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An overlooked bit of South Beach is springing back to life

December 9, 2018

Just when it seemed every last corner of South Beach has been remade, built up and overrun, here comes Collins Park, an overlooked wedge of a historic neighborhood that could finally be the alternative SoBe many have hankered for.

That is, a civilized refuge for grown-ups, just far enough from the madding crowd to claim its own tonic vibe.

After years of quiescence and a series of catastrophic arson fires that nearly claimed some of its defining 1920s and ’30s architecture, the compact district centered around The Bass museum and its namesake Collins Park is about to bloom anew. It’s like finding a secret room in your house you didn’t know was there.

A half-dozen extensive renovation projects are underway all at once in Collins Park, which runs between Washington and Collins avenues at the north end of South Beach and terminates at the Collins Canal. The work will resurrect a harmonious collection of low-scale Mediterranean, Art Deco and Miami Modern hotels and apartment buildings, many long vacant and some once seemingly fated for demolition.

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Art Basel-goers who wander across Washington will be greeted by a checkerboard of construction projects. The biggest and most comprehensive faces the Miami Beach Convention Center — the near-miraculous reconstruction of seven gutted historic buildings that occupy most of a city block.

The buildings, some of which were reduced by fires a decade ago to little more than exterior walls, will be unified into a congenial ensemble through a design by Miami architect Kobi Karp in collaboration with preservation architect Arthur Marcus. The historic buildings, which range in style from Mediterranean to Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and MiMo, will be joined together by a discreetly contemporary five-story central addition and a series of bridges. They will operate as a single entity called the Collins Park Hotel, taking the name of one of the block’s signature structures.

That original Collins Park Hotel, a gem designed by prolific Miami Beach Art Deco master Henry Hohauser, has quite the cinematic history. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez filmed scenes for the 1998 action thriller “Out of Sight” in the hotel. The lobby was shot up in the 1995 movie “Bad Boys.” And a poster once hung in the lobby reading: “Clark Gable swept here.” The “Gone with the Wind” star mopped the floors when he was billetted at the hotel during World War II.

By the time Art Basel Miami Beach opens its 2019 fair, formerly down-at-the-heels Collins Park should be well into its transformation into a neighborhood of stylish hotels dotted with dining spots, gardens, hidden courtyards and rooftop swimming pools and lounges. Like the Collins Park Hotel, each of the district renovations aims to restore and combine historic buildings into boutique hotels with modern, sensitively scaled annexes to provide the suite of amenities guests now expect.

The restorations will fill gaping holes in the neighborhood fabric, turning what had been a desolate slog for visitors between the convention center, The Bass and the beach into an alluring destination in and of itself, backers say.

“This is the kind of place people will like to hang out,” Karp said. “It’s unique. It’s different. This is going to be a collection of jeweled historic buildings in a string around The Bass, which is the crown gem. No other city has this. Not L.A., not New York.”

Some Collins Park residents who have been waiting a decade or more for its regeneration say it’s long overdue.

“It’s just taking so much longer than anticipated,” said Ray Breslin, a longtime neighborhood activist known as the unofficial mayor of Collins Park. “I remember telling people five years ago, ‘We’re all going to be pinching ourselves over how fabulous the neighborhood is going to be.’ ”

So painstaking are some of the renovations required by the city’s strict preservation code that work has been going on for years. Historic lobbies and interiors in some cases were destroyed by fire or previous renovations and have to be reproduced from photographs or original plans, said Karp and Allan Shulman, a Miami architect working on restoration of another Collins Park landmark by Hohauser, the 1939 Greystone Hotel. Some projects are adding not just annexes but also a level of underground parking, making design and construction even more complicated.

But developers are now pressing to complete projects to capitalize on the expected increase in visitors from the expanded convention center, said Deborah Tackett, chief of historic preservation for Miami Beach. They’re betting the distinctive architecture and ambiance in Collins Park will provide an attractive and convenient alternative for convention-goers who don’t want to stay in a big hotel or amid the hubbub of Ocean Drive, she said.

“In Collins Park, you have that mix of architectural styles and periods, and the additions add another layer to that,” Tackett said. “That’s what so rich about Miami Beach.”

Another long-delayed project will fill a critical neighborhood need — relief for a severe parking crunch. When late star architect Zaha Hadid’s design for a Collins Park garage proved too expensive to build, the city had to retool. It awarded a bid last year for a less complex but still architecturally distinctive structure to Shulman, architecture firm Wolfberg Alvarez & Partners and contractor KVC, with construction set to start soon. The $22.5 million garage will feature an aluminum skin inscribed with names of people, buildings and places from Collins Park history.

That history is longer and more colorful than many today realize. The land for the park, which stretches grandly from the beach to The Bass, was donated by Miami Beach founder John Collins to the city of Miami, which eventually turned it over to its home municipality. The keystone-clad Bass, built in 1930 as a library and cultural center and designed by Collins’ grandson Russell Pancoast, became the first permanent museum in Miami-Dade County in a 1964 conversion.

Incongruously, the neighborhood was for decades also the city’s bawdy district — a neon-lit enclave of burlesque houses, late-night dining spots, after-hours clubs and, so they say, establishments offering certain types of discreet activities. The Embers restaurant drew the Beach glitterati before a fire closed it down for good in the 1980s. The rowdier Five O-Clock club served up cocktails and the Place Pigalle strip shows in between sets by crooner Lee Sohn and comedian Pearl Williams, who was still performing her decidedly off-color routine as late as the early 1980s. Wolfie’s famous corner deli and cafeteria fed patrons ’round the clock.

But the neighborhood’s slide began in the late 1950s, when the action on the Beach moved north to the new, splashier resort hotels. By the time Williams retired in 1984, depriving Place Pigalle of its only draw, Collins Park was, like the rest of South Beach, dark and blighted.

“The area was a bit honky-tonk,” Karp said, in an understatement.

The South Beach revival mostly passed over Collins Park. But the city began nurturing a long-range vision for its revival centered around the convention center, the park and cultural institutions like The Bass.

In 2000, Miami City Ballet’s headquarters and rehearsal studios, designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica, joined The Bass on the north flank of Collins Park. Four years later, the city built a new public library, designed by renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern’s firm, next to the ballet. The city also demolished the old library, which sat in the middle of Collins Park and walled off the museum from Collins Avenue. The demolition restored the park’s vistas to the beachfront.

It’s the park that in many ways sets the district apart, said Shulman, the architect.

“It’s really still one of the best urban spaces in Miami Beach,” he said. “It’s a fantastic sweep of landscape and tree canopy. The neighborhood has its own character. It’s not exactly South Beach. It’s very identifiable. And it has the park at the center of the whole thing.”

A year ago, the city-owned, privately run Bass reopened after being shuttered for two years for an expansion and a complete makeover. It has since drawn a record 65,000 visitors with a new focus on contemporary art. The museum also commissioned two works of public art — the neon “Eternity Now” sign by Sylvie Fleury that graces its front entrance, and “Miami Mountain,” a colorful sculpture by Ugo Rondinone that’s installed in Collins Park.

Although the Art Basel fair has canceled the Art Public outdoor exhibits in Collins Park that The Bass co-hosted, museum director Silvia Karman Cubiñá said she intends to fill the space with temporary installations and performances year-round. To coincide with Miami Art Week this year, The Bass will open the first solo museum exhibit by artists and designers The Haas Brothers. Their Ferngully installation, inspired by a children’s film of the same name, showcases imaginary beasts crafted in sumptuous materials.

The sandstone rotunda in the park, all that remains of the old library, is meanwhile set to be converted into a black-box performance space with an $800,000 grant from the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council.

The arts-centered strategy has worked, Karman Cubiñá said, helping anchor the neighborhood in rough times and providing a reason for visitors and developers to look to Collins Park. Once the new hotels open, the additional foot traffic will help The Bass sustain attendance and weave the museum in more intimately with its neighborhood. The institution is now looking to add outdoor seating for its cafe.

The tide that’s lifted South Beach has finally reached Collins Park, she said.

“Everything helps,” she said. “It’s Miami Beach. It’s Art Basel. It’s museum-goers buying apartments. Those wonderful little hotels. It really takes a whole city to lift a neighborhood, and it really takes a while. It’s such a beautiful and cultured neighborhood now, and it’s really delightful that The Bass can be part of it.”

Even before the new wave of renovations, Collins Park had been on a gradual upswing. It’s home to Sweet Liberty, the popular craft-cocktail bar, and a smattering of restaurants.

The template for the renovations, in fact, is already in place across the street from The Bass and the park. In 2016, Think Hotel Group’s Shawn Vardi, Karp and designer Fernando Santangelo restored the 1940 Plymouth Hotel, designed by another noted Beach architect, Anton Skislewicz. The district landmark, distinguished by a soaring corner pylon, had become run down after serving many years as a dorm for New World Symphony’s young musicians.

Next door, the team revamped the Ansonia apartments as an annex to the Plymouth, connecting the two with a courtyard and swimming pool. The hotel houses a branch of New York’s Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar that’s been open for a year.

Two blocks away, the drawn-out restoration of the historic Peter Miller hotel is nearing completion. The hotel, to be rebranded the Lennox, is a grouping of four 1930s buildings that range from charming Mediterranean cabanas to a turreted Art Deco main structure on Collins, all designed by Pancoast, the architect of The Bass.

The renovation design, also by Karp, inserts a five-story building at the center of the grouping, a rooftop addition and one level of underground parking.

Down the block, also on Collins, is the emblematic Greystone Hotel, a Streamline Moderne design that was vacant for a decade. It’s undergoing a complete restoration along with the adjacent Santa Barbara apartments, a 1947 MiMo building by one of the style’s originators, Norman Giller, that will be joined to its neighbor. Here, too, there will be a modern addition at the rear.

The project entails a reconstruction of the Greystone’s lobby, which project architect Shulman said was mostly gone, with the exception of the terrazo floor. Unusually, the Greystone boasts a basement that’s being converted into public space for the hotel, Shulman said. The renovation will accommodate food and beverage services, something the historic building likely did not provide.

“One thing that characterizes these renovations is more demand for amenities. Developers need to provide the amenities to make the projects successful,” Shulman said.

Other renovations in the district are also underway or on the drawing board. Among them are a glassy addition to the Vintro by Karp that will create a new waterside patio at the edge of the Collins Canal, and another hotel conversion of an apartment building, the 1936 Colonial Revival-style Sadigo Court. The Sadigo will have one story added to its rooftop and a five-story addition.

Like all the additions in Collins Park, Karp promises his will be barely noticeable from the street and won’t overshadow or compete for attention with their historic hosts.

“This gives you a variety of buildings that have always been there,” he said. “Our additions just highlight the main event, which is the historic buildings. This is a unique infill story.”

When the revival of Collins Park is complete, he vowed, “it’s going to be an experience second to none.”

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