|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 26, 2009--When showing off refurbished rooms, most hotel managers brag about luxe offerings: designer wall coverings, imported espresso machines, black granite tubs.
The Clevelander's Mike Palma has other priorities.
"The beds are jump-proof. They're bolted down," Palma boasted during a recent tour of South Beach's top party hotel, as construction workers finished 22 months of renovations.
With three decades of trashed rooms and late-night shenanigans as a guide, Clevelander executives think they have learned from their guests' fun-loving mistakes. Owners spent nearly $40 million to renovate the 1938 property, which reopens Thursday as a fancier and far more defensive hotel.
Among the upgrades:
Ceiling lights to replace bedside lamps, which too many guests were knocking over and breaking.
Chest-high balcony rails built taller than required by the city code. The 25-foot drop to the hotel's pool was seen as too tempting for some Clevelander guests.
A silicon seal beneath beds to keep liquids out.
"If you puke on the floor," Palma explained, "it won't go under the bed."
For sure, the Clevelander followed the traditional path of most hotel renovations: Pump money into the property to attract wealthier vacationers.
Travel sites used to list $90 rooms at the Clevelander, but the new rate schedule starts at $179.
Bathrooms were upgraded with oversized shower heads and sliding doors to make the boxy rooms seem larger, while giant photos of swimming models brighten the hallways.
The biggest work went into a new wing of rooms overlooking Ocean Drive, including five "Rock Star" suites starting at $400 a night. The hotel's website boasts of Egyptian-cotton sheets and plasma television sets.
But even upgraded, the 60-room Clevelander embraces its chug-a-lug reputation.
Guests will receive complimentary rum runners at check-in. They'll also have the option of paying $90 for a new 120-ounce cocktail served in what appears to be a small vase.
Publicity materials promise a "guaranteed, unforgettable, nonstop party."
Given the boozy business plan, the hotel was refashioned to accommodate guests' whims and faults.
In past years, maids would enter rooms to find sinks ripped off the walls. But the new terrazzo ones were built strong enough to handle the weight of an adult.
"Sit on it," Marketing Manager Francine Madera told a 220-pound visitor inspecting a room. The sink held.
"We're not going to hide what we are," Palma said. "We're wild and we're fun. We built it durable."
Charles Ratner, a wealthy businessman from Ohio, built the hotel at 10th and Ocean during the Great Depression, and named it after his hometown. After briefly turning it over to the Army for a military police headquarters during World War II, the Ratner family operated it for 40 years before selling it in 1985.
At the time, hotels like the Clevelander attracted elderly Northerners looking for a warm and cheap place to spend their final years.
"I was doing elder care then," said David Wallick, who ran a retirement home on Ninth Street in the space where he now operates Mango's Tropical Cafe. "I was the only one doing any business. All of 10th Street was for sale."
Two brothers, Tony and Kent Kay, bought the Clevelander a year later and decided to try serving drinks by the sedate pool deck.
"Little old folks would come and sit on chairs there," said Mick Burke, the Clevelander's longtime beverage manager. 'The day we started, it was horrible to tell them, 'You can't sit there because we're going to build a bar.' "
With one of the few open-air bar areas fronting Ocean Drive, the Clevelander profited from South Beach's transformation into a nightlife capital. Models and tourists would strip down for best-body contests by the pool, and the Clevelander enjoyed such a New York following that it printed T-shirts declaring the hotel the Sixth Borough.
'People would come down and always say, 'I want to go to that bar,' " said Lisa Cole, the publicist for the Fontainebleau Miami Beach between 1979 and 2005. "You never knew who was going to fall off the bar stool."
In June 2007, the party stopped for the first time in three decades. Brio Investment Group, a San Diego firm that bought the Clevelander in 1999, shut the property for renovations that Palma said cost about $38 million.
Regulars will notice the biggest change in the lobby, which used to house a sports bar. In winning approval from the Miami Beach historic board, Clevelander executives agreed to restore the lobby to its original Art Deco look. That meant no sports bar, which moved to the first floor of the new wing. The second floor holds the Clevelander's first real attempt at a nightclub, taking the spot where a gym used to be.
The kitchen got a remake, too, with twice as many deep fryers and a cooler with room for 22 kegs -- four times as many as before. The extra brew will flow to the outside bars, which will serve draft beer for the first time.
The redesign also brought a new rooftop sun deck, with canopy-covered day beds and a pool where guests can be drenched by a waterfall fountain.
It's the kind of space where other hotels might offer yoga classes or massages. The Clevelander plans to put a small bar there.
"If you're coming just to relax and rejuvenate," said Madera, the marketing manager, "this is not your place."
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