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A LEGACY OF LUXURY


More than a century ago, one man had a grand vision...

View of Miami Beach along the shore of Biscayne Bay near today’s 41st Street. Photo was taken on July 6, 1923. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


Aerial photograph of Nautilus Hotel (present day site of Mt. Sinai Medical Center), including its adjacent islands and Polo Fields in 1926. Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


Legendary entrepreneur Carl Fisher dreamed of transforming a small barrier strip of land into America’s Winter Playground. And yet even Fisher could not have envisioned Miami Beach would one day become a treasured international destination. Alton Bay builds on the legacy of luxury begun more than 100 years ago.

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Carl Fisher

t the turn of the 20th Century, Miami Beach was an uninhabited barrier strip largely covered in thick mangroves. At that time, few could have envisioned that in less than three decades it would be transformed into a luxurious paradise. Interestingly, it was agriculture – not real estate – that set the stage for Miami Beach’s development. In 1909, John Collins, a New Jersey native, purchased more than 1,600 acres of oceanfront land in the area now known as Mid-Beach. A farmer at heart, Collins set out to create a large plantation of avocado, mangos and other vegetables. Together with his son-in-law Thomas

Pancoast, Collins dredged irrigation canals, built a wooden bridge to mainland Miami, and planted rows of Australian pines to protect his crops from ocean winds (those trees can still be seen along today’s Pine Tree Drive). Collins’ early efforts laid the foundation for developer and entrepreneur Carl Fisher. The Indiana industrialist, with a knack for marketing, dreamed of turning Miami Beach into an island paradise for wealthy northerners. Following an initial gift of 200 acres from Collins in 1912, Fisher embarked on an ambitious plan of buying and clearing hundreds of acres of land from ocean to bay. Crews built retaining walls, pumped in fill, and laid the foundation for a remarkable

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Workers begin construction of Nautilus Hotel in 1923. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Handwritten letter from Carl Fisher dated May 19, 1919 on behalf of the Alton Beach Realty Company regarding the purchase of 68.2 acres in Mid-Beach for the sum of $500. Courtesy of University of Miami Special Collection.


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Aerial view of Miami Beach looking south from 41st, circa 1920s. Courtesy of Richard Hoit Collection, HistoryMiami.


Aerial view of Nautilus neighborhood, St Patrick’s bell tower is visible at the center, with Nautilus Hotel in the background, circa 1930. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


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y the early 1920s Miami Beach’s real estate boom was in full swing, with Carl Fisher leading the charge. He began building grand hotels on Biscayne Bay, while selling his oceanfront lots for private residences. Ever the showman, Fisher garnered national publicity in 1921 with images of Presidentelect Warren Harding vacationing at Fisher’s newly opened Flamingo Hotel, Miami Beach’s first grand resort. Fisher’s second resort, the legendary Nautilus by the Bay opened on January 10, 1924 at 43rd Street and Alton Road (the site of today’s Mount Sinai Medical Center). The renowned architectural firm of Schultze & Weaver designed the

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hotel’s main building in a Spanish Colonial style (the firm also designed Miami’s Freedom Tower, the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, and New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). Fisher spared no expense transforming the Nautilus into a luxurious haven. The six-storied hotel, with domed twin towers, cost $1.25 million to build and furnish. The X-shaped floor plan featured 183 rooms and villas, and sat on 25 acres – including two adjacent private islands. Wellheeled guests enjoyed tea dances, gondola rides on Biscayne Bay, and polo matches on the property’s four pristine fields. Fisher reportedly flew in polo players from Europe (paying them each $15,000 a year) to show “the locals” how it was done.

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Polo match in front of the Nautilus Hotel in 1928. Courtesy of Matlack Collection, History Miami.


“Miami Beach is America’s most delightful and exclusive winter resort. Blessed with a climate at once exhilarating and tonic in its balmy freshness – marked by unusual uniformity in temperature – and amid natural surroundings of the most enchanting beauty, it has been aptly termed America’s Winter Playground.” - Advertisement in Country Life Magazine, November 1922

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n their heyday during the 20s and 30s, the Nautilus, Flamingo, and Roney Plaza Hotel (built in 1926, it was the first luxury resort on the ocean) were among the favored luxury spots, attracting European royalty, high society and Hollywood notables. Society pages of the day closely followed the movements of prominent guests and area residents -- announcing their arrival by private yachts for the winter season, and chronicling their daily activities, which included motorboat regattas on Biscayne Bay (an avid sportsman, Fisher organized the famous Biscayne Bay Speed Boat Regattas), garden parties, and shows at the nearby Miami Beach Garden Theater. As Fisher had hoped, wealthy visitors often became enamored with Miami Beach, purchased property nearby and built second homes.

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Bay Roads. Architects of the day favored the Mediterranean style (also known as Mediterranean Revival), which combined Italian, Moorish, North African and Spanish themes. Many fine examples of this style can still be seen in the Nautilus neighborhood, including homes designed by Miami’s first registered architect, Walter DeGarmo. The grandest homes in the area were the ones built on along Collins Avenue, from 14th Street to the exclusive Bath Club. Between 1920 and 1929, America’s leading businessmen, including Harvey Firestone, J.C. Penney, Harvey Stutz, Albert Champion, Frank Seiberling, and Rockwell LaGorce, built oceanfront mansions along the stretch that would come to be known as “Millionaire’s Row.” Among those estates was the 15-room mansion belonging to Oklahoma oil millionaire James Snowden, near Collins Avenue and 44th Street. In 1923, Snowden sold the residence to Firestone for $250,000. Three decades later, the Snowden/Firestone estate was torn down to make way for the venerable Fontainebleau Hotel. In short order the early 20th century oceanfront estates would disappear entirely, as the city pivoted into its next incarnation.

Today’s Alton Bay sits on land once occupied by three luxury homes, dating from the 20s and 30s, just south of Nautilus’ famed Polo Fields. The homes, which at the time fronted Biscayne Bay, were part of a growing number of winter residences built in the increasingly popular Mid-Beach area. One-by-one, beautiful residences began lining Pine Tree Drive, Alton and North

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Guests at the Rooney Plaza, circa 1935. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.


Home of Carl G. Fisher on North Bay Road, built in 1925 and designed by August Geiger. Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


Map listing prominent residents of Miami Beach’s waterfront homes, published by Frank Sterns in 1932. Courtesy of University of Miami, Special Collections.


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The once pristine Polo Fields of the Nautilus serve as a training ground for waves of servicemen passing through Miami Beach during World War II. Courtesy of the Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami.

he life of leisure that defined Miami Beach in the 20s and 30s halted with the start of World War II. In the early 1940s, waves of servicemen and women arrived in Miami Beach, which served as a training site and redistribution center for the military during the war. US Armed Forces commandeered dozens of hotels and apartments, including the Nautilus Hotel, which, in 1942, was converted into a military hospital. Its once

pristine Polo Fields proved to be an ideal spot for recruits, who trained on the fields before deploying overseas. After the war, the Nautilus became the Veteran’s Administration Hospital, until the VA later moved its operations to the Biltmore Hotel. The Nautilus never again functioned as a hotel. The allure of Miami Beach wasn’t lost on the recruits, however, many of whom later returned to vacation or to make their home in Miami Beach together with their brides.

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Bathing Suit model, 1955. Courtesy of the MBVCA Collection, HistoryMiami.


Bathing Beauties enjoying Miami Beach, circa 1940s. Courtesy of MBVCA Collection, HistoryMiami.


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n the jubilant post-war years, Miami Beach entered a new era marked by a glamorous life style and stylish modern luxury. Development reached a scale never before seen in South Florida, and gave rise to a bold and dramatic style that would come to be known as Miami Modernist architecture or “MiMo.”

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former early twentieth century industrial millionaires’ oceanfront estates along Collins Avenue. Equally luxurious resorts, including the Lapidus-designed Eden Roc, would soon follow – as well as grand oceanfront apartment buildings, many in a bold mid-century design. Hotels in the emerging MiMo style often incorporated an expansive use of glass curtain walls, cantilevered asymmetrical roofs, leaping arches, sweeping curved walls, dramatic fin walls and acute angles. Resorts such as the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, and Deauville, among others, became as well known for their architecture as for the celebrities who frequented them. The luxury, glamour, and excitement of Miami Beach in the 50s and 60s lured leading stars of the silver screen and stage, as well politicians and socialites. Guest registers read like a who’s-who of popular culture — from Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to Elizabeth Taylor, Joe DiMaggio, and Liberace. Miami Beach was the place to see and be seen.

Beginning with the 1948 opening of the Modernist Saxony Hotel, designed by Roy France, renowned architects descended on Miami Beach and designed a collection of worldclass resorts over the next two decades. Among this new generation of hotels was the Fontainebleau, built in 1954 by hotelier Ben Novak and designed in extravagant Modernism by Morris Lapidus. Lapidus’ emblematic curvilinear design ushered in a daring new generation of major American resort architecture. The Fontainebleau became the first major Miami Beach hotel to replace the

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Resorts along Collins Avenue near Lake Pancoast, circa 1950. Courtesy of Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami.


Grand opening of the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel designed by Modernist architect Morris Lapidus in 1954. Courtesy of Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami.

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Main lobby of the Fontainebleau, circa 1950s. The hotel’s bold design helped define the emerging MiMo style.


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s tourism grew in Miami Beach in the post-war years, so did the area’s residential population, highlighting the need for additional services and infrastructure. In 1959, a new causeway opened, connecting Miami Beach at Arthur Godfrey Road with mainland Miami. The Julia Tuttle Causeway, named for the trailblazing businesswomen who founded the city of Miami, opened to traffic in 1959. Landfill brought in to sustain the project meant that the waterfront properties sitting directly south of the causeway exchange, including Alton Bay, suddenly found themselves landlocked. In the midst of this growth, Herbert “Peter” Pulitzer Jr., grandson of publisher Joseph Pulitzer and husband of designer Lilly Pulitzer, invested a portion of his newspaper inheritance into real estate, including a project on the current site of Alton Bay. In 1964, he removed three neglected homes on the property, and built a new Howard Johnson. For decades the hotel attracted couples and families enjoying the sun, surf, and sand of Miami Beach. As tourism slowed in the 70s and 80s, the area – along with the rest of the city – came upon hard times. It would be several decades before sleepy Mid-Beach would make its 21-century debut.

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Building of Julia Tuttle Causeway in 1959. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.


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hile the revival of South Beach’s legendary Art Deco hotels and its alluring nightlife has long garnered the international spotlight, Mid-Beach has only recently reemerged from the shadows. Alton Bay joins a number of new luxury developments breathing new life into the historic heart of Miami Beach. Recognized for its quiet elegance and unmistaken beauty, Mid-Beach is a desired location for its decidedly relaxed vibe. And yet it is a stone’s throw from the bustling areas of Wynwood, the Design District and the Biscayne Boulevard Corridor, each enjoying a resurgence of their own. The arrival of Art Basel Miami has attracted a global audience, ensuring that Miami Beach is no longer known as simply a luxurious vacation spot. Rather, the quality of the area’s art, architecture, music, fashion, and cuisine rivals any of the world’s great urban centers. With each incarnation, Miami Beach lives up to Fisher’s vision of a “wonderful isle of dreams.”

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Designed by master architect Ricardo Bofill


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ALTON BAY | HISTORY BOOK  

Situated on land once owned by Miami Beach pioneer John Collins, Alton Bay is located in an area with a rich and vibrant history. From its o...