On July 15, 1997 Gianni Versace left for the morning paper at just before 9 a.m. Nearly everyone in Miami and a great deal of people across the world know the story.
The mentally unhinged Andrew Cunanan then tragically shot Versace to death on the doorsteps of his world famous mansion. Cunanan, who had already killed four other people, set off a manhunt and houseboat siege that captivated the morbid attention of the world.
Thus the unknown fate of those world famous doorsteps and the building behind it was set in motion.
But the recent sale of Versace's former home to the Nakash Family for $41.5 million has raised some concern. Nakash’s representative Jon Bennett said to the Real Deal that the Versace Mansion could be an, “incredible retail flag location,” causing alarm from purists. He later told the South Florida Business Journal that the company’s plans were not clear.
Beginnings Of Casa Casuarina
Alden Freeman was a classic early 20th century Renaissance Man. Once called “possibly the most democratic millionaire” by a Pan Am executive, Freeman was an architect, author, politician and a Standard Oil fortune heir.
He moved to Miami in the early 1920s, and after a brief stint in California, returned and was appointed Consul General of the Haitian Consulate. In 1930, he decided to build a home on Miami Beach and enlisted architect Henry LaPointe and the Hubble & Hubble construction crew. The team erected Casa Casuarina in six months.
The building was modeled after the oldest home in the Western Hemisphere, the Alcazar de Colon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, built by the son of voyager Christopher Columbus, Diego, in 1510.
Freeman himself inhabited the house along with his 33-year-old adopted son Charles Boulton. Though Boulton was married at the time of his adoption, rumors of a relationship between the two have persisted, yet gone unsubstantiated.
Boulton sold the house after Freeman died and for 50 years it was owned by a series of hotel and apartment landlords until Versace bought it in 1992. During that time, it was most famously called The Amsterdam Palace and served as housing for artists.
Miami is a place that sometimes has a problem with maintaining its history. Architecture is one of the city’s finest attractions from times past, yet buildings often come and go without collective concern for preservation. Casa Casuarina is another classic building and many are worried that it’s newest and most visible elements, those added by Versace, could potentially end up being stripped away.
Versace’s additions are vast and integral to the design of the building. Among many notable features are mosaics, the swimming pool, countless Medusa motifs, an observatory, several rooms and courtyard, stained glass windows and marble flooring. Then there’s the entire Versace Wing, which includes a stairway, the central second floor hall and Versace’s bedroom.
All of these could vanish if the Nakash family, Casa Casuarina’s new owners, decide they are unnecessary to the building’s future. At issue is that what Versace added in 1994 is not coverd by any preservation protection policies. Versace’s additions do not fall under any history designation that the city of Miami Beach offers.
Ocean Drive Attraction
According to Charles Urstadt, chairman of the Miami Beach Design Preservation League, the Versace Mansion is the “most photographed location on Ocean Drive,” which shows how important it is to visitors and the community.
For what it’s worth, Miami Beach is typically a lot more concerned with its heritage than the rest of South Florida. Urstadt reminds us that the mansion is, “within a historic district and there are some very strong laws that protect that property whatever plans are formulated and it will be subject to those laws.”
Jack Johnson, also of the preservation league, goes on to remind us that people now constantly refer to the property as “The Versace Mansion.” He also worries about the future of Versace’s alterations, stating, "it would be a great loss" if they were to be removed.
Johnson said that Versace, “spared no expense on the changes that he made to the building and although they are not historic, in the sense that the original building is, they are very much associated in the public mind with the building and its significance.”
Indeed Versace's presence on Ocean Drive was a huge factor in Miami Beach's overall economic resurrection and revitalization.
Miami Beach Preservation
When Versace bought Casa Casuarina in 1992 he also bought the Hotel Revere next door, another 1930s building, and tore it down to make room for the changes he made to the overall property. News reports at the time detail a long battle with early 1990s preservationists, one which Versace eventually won.
In fact, many of the preservation laws in place today are as stringent as they are due to that fight. Versace agreed to fund preservation on Miami Beach if he was allowed to proceed with Casa Casuarina's expansion.
It's somewhat ironic that there might be handwringing over Versace's alterations when he was initially so flippant with Miami Beach architecture himself.
“At this point, it’s basically all rumors and press," says Urstadt. "The important thing with an historic property is that it’s maintained. What the property is used for is somewhat less important. For instance Lincoln Theater (on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach) is a fantastic example of that. Now it’s an H&M and it has been rehabilitated in a sensitive way. “
Buildings have a life after each resident. It’s easy to speculate and demonize a billionaire and his family buying up a beloved house on Miami Beach. Perhaps the Nakash family will honor Versace’s legacy. But until the first jackhammer hits the first mosaic, it's a waiting game.
The history of Casa Casuarina laid out here owes greatly to the work of Jack Johnson of the Miami Beach Design Preservation League.