Thursday, May 23, 2013

Luxury, kitsch and convenience - Sunny Isles motels of the 1950s and ...

Sunny Isles today

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By Jane Feehan

Motels played a key part in Florida’s tourism industry during the 1950s and 60s.  In 1946, the Florida Hotel and Motel Association reported there were only 1,311 in the entire state. But by 1955, the organization tallied 5,085 motels along Florida’s highways and beaches. A motel was defined as a place  a car could be parked in front of one’s room. That definition was modified over the years but it translated into cheaper accommodations than those offered by hotels.

Sunny Isles today
Miami area motels appealed to families seeking an alternative to expensive hotels along Miami Beach. Motels competed with the glitz of the Fountainebleau, the Eden Roc and other hotels.

Rates were kind to a family’s purse. A comfortable room at a glamorous Sunny Isles motel fetched $18-28 a day during the winter season, about half of what a Miami Beach hotel charged. The same rooms would sell for $10-16 a day during summer months. (Fort Lauderdale room rates ran as low as $6 during the summer but motels had fewer amenities.)

Nowhere were motels as splashy as those built in Sunny Isles (near 170th Street, the Fountainebleau is close to 40th Street).

Luxury, kitsch, and convenience reigned during the 1950s and 60s. Curbside check-in made it possible to register without leaving the car at some motels. Others offered supper clubs, beach cabanas, dance floors, children's programs and upscale restaurants with down-scaled attire–coats and ties were not required. The Sahara Motel posted two stuffed camels and a figure of a desert nomad at the entrance. Others touted elaborate interior waterfalls and kitschy architectural design. 

Not only were they flashy, motels were large.

Sun City, with 476 rooms, claimed to be the largest in 1955. The Castaways*, built about 1954, opened with 172 rooms (in 1958 it expanded to 300 rooms and eventually to 540 in the next decade). The Dunes built an indoor skating rink and a 350-seat convention room.
Motels in the U.S. declined in popularity with the advent of the super highway, highway interchanges  and lodging chains. In Sunny Isles, motel bookings decreased as resorts in other locales competed for tourist dollars. Land values went sky high and so did taxes.

By the 1970s, the Castaways Motel attracted undesirables and few families. Then, the motel was better known for its famous Wreck Bar and night life than for its family accommodations. Owner Joe Hart sold the motel in the 1970s; today the site is home to the Oceania Condominiums. The Dunes remains a closed, fenced in eyesore (at least during the fall of 2012). The Sunny Isles of the 1960s is now a wall of condominiums, barely more than a  memory of the motel heydays of the 1950s and 60s.

*Architect Tony Sherman designed the early Castaways; Charles McKirahan designed the expansion in 1958. The Wreck Bar at the Castaways drew celebrities, including Lenny Bruce and, in 1964, the Beatles after they finished playing on the Ed Sullivan Show at the Deauville Hotel.
New York Times, Dec. 11, 1955.
Armbruster, Ann.  The Life and Times of Miami Beach. New York: Alford A. Knopf, Inc. (1995).

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