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National Hotel on Miami Beach in Florida Nears End of Years-Long,
Multi-Million Dollar Renovation

A True Family Affair - Owner Oversees Project She Began with her Father

By Hannah Sampson, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 22, 2013--A panel of frosted glass puts everything in perspective for Delphine Dray as she oversees a years-long, multi-million dollar renovation project at the National Hotel on Miami Beach.

"Chez Claude and Simone," says the piece of glass stationed between the lobby and restaurant, a reference to Dray's parents, who bought the hotel in 2007.

"Every time I am exhausted and I pass that glass, I remember why," said Delphine Dray, who joined her father -- a billionaire hotel developer and well-known art collector in France -- to restore the hotel after the purchase.

After working with him for years, she is finishing the project alone. Claude Dray, 76, was killed in his Paris home in October of 2011, a shooting that remains under investigation.

In a recent interview and tour of the hotel's renovations, which are nearly finished, Dray did not discuss her father's death, which drew extensive media coverage in Europe. But she spoke about the evolution of the father-daughter working relationship, the family's Art Deco obsession and the inspiration for the hotel's new old-fashioned touches.

The National is hosting a cocktail party Friday night to give attendees a peek at the progress.

Dray grew up in a home surrounded by Art Deco detail; her parents constantly brought home finds from the flea market. By 2006, they had amassed a fortune in art and furniture, which they sold for $75 million at a Paris auction in 2006.

That sale funded the purchase of the National Hotel at 1677 Collins Ave., which the Drays discovered during a visit to Miami Beach.

After having lunch at the Delano next door, Dray said, "My dad came inside the hotel and fell in love." The owner was not interested in selling, but Claude Dray persisted, closing the deal in early 2007. Her family also owns the H"tel de Paris in Saint-Tropez, which reopened Thursday after a complete overhaul overseen by Dray's mother and older sister.

Delphine Dray said she thought it would be exciting to work on the 1939 hotel with her father, so she moved with her family to South Florida. She quickly discovered challenges, including stringent historic preservation rules and frequent disagreements with her father.

"We did not have at all the same vision," she said.

For example, she said: "I was preparing mojitos for the Winter Music Conference." Her father, on the other hand, famously once unplugged a speaker during a party at the hotel because the loud music was disturbing his work.

"We were fighting because that is the way it is supposed to be," she said. "Now, I understand that he was totally right."

She described a vision, now her own, of a classic, cozy property that brings guests back to the 1940s.

Joined by her 10-year-old twin girls, Pearl and Swan, and 13-year-old son Chad, Dray pointed out a new telephone meant to look antique mounted on the wall near the elevators on a guest floor. She showed off the entertainment units she designed to resemble furniture that her parents collected. And she highlighted Art Deco flourishes around doorknobs and handles.

"It's very important for us to have the details," she said.

With those priorities in mind, she is overseeing the final phase of the renovation, an investment that general manager Jacques Roy said will top $10 million. In addition to the small details, the renovation includes heavier, less obvious work: new drywall in guest rooms, for example, and new windows to replace leaky ones.

Painting of the building's exterior should be finished in the next two to three weeks, Roy said. Dray compared its earlier unfinished state to resembling "a horror movie -- the family Addams."

And the final couple of guest room floors, as well as the restoration of the original Martini Room, should be done by the end of April.

"At the end, I will be very proud," Dray said.

The National's renovation wraps up as nearby properties such as the SLS Hotel South Beach and Gale South Beach & Regent Hotel have been given new life. Jeff Lehman, general manager of The Betsy Hotel and chair of the Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority, said the National has always been true to its roots. He managed the hotel for 10 years, including for a few months after Dray bought the property.

"I think historic preservation and the restoration of the hotels as they were built 70, 80 years ago is such a huge piece of our DNA," he said. "It's a lot of what sets us apart from any other destination on the planet."


(c)2013 The Miami Herald

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