|By Margaria Fichtner, The Miami Herald
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Apr. 9, 2006 - With her overblown spaces, sensuous curves and tin-can French pedigree, she was for decades Miami Beach's most voluptuous floozy, a stupefying, gilded splendor, so laughable, so vulgar, so gorgeous, so adored. But now more than 900 of her rooms are being emptied, even the Goldfinger penthouse stripped to its tiny fireplace and lurid carpeting. In the lobby just beyond the mattresses stacked high on the bowtie-patterned marble floor, workmen carefully dismantle the huge crystal chandeliers.
Closed for a two-year, $450 million renovation, the Fontainebleau -- oh, my dear, the FAWN-tan-blow -- is for sale, bits of it anyway, almost everything you can define by the ungraceful word "contents," including tiny cream pitchers labeled KOSHER, going fast at a buck apiece, and a $10,000 bar.
"We figured there's probably 100,000 items," says David White, president of Universal Hotel Liquidators, the Connecticut firm running the sale. The hundreds of red-bound Gideon Bibles will be donated to church groups, but almost everything else is up for grabs. "We have a pastry kitchen we're selling," White says. "We have a wood pizza oven downstairs. Dishware for 7,000 people."
White says that since the sale began last weekend, thousands of bargain hunters have stopped by. "They're buying a knife for 25 cents, or you can buy a piece of laundry equipment for $5,000," he says. "They're taking blankets, pillows, chairs. We've sold over 750 television sets so far. People were coming in, tying beds to their cars. You can get a Serta Perfect Sleeper for $89. People are furnishing their house for $1,000."
Which, as it happens, is precisely what cousins Jose Chavez and Jose Ibarra have in mind. Customers are fairly sparse on this morning, just a few souls meandering around tangled piles of the discarded minutiae of resort life: hair dryers ($6), phones ($6), clock radios ($6), coffee makers ($7), ice buckets ($1.50), ironing boards ($6), bedspreads ($14), pillows ($1.50), dinner plates ($2), assorted pieces of silver-plated flatware (50 cents), finger bowls ($2), shower heads ($3), framed pictures ($9-$18), clothes hangers (50 cents). But Chavez, Ibarra and their family have a new house, and they are here to deal in the big stuff, scurrying around the cavernous ballroom that Jerry Lewis made famous in The Bellboy, now temporarily converted into a showroom for sofas, chairs, bridge tables, lamps and poolside loungers.
"How much is the couch?" Chavez asks. "Two-forty-nine? I think it's good. It's not the best, but it's OK. We're going to buy two TVs and the couch and six beds."
But not everyone unearths a treasure. Lisa McCarroll of Birmingham, Ala., has walked over with some friends from a conference at the Eden Roc next door. "We noticed there's a sale on, so we thought we could find a little memento of the Fontainebleau," she says. "I wanted menus or something. . . . We found a mirror that I like, but it was not carry-on size."
In fact, with the exception of some kitchen equipment, few sale items date from the hotel's early days. There is a pile of promotional videos, the phones are stamped Fontainebleau Hilton, and some of the flatware carries the Hilton logo, but most of the goods are undistinguished, fraught with the anonymous practicality of hotel furnishings everywhere. Still, White insists, price is not the only appeal.
"Hotel furniture is so much better than regular furniture," he says. "It's made a lot better. Even our TVs are commercial-grade. Better circuitry. Even the nightstands. You can drop that nightstand and it won't break. You might be able to get something . . . like that for about $75, but you have to put it together, and then it falls apart."
Born the month after the Fontainebleau opened, White has a connoisseur's eye for the remaining traces of its old, exotic allure, from its "staircase to nowhere" which mink-clad women once descended with Busby-Berkeley glamour, its huge kitchens, its sweeping penthouse views.
"We have people coming in just to look one more time, telling us they'd been here in the 1950s," he says. "It's really nice to see this still here. I used to stay at the Diplomat when I was a little kid. Then that was knocked down."
Rising like some bravura movie set on the site of the old Harvey Firestone estate, the Fontainebleau was the sparkling offspring of an often contentious collaboration between principal developer Ben Novack and architect Morris Lapidus, whose thrillingly lavish sensibilities -- "I wanted to knock 'em dead" -- would come to define the unbounded extravagance of Miami Beach style at mid-century.
Novack named his new baby for a French chateau he had spotted during a vacation, and he wanted the interiors of this almost preposterously contemporary building to reflect prideful, French provincial notions of luxury. In The Life and Times of Miami Beach, Ann Armbruster reports that Lapidus, with $100,000 in his pocket, prowled New York's antique district for the hotel's gold-trimmed antique piano, Louis-Something armoires, gilt-framed mirrors and chandeliers. When the dealers saw him coming, someone noted, "they thought they saw God." Lapidus papered bedroom walls with scenes of Paris, installed a four-acre French parterre out in back, and named the bar in the lower lobby the Poodle Lounge.
Miami historian Arva Moore Parks was in high school when the heavy glass doors with the big F's for handles opened for the first time on Dec. 20, 1954.
"Up to that point, there was never anything quite like that in Miami," she says. "It was certainly the biggest thing that had occurred in my lifetime. It was so modern and sleek. Tourists would go there just to walk around. My father used to say that people would rent fur coats just to be able to go there."
With her chum Adele Khoury, later Florida first lady Adele Graham, Parks sneaked into the place one Saturday -- didn't everyone? -- to lounge by the pool. "We walked in with our bathing suits on, so that we looked like we belonged," she remembers. 'And I do have an image of another time, going there in awe, dressed in my little strapless formal, thinking, 'How could I have lived this long to have gotten to do something this wonderful?' "
Rhoda Astrachan, the New York interior designer who set up furniture vignettes for the liquidation sale -- "just like a bedroom with the bed, the headboard, the night table, the dresser, the mirror, everything, with the prices" -- came here with her mother in the 1950s. "I used to go to the Boom Boom Room," she says, 'and now I speak to a lot of people who say, 'Oh, God, I used to work here 18 years ago,' or 'I used to come with my family.' "
The Fontainebleau Resort developers plan to add about 500 rooms and finish construction on two new towers by 2008, but everyone knows that this place will not look, or ever be, quite the same.
"I'm about to cry," Astrachan says.
"It's heartbreaking. But that's OK. Those days could never be revived. It's an era over now."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald
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