BY LINDA MARX
The social history of the Surf Club, which originally opened 87 years ago in Surfside, is a chronicle of society, celebrity and glamour by the sea. Now, a modern-day version of this luxurious playground for the affluent is back in business.
To live vicariously through some of Miami Beach’s most delicious social history, look no further than the newly restored Surf Club. After an impeccable renovation, the Mediterranean Revival-style building designed at the end of the Roaring 20s is now the Surf Club Four Seasons Hotel and Residences in Surfside, located on the ocean in the North Beach area of Miami Beach.
The concept of the Surf Club started with tire mogul Harvey Firestone’s desire to create a playground for his wealthy friends that would respect their privacy yet encourage their freedom to whoop it up. Firestone came up with the idea in the late 1920s while entertaining his pals, including Miami Beach pioneer Carl G. Fisher, who also built the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, aboard his luxury yacht Marybelle.
While cruising up and down the coast of Miami Beach, they passed some undeveloped beachfront along Collins Ave. and 90th St. that seemed ripe for plucking. According to Tom Austin, who wrote an illustrated book called The Surf Club, published by Assouline in 2013, the yachters discussed the idea of creating a new type of social club that would offer a casual lifestyle yet still cater to the denizens of high society.
Similar to luxury haunts and their amenities in Palm Beach (sun, sea and society soirees), Saratoga (horses, culture and mineral waters) and French Lick (Pluto water, European architecture and gambling), his idea was to create a resort for his social contemporaries, which later included a wider swath of celebrity—from politicians and heads of state to Hollywood stars, storied writers and savvy corporate titans. His dream was to open a sophisticated club with design inspiration borrowed from elegant Palm Beach mansions and other estate homes owned by the members. The club would be a home away from home where these moneyed swells could enjoy the beach while dining, drinking and socializing in glamorous style alongside others in their privileged social strata. To keep the club from being annexed into the city of Miami Beach where their antics could be chronicled by gossip columnists and nosy photographers, they incorporated a new town called Surfside. They wanted their own club in their own city in their own world of pleasure and privilege, with nobody uninvited daring to sneak a peek. It would be hard to imagine any sort of barrier to the social stability and luxury that these people wanted and would have at their fingertips.
The Surf Club, with 1,000 feet of oceanfront and to the tune of $2.5 million, opened on New Year’s Eve, 1930. The nine-acre resort soon became the place to be for everything high society and social around Miami Beach. Members and guests flocked to the Russell T. Pancoast-designed building and beach cabanas to live and party like the tony Palm Beachers had been doing since the late 19th century. Austin described the Surf Club as “a Mediterranean Revival-style building that has the hush of money and the cool serenity of a European cathedral, leavened with a dose of all-American pizzazz.” Famous names, many who had visited the finest resorts around the world, included the likes of Noel Coward, Winston Churchill, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper, Tennessee Williams, Liberace, Joan Crawford, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Arden and Shah Mohammad Reza of Iran, who couldn’t get enough of the nightlife in South Florida.
Even though the US was just beginning to feel the ping of the Great Depression (1929-1939), Prohibition was ending, making booze easier to fetch. According to former Town & Country editor and Palm Beach denizen Pam Fiori, who wrote the forward to Austin’s book, “liquor-laden boats from Bimini and Cuba would pull up on the beach and unload cases of the forbidden liquid to club members, who imbibed in the privacy of their cabanas, many of which were as lavishly decorated as their own homes—some even more so.”
The Surf Club’s first director was Old Guard Miami resident Alfred I. Baron, an erstwhile set designer for filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille. According to Austin, he believed Miami Beach in the 1920s was a “very delightful very small community…less social and less embroiling than Palm Beach.” But in the decades following its opening, the Surf Club developed its own aura of social excitement with glamour and grandiose ideas for fun. There were poolside fashion shows, beauty contestants, weddings, prize fights like you now pay to view on HBO, elaborately themed balls and parties—some with live animals present—debutante balls, and every other kind of fancy dress social fete imaginable. Party themes included “Anchors Away,” “Inferno Night” with skulls hanging from the ceiling, a recreation of Normandy’s seaside Trouville in France, “Sidewalks of New York”, a replica of the city’s tenements complete with hanging clothesline so the chic crowd could spend at least one night seeing how the other half lived, “Big Top” with live elephants, and “King Arthur’s Court” in pure Disney style. From the 1940s to the late 1960s, the Surf Club was non-stop glamour and glitz. Even members of the gilded Palm Beach set, including more of the Kennedys visiting the “Winter White House” (the old family estate in Palm Beach), asked their drivers to motor south for parties at the Surf Club.
While this elegant and well designed club served as an extravagant and ebullient destination for many decades, by the 21st century, it had become tarnished around the edges. And it was time to rethink its purpose, plus the area around it. So a new group came aboard to modernize the Surf Club while promising to retain much of its storied past. Developer Nadim Ashi, CEO of Fort Partners, said his mission was to preserve, respect and enhance the original Surf Club. “We have selected the best of what everyone can do and used them to give us their best,” Ashi says. “We haven’t let go of anything less than excellence. We believe that if you create something unique, it will last.”
Such a concept has repurposed other crumbling clubs, old buildings and crime-ridden areas into modern hotels and residences around the country. By utilizing architecture, history, preservation, landscape and art, hotels like the Hilton Columbus Downtown in Ohio, displaying its collection of 225 original works of art to resemble a gallery, and the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, a former bank building, have experienced a renewed zest. These modern adaptations are sanctuaries of luxury and modern amenity appealing to a younger and busier clientele.
While Nadim and group have not recreated the Surf Club, the developer made a commitment to ensure that what he is doing has integrity, culture and functioning quality. Pritzker-prize winning progressive modernist architect Richard Meier, who favors the color white, was hired to design the three buildings that form and flank the original clubhouse for the new property. “When I learned of the Surf Club’s storied past and exuberant traditions, it was clear that we had a unique opportunity to respect and preserve the legacy of the club while contributing new elements that would make the experience of living here absolutely unparalleled,” said Ashi, of the 77 hotel accommodations and the residences. The challenge for Meier was to transform an iconic building from the 1930s into new and functioning contemporary buildings. The modern-day Surf Club is a spectacular mix of the old with the new.
For example, the Surf Club’s original loggia, Peacock Alley, was a favorite of Sinatra, Grace Kelly and other famous guests of that era. Today, Peacock Alley, which leads guests from the lobby to the beach, is back as a historic nod to the past with 19 original chandeliers, floors that are replicas of the era, and framed photos of the earlier club, its famous guests, favorite menus and memorable soirées. The new buildings are an exercise in distinctive classical modernism, simultaneously reflecting and disappearing into the seaside and modern landscape created by Miami/Palm Beach designer Fernando Wong. A jungle of bewitching Medjool palms, mahogany trees and Canary palms with Confederate jasmine, purple bougainvillea vines and Madagascar olive trees were designed to reflect Old Florida.
French architect and designer Joseph Dirand created the hotel’s interiors, incorporating modern beauty, sophistication and drama through a timeless ambience of happy vignettes, fresh furnishings (dark woods, cozy couches, chairs and lots of illustrated books), clean marble (Italian travertine), stone (some limestone) and Italian tile floors in a white, light lobby. The guest rooms offer explosive ocean views and modern spa like bathrooms with Duravit faucets and rain showers.
Dirand enjoyed working on the interiors of this renovation because he was able to combine the glamorous life of a bygone era with the dynamic vibrance of new Miami. “I love touches of Cuba, Spanish architecture, and Art Deco, the palette of colors that come from the landscape the sand and the sea,” he said in a second book illustrating the Surf Club restoration that was published by Assouline in 2014. Based in Paris, he designed five cabana studios as a salute to the original Surf Club’s Cabana Row, as well as the soothing, blue and white, 15,000-square-foot spa, his first in the US. His vision and sensitivity to place allowed the spa design to flow along with the exterior palm trees and tranquil sea. Fresh spa products, especially in the natural skin-care category, offer guests something different: Biologique Recherché from France, Elemental Herbology from England, and Susanne Kaufmann from the Bregenzer Forest, a valley in the Austrian Alps with unique healing powers. Precise massage and facial treatments by internationally trained therapists are offered with staggeringly beautiful views of the ocean complete with handmade replicas of zebras and giraffes, which educate younger guests about what transpired during the original Surf Club parties.
Dining is a special event thanks to Antonio Sersale, owner of Le Sirenuse from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, who created the menu for the hotel’s new lobby restaurant next to the Champagne Bar, which offers its own 24-page drink menu. This pair of stunning rooms, separated by a door, were one large space in the early club. The brick and limestone fireplaces and mahogany ceilings, painted in bright colors to look like tile, are original. Comfortable, pristine and enchanting with lots of dark wood, these dreamy dining and drinking areas seem to roll into the landscape via floor-to-ceiling glass window-doors.
Chef Antonio Mermolia studied with Sersale and offers Italian appetizers and entrées presented on custom-created china which look like colorful works of art next to stunning cobalt blue glasses made of Murano crystal. Soon, Thomas Keller, who founded the famous California institution French Laundry and now creates dinnerware and chocolate infused with olive oil, will open a second restaurant here near Le Sirenuse.
It all adds up to a modern-day version of the exclusive experience for which the Surf Club gained fame. And once guests of the Surf Club at the Four Seasons live that experience firsthand, they don’t need much prior knowledge of the Old Guard club to feel like they have landed in a waterfront destination that is quite special. But it’s still fun to daydream about how it all started, many years ago.