Travels June 2007

Motel Paradiso

In Florida, a quest for the classic family motel

I drove north of downtown on Biscayne Boulevard and pulled into the Vagabond Motel, identifiable by the three plaster-white nymphs frolicking with dolphins at one corner of the building and a neon sign with falling stars on the other. The motel—a 40-room establishment with a low-slung and perfectly proportioned profile—is being fully redone and is scheduled to reopen by the end of the year. When I visited, most guest rooms were gutted to the studs, and the future restaurant was filled only with the attenuating echoes of passing traffic.

I found the owner, Eric Silverman, reviewing construction plans in a temporary office. Silverman is 53 and has long, untended hair that makes him look a bit like Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy on a high-carb diet. He was wearing baggy cargo pants and a yellow T-shirt with a coffee-colored stain the shape of Chile down the front, attire that did not square with what I knew of his past: During the 1990s, Silverman was a president at both Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana. One day he disappeared from the fashion world as cleanly as if he’d stepped into an open manhole. He resurfaced in South Florida as a real-estate agent; two years ago, he and his cousin bought the vintage motel and, with decorating help from D’Amico, set about restoring it to its former glory.

The Vagabond was designed in 1953 by Robert Swartburg, the architect of the 1947 late-deco Delano Hotel, in Miami Beach, which was given a high-gloss makeover by celebrity hotelier Ian Schrager a decade ago. In its heyday, the Vagabond had a raffish, Rat Pack charm, and in one otherwise empty room Silverman riffled through cardboard boxes of old framed photographs to show me shots of Jackie Gleason and Dean Martin, who performed in its bar. Then he took me to a model guest room, where I admired a dappled terrazzo floor, a Swiss-cheese headboard (inspired by the facade of the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach), and an atomic-age ceiling fan. By today’s standards, the room was small. But, as Silverman noted, sitting in your room like a lump is antithetical to motel life—you’re supposed to be at the pool.

And outside, workers were busy making the pool the motel’s centerpiece, building a long bar on one side, next to a sinuous white brick wall and an outdoor grill. Silverman grew animated when describing his vision. On Saturdays there will be poolside bingo and performances by synchronized swimmers. “We’ll have the old-world charm, but WiFi, music in the pool, flat-screen TVs, a great common area, and a great restaurant,” he said. “I think this will be a destination for people to come see what life was like. And it will be better than it actually was—we won’t have the orange shag carpeting.”

Other motels along the boulevard are watching to see what happens at the Vagabond, but none seem quite ready for retro-tourism. One of my policies is to avoid motels where you need to communicate with the clerk through a slot in dingy bulletproof glass. (Also, no motels where a guest has removed his car’s engine block and is working on it just outside his room.) The owner of the King Motel, Hemant “Henry” Patel, told me that for the past 15 or 20 years, the job of motel owner on Biscayne Boulevard has basically been that of security guard.

Silverman admits he might be “a little bit early” in his redevelopment scheme, but he’s confident the boulevard will one day shine again. “When the street is done, everybody’s going to say, ‘Wow, that happened overnight.’”

That night was not over yet, so I drove up to Fort Lauderdale, where I’d heard there was another cluster of vintage motels. I found them a couple of blocks off the beach and secured a room at the Vistamar Villa, a two-story L-shaped motel bent around a woggle-shaped pool and lushly landscaped courtyard. The owners, who have kept up the place immaculately, told me the hotel was built in 1959 and has easily survived every hurricane thrown at it.

Yet, as at Treasure Island, this enclave was under siege by construction cranes, and from my back window I could see the vacant lot where the old motel across the street had recently been demolished to make way for a residential tower. Four blocks away, the Trump International Hotel & Tower Fort Lauderdale was going up behind a tall fence covered with black-and-white photos of fabulously handsome people. I hoped that someone like Eric Silverman would show up soon with a big idea for these little places. Perhaps synchronized swimmers could save them as well.

My room at the Vistamar was large and had a bright bathroom full of yellow tile. The front window slid open, and in the back were jalousie windows that I cranked wide to let in the breeze. Then I sprawled across the bed and drifted off to the gentle nattering of venetian blinds.

Sometimes you can go home again. It’s just that home may not be where you left it.

Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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