crazy, I like to know about it.(16)
He goes on to describe precisely that magical other-worldliness that residents and visitors alike found so compelling:
After we arrived at the train station in Miami, we took a taxi over the causeway to Miami Beach. As we rode over the causeway, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was almost unimaginable that in Miami Beach it was 80 degrees while in New York it was 20. Everything—the buildings, the water, the pavement—had an indescribable glow to it. The palm trees especially made a great impression on me. . . . Let me tell you, to me when I came here the first time, I had a feeling that I had come to Paradise. First of all the palm trees. Where would I ever see a palm tree in my life? And the hotels were very beautiful. They still are.(17)
Fueled by new arrivals from the North, the population of Miami Beach jumped from 28,000 permanent residents before the war to 46,000 in 1950.(18) Many of these newcomers, as well as a significant number of seasonal visitors (“snowbirds”) and tourists, were Jewish. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Jewish population of the city of Miami grew to over 140,000 from a prewar total of 16,000; very quickly the area became a major center of Jewish life in the United States.(19)
Despite the stereotype of a monocultural “Miami Beach,” these new arrivals varied widely in economic and social status: the older small hotels and apartment complexes of South Beach attracted mainly working-class and middle-class retirees and seasonal workers, while the large hotels and high-rise apartments to the north catered to a richer crowd of upper-middle-class vacationers and leisure visitors. Both rich and poor, however, maintained strong ties to Eastern Europe and to their Jewish culture. These were not the affluent, educated, assimilated German Jews whose families had been in America for several generations. On the contrary, in many ways, these residents and visitors sought to put their own stamp on American culture—and they came to Miami Beach in droves. Singer describes the pleasure of discovering the survival of Old World culture in the small hotels of South Beach:
Alma [his wife] would take me into all the hotels, just to see the lobby. You could go any day into the lobby of a hotel and just sit down. And I saw all kinds of people; I’d hear all kinds of Yiddish dialects. . . . It was remarkable: Jewishness had survived every atrocity of Hitler and his Nazis against the Jews. Here the sound of the old world was as alive as ever. What I learned is that many people from the shtetlach, which I knew so well, came here. . . . They came together and talked and played cards. Miami Beach was a continuation of the little town. . . .
For me, a vacation in Miami Beach was a chance to be among my own people. In those days Miami Beach was a magnet for Jewish people—a place they flocked [to] like geese to rest and warm themselves in the sun. In the 1940s and ’50s, Miami Beach was in its so-called heyday. It was a hub of Jewishness and a great source of inspiration for my stories. . . .(20)
While as late as the early 1940s some south Florida guidebooks still carried advertisements designed to keep Jewish customers away (phrases like “Restricted clientele,” “Gentile clientele,” or “Gentile owned and operated” were not uncommon), by the mid-1950s Jewish residents and tourists constituted a significant and highly visible presence. From 1947 on, package tours made a Miami Beach vacation accessible to an even wider public. (Significantly, however, the area remained closed to black visitors well into the 1960s; local segregation ordinances forbade black people to remain in Miami Beach after dark. Harry Belafonte was the first of the many African-American performers employed by the large hotels to be offered accommodations on Miami Beach—in 1963.(21)) Viewed both as a vacation paradise for wealthy but “uncultured” tourists and for scores of working people seeking a week in the sun, Miami also became a haven for gamblers, gangsters, and highrollers, even as it afforded shelter and a permanent home for many recent immigrants to the United States.(22)
For many Americans, Miami Beach came to be identified with an image of boisterous, loud, “vulgar” Jews, no matter whether rich or poor. A training film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in the 1940s tried to make Jewish tourists aware of the sorts of behaviors that inflamed anti-Semitism, including schmoozing on street corners, playing cards on hotel porches, elbowing one’s way to the front in popular cafeterias, and engaging in loud arguments in hotel corridors.(23) But there was no escaping that, in Miami Beach, certain stereotypical preoccupations—eating, for example—reigned supreme. Inexpensive cafeterias remained an important center of social life. Planes with streamers advertising cheap buffets with “all you can eat” specials flew overhead. And hotels like the Fontainebleau (which had six kitchens designed to serve 3,000 meals simultaneously in ten dining areas) were known for their lavish buffets and the outlandish decor of the restaurants in which they were served.(24) One publicist was quoted as saying, “Miami Beach was built for big-city people. It’s the big city’s idea of a tropical setting. Furthermore, it’s primarily a Jewish resort. The reason Jews like Miami Beach is because it’s a resort that says ‘Indulge yourself, live a little.’ Drive out to the Bonfire Restaurant and have a piece of their chocolate cake. It’s about a foot high. Sure, nobody needs this, but that’s Miami Beach. Wolfie’s delicatessen has pastrami sandwiches three inches thick—it’s kind of a symbol. So if the hotels seem overplush, why not?”(25)
The commission to design the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Lapidus’s most significant architectural project, came to him by way of the network of store owners for whom he had worked throughout the 1930s and ’40s. In 1949, Lapidus’s first hotel job in Miami Beach—designing the interiors of the Sans Souci—had been arranged thanks to an introduction provided by the vice president of the A.S. Beck shoe store chain, one of Lapidus’s most consistent employers. The client for the project was Ben Novack, a developer who, like the Grossingers and many other Jewish resort owners, was then expanding his investments beyond the Catskills (where his family owned Laurel-in-the-Pines) and opening up new businesses in Miami Beach.(26) In the early 1950s, Novack and his partners purchased the fourteen-acre Firestone estate, a Beaux Arts-style mansion on the beach north of 44th Street that symbolized old Miami Beach money, glamour, and luxury. Now the house was abandoned, the gardens overgrown. For Novack, the site seemed perfect for a new luxury hotel, and he called on Lapidus to give shape to this venture by concocting a perfect blend of modern convenience and Old World luxury.
Years before, Novack had visited France with his wife, and they had driven by the palace of Fontainebleau. They didn’t stop to look at it, however, because, as he told Lapidus, “I don’t go for those foreign chateaux.” He did think the name sounded “catchy,” however, and he stuck with the theme. When he met with Lapidus about his new hotel, he explained that the interior was to be in “French Provincial” style. Although plotting all the while about how to manipulate his client into abandoning this “ridiculous” idea, Lapidus dutifully gathered illustrations of French Provincial interiors for the first design meeting. His fears quickly vanished when he saw Novack’s reaction: “He took one look at the illustrations and wanted to know if I were crazy. ‘I wouldn’t have these old-fashioned interiors on a bet. I want that modern kind of French provincial. I want real luxury modern French provincial.’”(27) To please his capricious client, Lapidus concocted a mixture of “French Renaissance” and contemporary design, pulling together many of the ideas that he had developed in his successful stores. “It began as a condescension to the client,” he was quoted as saying, “[but] then I began to see I could do something with it.”(28)
What Lapidus did, among other things, was to combine elements of Modernism from Le Corbusier, Niemeyer, and Mendelsohn with local precedent to create a new building type—the American resort hotel. The now-celebrated Art Deco hotels of South Beach—which Lapidus characterizes as cheap and of little architectural value—certainly seem to have embodied an appealing combination of stripped-down, modern forms in concrete and pastel-painted, figural ornament. Moreover, among the most striking modernist buildings in the area was Igor Polivitsky’s high-rise Shelborne Hotel, an example that Lapidus recalled admiring when he visited the area in the 1940s.(29) Yet while the blocky forms of the Eden Roc in particular recall Polivitsky’s work, it is strikingly clear that Lapidus’s hotels represented something new and irreverent in American architecture: his powerful fusion of neutral modernism on the exteriors and the theatrically staged, themed environments of the interiors successfully created what he would later label his “architecture of emotion.”(30)
In an interview in the early 1970s, Lapidus explained his approach, revealing how well he understood the meaning of glamour for his audience: “My client was just as illiterate and uncultured as many of his guests. . . . Most of them got their culture not from school, nor from their travels, but from the movies, the cinema. . . .”(31) Accordingly, Lapidus spoke to them in a language they not only could understand, but that also pleased and flattered them:
I was convinced that just as a store had to be designed to make people
want to buy what the merchant had to sell, so a hotel had something to
sell also. What was that something? A home away from home? Absolutely
not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a
new experience—forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills.
Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used to see
with a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid
nourishing meal. Not on your life! We were coming out of the war and the
postwar period. People wanted fun, excitement, and all of it against a
background that was colorful, unexpected; in short, the visual
excitement that made people want to buy—in this case, to buy the tropic
luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun.
As Lapidus described it, resort hotels provided their guests with an experience of glamour. Every movement was staged—with lighting and framing and changes in scale—and every element of dress and behavior was shown in the most flattering light. “My early training in drama and my experience in store and restaurant design gave me an inkling about what people thought and felt as they came into a room,” he said. Lapidus offered his guests “staircases to nowhere” that allowed them to make a grand entrance to the lobby from the mezzanine (where there were no rooms of any importance) or simply to walk halfway up and then down again. “People love to feel as if they are onstage when traveling or stopping at an elegant hotel. . . . In the Fontainebleau, I actually have the guests go up three steps to arrive at the platform, walk out on the platform, and then go down three steps . . . everyone loves a dramatic entrance.”(33) And he offered them places of fantasy, where they could imagine themselves in the capitals of Europe. At the Fontainebleau, for instance, the coffee shop, Chez Bon Bon, was planned by Lapidus and his client with great care: “We talked about a Rumpelmeier Cafe (I had never seen Rumpelmeier’s in Europe; neither had he). We spoke of the elegance of old Vienna at the height of the Strauss Waltz era—Dresden figurines, rococo arches, gaslit crystal chandeliers, elegance, Old World Luxury.”(34) This same attention to the stage set was also applied to the design of the Boom Boom Room (with its Guatemalan-cloth-covered chairs), to La Ronde (an enormous nightclub, with a raised entry platform which enabled guests to make that “dramatic entrance”), and to the Fleur de Lys, the hotel’s main dining room with its life-sized figurines and gilt-encrusted furniture. Like Disneyland, which was conceived and built in the same period (it opened in 1955), Lapidus’s Miami Beach hotels offered guests a chance to enter new worlds, and to dream.(35)
To the critics, however, Lapidus’s hotels were all too real—they weren’t theme parks that offered a momentary fantasy world, but costly vacation retreats that seemed to reflect the guests’—and the architect’s—own real-life aspirations. Lapidus still looks back on the experience of spending $100,000 on antiques for the Fontainebleau, of buying “beautiful things that he could never afford himself,” as a thrill, the high point of his career.(36) But for some observers, Lapidus’s love of antiques was one thing, and the ersatz world he created with them was quite another. One represented a move toward good taste, the other the sort of fraudulent shortcut to style that was the epitome of nouveau-riche flamboyance.
The critical response to Lapiduss Miami hotels was unrelentingly negative. He still recalls with bitterness how the editor of Architectural Forum, Douglas Haskell, called him after visiting the Fontainebleau and asked, “Morris, what the hell were you thinking of? What were you doing? . . . And the interiors! My God! We walked in there and said ‘this is terrible!’”(37) The major design magazines refused to publish the Fontainebleau, or any of his Miami hotels. The prevailing attitude is suggested by one of the few reviews—a 1963 critique of the Summit and Americana Hotels in New York by Russell Lynes—that found its way into print: “We are snobbishly intolerant in New York of the subculture of Florida, and we wish they would keep everything but their pompano and oranges down there where it belongs and not foul our nest with their taste. Ours is bad enough already; we need no help from the provinces.”(38)
Although Lapidus had a thriving practice as a designer of hotels and apartment houses in these years, his work was studiously ignored by New York critics. This disinterested stance clearly required considerable effort, since the commercial success of the Miami hotels made them difficult to ignore. In some quarters, Lapidus’s work was even perceived as a threat to the very progress of design, one of many enemies in the “war” that institutions like the Museum of Modern Art were waging against bad taste.(39) As Russell Lynes suggested, it was to be avoided like the plague.
The depth and intensity of the critical hostility and professional anxiety that Lapidus inspired were fully exposed when the critic and historian John Margolies first suggested presenting an exhibition of Lapidus’s work at the Architectural League of New York in 1970. Or rather, it was the combination of Lapidus and Margolies that most infuriated the members of the League and their followers, for what they saw in the suggested exhibition and in the work itself was nothing less than the collapse of professional standards and the destruction of everything they had so tirelessly worked for (and with so little thanks from the public at large) as advocates of International Style modernism. Margolies threw down the gauntlet in an article in Progressive Architecture: “After an active and beleaguered career as the undisputed king of the ‘give ’em what they want’ school of architecture, Morris Lapidus continues to masterfully execute one tour de force after another in the worst taste imaginable to esthetes within the architectural establishment. Good taste? Bad taste? The important aspect is taste for whom, and Morris Lapidus thereby transcends aesthetics. . . .”(40)
With a virulence and passion that seem strangely quaint in our own thoroughly postmodern times, the critics lined up to denounce the show. Today, after decades of works (and texts) by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, by Robert A.M. Stern and many others, it is perhaps hard to imagine that the “bad taste” of popular hotel architecture in Miami Beach could stir up so much controversy. Or is it? For what was at stake here was not simply a matter of architectural design but also of class and culture. I would argue that the specter of Lapidus’s work in the galleries of the Architectural League touched a core of anxiety about the influence of uncultured immigrant taste on American values, a fear heightened by the increased visibility and economic power of the suburban nouveau riche. This was exactly the sort of thing that the self-appointed guardians of quality—Jews and non-Jews alike—had to contain if American architecture were to gain credibility in the world at large. For Lapidus’s work was not simply inconsequential kitsch; he had a substantial paying audience, and because he was so good at what he did, his audience was growing.
This particular form of class snobbery forms an undercurrent in the critical comments that greeted the Architectural League exhibition. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that she regretted that the purple and gold uniforms of the bellboys at the Americana Hotel (Bal Harbour, 1956) had not been included—they would have shown just how bad things really were. “The effect on arrival,” she said, “was like being hit by an exploding gilded eggplant. Unreality was reinforced in the scaleless, relentlessly adorned lobby, where two sluggish alligators dozed beneath a giant terrarium that burst through the roof with tropical chutzpah.” Although, with a nod to the younger generation, she maintained that Lapidus could indeed teach “taste-straitjacketed architects a lot about human needs and responses to environment and design for public pleasure,” she went on to characterize the work as “uninspired superschlock.”(41) Although the thrust of her argument was clearly a denunciation of Lapidus’s anti-modern ornate decor, Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, tinging the piece with anti-Semitism.
For Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, who threatened to resign from the board of the Architectural League, Lapidus was a sleazy, self-promoting careerist. Calling him an “an architect on the prestige-make,” Moholy-Nagy accused Lapidus of manipulating the younger generation into staging the exhibition for his own financial gain. “Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. After having made his pile and excusing his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public), he is now grooming his son to refurbish the image by becoming an ‘art Architect.’”(42)
One of the most complex and interesting critical responses, published in Art in America, emphasized Lapidus’s ability to stimulate hotel guests to physical pleasure, invoking yet another stereotype, that of the sex- and food-obsessed Jew. Characterizing the work as a “pornography of comfort,” the author wrote that “Lapidus . . . recognizes in the guest a yearning for two kinds of hedonism—of the outside and inside, of the skin and the gut. Indeed, food in these hotels suffers the same stylistic blurring that ‘periods’ do in the architecture: exotic dishes have a homogenized common-denominator taste, with the exception of delicatessen pungencies. . . . Many of Lapidus’s contrasts of soft (furniture, deep rugs, occasional walls) and hard (glistening highlights, mirrors opening up dim voids) seem designed to engage an oral or tactile idealism. This bastardization becomes a medium for visceral and tactile fulfillment. . . .”(43) For Lapidus, then in his late sixties, this outpouring of animosity was perplexing: “I have been accused of many things,” he wrote, “but—pornography?”(44)
Although Lapidus himself does not acknowledge that his religion, or that of his clients, played a role in what he calls his “exile” from the profession, he clearly bears the burden of years of unusually harsh criticism. Yet he does so with dignity, with a ready reply and a well-turned phrase, and with a wry sense of humor. Today, at 97, he has witnessed an extraordinary revival of interest in his work, and he continues to receive commissions (his most recent work can be seen at Aura, a newly opened restaurant on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach). He finds this outpouring of appreciation—requests for lectures at schools of architecture, magazine articles, interviews—a pleasure, but it is “bittersweet.”(45) Ever the storyteller, Lapidus summed up his current experience with an anecdote about a recent lunch with Philip Johnson in New York. As the two elderly architects prepared to leave the restaurant, Johnson put his arm around Lapidus’s shoulders and said, “Morris, you were the father of us all.” With that little story, Lapidus concluded our interview; then he paused, turned to me, and smiled—and shrugged.
2. Ibid., 164.
3. Interview with author, January 4, 2000.
4. See Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style (Woodstock: Overlook Press, 1979) and Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
5. See, for example, “What Is Glamour?” Glamour, April 1939, 44; “Formula for a Weekend Hostess,” Glamour, July 1947, 38ff; and “Portrait of a College Girl,” Glamour, August 1947, 107-110.
6. Marilyn Silverstone, “What One Man Did with $13,000,000: Put It Where It Shows,” Interiors, 114, May 1955, 88-95.
7. An Architecture of Joy, 161; Silverstone, 91.
8. For Lapidus’s education and career, see An Architecture of Joy, and Too Much Is Never Enough: An Autobiography (New York: Rizzoli, 1996). See also Martina Duttmann and Frederike Schneider, eds., Morris Lapidus: Architect of the American Dream (Basle: Birkhauser Verlag, 1992).
9. For an overview, see Architectural Digest, January 2000, Special Issue on “Interior Design Legends.”
10. Too Much Is Never Enough, 99-100.
11. An Architecture of Joy, 216-217.
12. Thomas Hine, Populuxe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 4, 12.
13. Terence Riley and Edward Eigen, “Between the Museum and the Marketplace: Selling Good Design,” Studies in Modern Art, 4, The Museum at Mid-Century: At Home and Abroad (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 150-179.
14. Deborah Dash Moore, To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and Los Angeles (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), chap. 1.
15. Clancy Sigal, “Hollywood during the Great Fear,” Present Tense, 9, Spring 1982, 46, as quoted by Moore, 19. See also Joan Jacobs Brumberg, “The ‘Me’ of Me: Voices of Jewish Girls in Adolescent Diaries of the 1920s and 1950s,” in Joyce Antler, ed., Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 1998), 53-67.
16. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Richard Nagler, My Love Affair with Miami Beach (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), v.
17. Ibid, vi.
18. Moore, 25-26.
19. See Henry Alan Green and Marcia Kerstein Zerivitz, Jewish Life in Florida: A Documentary Exhibit from 1763 to the Present, Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida, Miami Beach, Mosaic Project, 1991.
20. Singer, vi-vii.
21. Ann Armbruster, The Life and Times of Miami Beach (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 105-109. For the architecture and culture of Overtown (originally known as “Colored Town”), the Miami neighborhood where many black performers stayed, see Dorothy Jenkins Fields, “Tracing Overtown’s Vernacular Architecture,” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 23, 1998, Florida Theme Issue, 323-332.
22. Moore, 33-34; Armbruster, 63-76; 123-125.
23. Moore, 35.
24. Silverstone, 92.
25. Armbruster, 149.
26. For the many connections between the Catskills resort hotels and those on Miami Beach, see Moore 32, 34; and Phil Brown, Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), 43-44. The list of owners with properties in both places is extensive and revealing.
27. An Architecture of Joy, 141-143.
28. Quoted in Silverstone, 91.
29. Barbara Baer Capitman, Deco Delights: Preserving the Beauty and Joy of Miami Beach Architecture (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988). For Polivitsky, see Allen T. Shulman, “Igor Polivitsky’s Architectural Vision for a Modern Miami,” Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, 23, 1998, Florida Theme Issue, 334-359.
30. Morris Lapidus, “A Quest for Emotion in Architecture,” AIA Journal, 36, November 1961, 55-58.
31. “Interview with Heinrich Klotz and John Cook,” nd. c. 1970. Bird Library, Syracuse University, Department of Special Collections 15. Reprinted in John Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (New York: Praeger, 1973).
32. An Architecture of Joy, 129.
33. Ibid, 164.
34. Ibid, 146.
35. Karal Ann Marling, ed., Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997).
36. Interview with the author, January 4, 2000.
38. Russell Lynes, “New York Hotels (With Reservations),” Art in America, April 1963, 58-61. One of the more positive reviews of Lapidus’s work, albeit not by a design critic, was published in the New York Times in 1957: Gilbert Millstein, “Architect Deluxe of Miami Beach,” New York Times Magazine, January 6, 1957.
39. Elizabeth Mock, ed., Built in USA: 1932-1944 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1944), and Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Arthur Drexler, eds., Built in USA: Post-War Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1952) use the language of military engagement to characterize the efforts of the museum to bring good design to the public.
40. John S. Margolies,‘Now, Once and for All, Why I Did It’: Morris Lapidus,” Progressive Architecture, 51, September 1970, 118-123.
41. Ada Louise Huxtable, “Show Offers ‘Joy’ of Hotel Architecture,” New York Times, October 15, 1970, 60.
42. Quoted in An Architecture of Joy, 211
43. Mary Josephson, “Lapidus’ Pornography of Comfort,” Art in America, 59, March 1979, 108-109.
44. An Architecture of Joy, 221.
45. Interview with the author, January 4, 2000.
Alice T. Friedman is Professor of Art and Luella LaMer Professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesley College. She is working on a book about American glamour.