Gianni Versace first found himself on Ocean Drive in 1992. While in town to attend the opening of a namesake boutique in Bal Harbour (and to visit his sister, Donatella), the designer asked a cab driver to show him something “fancy and fun” about South Beach, according to The Miami Herald. The driver took him to 1116 Ocean Drive, a 1930s-era Mediterranean-style mansion once known as the Villa Casa Casuarina. The property had been converted into an apartment complex called the Amsterdam Palace—and was in considerable disrepair. Legend has it that as Versace admired the bronze statue of Aphrodite that sits at the entrance, he caught a glimpse of the mansion beyond the gates and was smitten.
Setting up Shop
Versace purchased the Amsterdam Palace for $2.95 million and the neighboring Hotel Revere for $3.7 million—eventually razing the latter to build a pool and a guest wing. Over time, he spent $32 million on renovations to Villa Casa Casuarina, converting it into a celebrated example of Italian Baroque splendor. South Beach preservationists cheered Versace as the building’s savior—and locals hailed him as an emblem of South Beach’s newly elevated status.
The Fashion Flock
Versace threw lavish events studded with celebrities like Madonna, Princess Diana, and Elton John. Soon, the fashion world followed. “All of a sudden, what was going on in L.A. moved here when Gianni came here,” Donatella told The New York Times in 2001. “All the fashion shoots were happening here. Music people, fashion people, actors—he attracted everyone here. He had that power.”
On any given day, Versace could be seen strolling down Ocean Drive or popping into his boutique on nearby Washington Avenue. At night, he frequented gay bars like the Warsaw Ballroom or the Barrio. “The mood is very, very easy,” he told The Miami Herald in 1993. “That is special and I don’t find the mood any place else in the world.”
In 1993, Versace released South Beach Stories, a coffee-table book featuring iconic photos of Linda Evangelista poolside, Kate Moss and Christy Turlington roller-skating on the boardwalk in poppy-red jumpsuits, and mobs of male models clad in Versace’s famous silk shirts.
Shot on the Steps
On July 15, 1997, after returning from a morning walk to the nearby News Café, Versace was murdered outside the gates of his home. The crime was dramatized on screen in 2018’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (available to stream on Prime Video and other services). Portions of the 10-episode show were filmed on location at the Villa Casa Casuarina.
The house Versace built remains a draw, with throngs of people recording videos and snapping selfies in front of its famed gates each day. Although it’s now a luxury boutique hotel owned by Victor Hotels Management, Villa Casa Casuarina is said to be the third most-photographed home in the United States, after Graceland and the White House. The property features Versace-installed mosaics, marble floors, onyx toilets, hand-painted frescoes, and the ultimate Insta-worthy fountain-fed swimming pool flecked with 24-karat-gold tiles. Taking a dip is strictly reserved for hotel guests, but the curious can step in for a drink at the six-seat Onyx Bar (carved out of Versace’s former kitchen) or make a reservation to dine at the on-site Italian-Mediterranean restaurant, aptly named Gianni’s. (vmmiamibeach.com)