Will a Glamorous Hotel Resurrect Miami?

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Alan Schein / Corbis

The Fontainebleau Resort Hotel in South Beach, Miami.

When James Bond needed a vacation from fighting Her Majesty's cold war enemies, he stayed at the Fontainebleau Hotel on Miami Beach. Now I know why. As the Fontainebleau prepared to re-open this weekend, I watched busty young women in skin-tight uniforms serve fruit drinks to seaside cabanas large enough to have P.O. Box numbers. Supermodel Marissa Miller was posing in a bikini beside a swimming pool as long as her legs, looking a lot like the hottie who fell for Sean Connery in Goldfinger.

And, oh yeah, there's the sublime architecture: Morris Lapidus' pioneering postmodern hotel, renovated but still towering over the Atlantic like an elegantly curved block of sun-bleached coral.

A few years ago, it seemed that the memories of the Fontainebleau's heyday — when the likes of Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich used to luxuriate among its marble columns — were about all the tired resort had left. But after a sumptuous $1 billion renovation, the Fontainebleau is making its comeback this weekend with a $5 million, celebrity-drenched celebration.

More contemporary stars like baseball's Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez can ogle beauties like Miller and Heidi Klum modeling Victoria's Secret lingerie on a 150-foot runway (a show that will air on CBS on Dec. 3). They will party away in ballrooms decorated with acres of real foliage brought in to reproduce the hotel's original French gardens. In the background, a 60-piece orchestra and A-list acts like Robin Thicke will perform. Add to that a new 40,000-square-foot spa (where you can warm the marble of your Turkish hamam bed), an adjoining hotel-condo tower, upscale restaurants, clubs and boutiques as well as spectacular lobby chandeliers created by Ai Weiwei, who designed the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, and you've got a bash the cast of Entourage would die for. (See pictures of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.)

Such lavish revelry, however, seems out of place during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This isn't exactly a propitious time to bank on the renaissance of a 1,500-room resort whose in-season rates start at $399 a night. "In this economy, what are they thinking?" the Miami Herald asked in a front-page article this week. And in Miami — which last month had the nation's third-highest number of home foreclosures — residents may find it outright offensive to hold a power party whose posh, satin-lined box invitations alone cost $70 a piece just to print and assemble.

If this weekend's excess seems inordinate fuss for a hotel re-opening, it's because the Fontainebleau is more than just a hotel. Built in 1954, "it's still a timeless and iconic showcase of the style and energy of the Beach," argues Howard Karawan, the Fontainebleau's chief operating officer. "The Fontainebleau made Miami Beach." That's not hyperbole. Even more than the art deco splendor of Ocean Drive, Lapidus' wavy edifice and quirky interior design — the Stairway to Nowhere, the Swiss Cheese Wall — define Miami the way the Plaza once epitomized New York and the Ritz embodies Paris. And it spotlights what still puts food on the table in Florida: tourism. In that sense, the Fontainebleau's resurrection may be less an unseemly display of ostentation than a defiant display of pluck. "Our intent is to change the economic momentum here," Karawan insists. (See 50 authentic American experiences.)

Perhaps it will. But it also evokes an economic negative: South Florida's incorrigible reliance on low-wage industries like tourism. It has exacerbated the effects of the recession here — and it has led to a widening, Third World-style gap between rich and poor. The average wage in Miami-Dade County is less than $40,000; but according to a report this year by Florida Atlantic University, a family needs an income closer to $100,000 just to afford an average single-family home here. The in-your-face lifestyles of Miami's rich-and-famous have encourged the not-rich to emulate their ways — creating the kind of credit-driven nightmare that has sapped the nation during this crisis. Much moreso than in other U.S. cities, profligate values, from condo-flipping to Jaguar-leasing, hold sway here. In that sense, this weekend's Fontainebleau fete is pure Miami: the dysfunctional creed, to quote the title of Lapidus' autobiography, that Too Much Is Never Enough.

Even so, the Fontainebleau facelift — which in all fairness began three years ago, when Miami and the country still felt flush — is an impressive, lovingly detailed restoration of a national architectural treasure, right down to the lobby's signature, bowtie-shaped marble floor tiles. And the hotel's prices actually compare favorably to other upscale U.S. resorts. When the economy rebounds, say the Fontainebleau's new proprietors, the resort will still be what it was in the 1950s and 60s, a stage where even the middle class can see and be seen.

What's more, who's to say that we, like our grandparents and great-grandparents in the Depression, couldn't use a little glamour amidst the gloom? It's worth remembering that Hollywood's tuxedoed, martini-soaked movies about the carefree rich gave people an escape that helped get them through the 1930s. A-Rod and Klum may not be Astaire and Rogers but Miami Beach wants to help us forget our troubles for an hour or two.

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