Riding the Ghost Train
By Robert G. Achtel
In 1995, at the age of 14, I spent a weekend in Miami with my parents. My father (*1936, Berlin), a business traveler for the past four decades, booked the seaside hotel "Dezerland" (originally "Biltmore Terrace", Morris Lapidus, 1951). Upon arrival, I was in shock. The place was sleazy. A decorative Cadillac in the lobby. A pink Eldorado next to a fiberglass Elvis statue. "This is the real thing kid! Because it's just like it used to be." my father explained. I didn't get it at all. By the time we got to the rooms, the conversation had ceased. He had a stiff drink on the balcony, I went to bed. He sat quietly, watching the ocean. He certainly wasn't too concerned about his spoiled son's preferences.
The years went by and in 2011, when a friend and I made a stopover in Miami, I booked the Dezerland. I was curious how it had held up. Elvis was still there, so was the Eldorado. The rooms were stripped down, the tiled floors reminded me of a sobering cell, but considering that it had been converted into a low budget spring break hotel, it all made sense. That night we went out, and since the Dezerland is in North Beach, we took the bus. On line 120 we eventually met two local girls which took us to the "Purdy Lounge". Good times.
We took a cab back to the Dezerland at sunrise. When we passed the postmodern resort hotels on Collins Ave, I remembered the trip with my parents and the "real thing" speech of my dad. I wondered, when did things stop being real? Referencing contemporary history, one may be enticed to draw a line somewhere in the transition between Modernism and Postmodernism. Connect it to the radical events that happened during that time, Neil and Buzz walk on the moon, Jack and John die by the gun. The future of the past derailed like a ghost train. Enjoy scheming cynical business models while you stay at The Venetian in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In 1995, the Dezerland hadn't gotten the memo. It had seen better days for sure, but their spirit lingered on. I eventually realized that this was what my father liked about it. A memento of easier, more modest times, miles north of the crater Postmodernism left when it hit Miami Beach. As he watched the moonlit waves crashing on the shore, he certainly wasn't minding the historical context I am alleging here. It was the year of his retirement, he had his very own considerations to make.
The Biltmore Terrace was an early work of Morris Lapidus (1902, Odessa, now Ukraine), self-proclaimed "Architect of the American Dream". One of 250 Hotels he built, including The Fountainebleau (1954), featured in "James Bond: Goldfinger" (1964). His work defined the architectural style of Miami Beach. Although his buildings relied on many functional principles, Modernists loathed the arguably ostentatious style he developed, openly vilifying it as vulgar and incompetent during an AIA meeting in 1963. In spite of his enormous success, he remained an outsider to the American architectural establishment for many years. It figures that decades later, his work was eventually re-evaluated and Lapidus became a celebrated pioneer of Postmodernism. By that time, Lapidus had already given up hope for his work to be recognized and had burned most of his archive after he retired in 1984. Ironically, when Paul Rudolph (1918, Elkton, KY), a pioneer of Modernism and vocal critic of Lapidus’ work, downright trailblazed his own way out of Modernism, he was subject to harsh critique as well. Assessing his Brutalist Yale Art & Architecture building (1958), his peers sensed a betrayal towards Modernism. Again, it would take decades until the ingenuity of his later work was acknowledged.
We arrive at the Dezerland, and as we get out of the cab to seagull squeaks, I wondered if my line of thought made any sense. Postmodernism betrays, but only those who want to be betrayed. The Venetian isn't Venice. Times are changing, and it's human to feel a sentimentality for the past, all the more for your own younger days. But still, there's no denying the widespread lack of integrity one has to put up with today. And in a world of follower counts, a fiberglass Elvis statue is a welcome reminder. He's the king, but his kingdom is lost.
The next day was unavoidably affected by a hangover. From the proceedings at the Purdy Lounge and my dazed attempt to blame Postmodernism for the demise of the world. What is there to say about a period named merely after where it's coming from, not where it's going. It's so easy to despise when you admit how the Modernists ideals were replaced by an insatiable hunger for profit and growth. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson: "For a loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth."
But then again, Postmodernism merely echoes the increasingly complicated world of the late 20th century. And while we might be aboard this ghost train, we still managed to have a good time. Maybe, you have to come to terms. There are no easy answers. Architectural styles, just like life itself, are in a constant state of flux, shaped by generational battles. Architects are leaving their marks, and some of these inevitably become monuments to their creator's hopes and fears. Rudolph's daring Brutalist aesthetic and Lapidus' lifelong pursuit of recognition eventually inspired our piece "Fox Theatre" (2011).
For the Dezerland, however, the end was bleak. It closed in 2013 after being entirely run down by the mode of operation I had witnessed in 2011. Miami developer Terra Group presented a comprehensive plan to restore and preserve it under its original name, adding an expansion that would more than double its capacity. Once the plan was approved by Miami's Design Review Board and presented to the North Shore Historic District Neighborhood Association, the developer quickly changed its intentions in favor of 200ft luxury condo tower designed by Renzo Piano. Due to the lack of a historic designation for the structure, papers were signed and the Dezerland was demolished.