Casa Casuarina: The Palace on Ocean Drive.

October 24th, 2016

Casa Casuarina is arguably one of the most famous buildings on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. This home was once the opulent residence and private oasis of celebrity fashion designer Gianni Versace, and continues its legacy as a resort for the well-to-do. Journey through time with Learning from Miami, as we delve into Casa Casuarinas’ rich history.

In 1930, architect and Standard Oil fortune heir Alden Freeman built his dream home, Casa Casuarina, on Miami Beach. Inspired by a previous trip the Alcazar De Colon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Freeman brought back two bricks from the Diego Columbus mansion. One was installed to the right hand side of the main entrance of Casa Casuarina and the other was put in his former house in the city of Santa Barbara, California. Although Freeman was an architect, he did not design the home; instead he commissioned Burdines architect Henry LaPointe to create his residence.

The property had a total of 24 apartments. Freeman lived in the top-floor-front apartment on the southeast corner. The remaining 23 apartments in the building were available for rent. Freeman lived the house along with his 33-year-old adopted son Charles Boulton until Freeman’s death in 1937.

Casa Casuarina was then purchased by Jaques Amsterdam, who remodeled the home into an apartment complex and renamed the building Amsterdam Palace. In April 1939, Amsterdam did some minor renovations to the building. He installed an elevator shaft, replaced the original lily pond in the Courtyard with terrazzo flooring, and moved the kneeling Aphrodite statue to the front terrace.

In the ensuing years, Amsterdam Palace passed through the hands of several owners and hundreds of tenants. In the 1980’s, the house was briefly renamed Christopher Columbus Apartments. After years of neglect, the building had gradually decayed, but, incredibly, most of the original architectural fixtures survived.

In 1992, while vacationing with his family in South Beach, Versace walked down Ocean Drive and was instantly drawn to the kneeling Aphrodite statue in front of Casa Casuarina. Versace had finally found his dream home. He purchased the apartment complex for $2.95 million along with an old art deco hotel called the Hotel Revere for $3.7 million. Versace had plans to demolish the hotel and put in a garden and swimming pool.

Sadly, the three-story 1950’s Hotel Revere, designed by architect A.H. Mathes was two years too new to qualify as a historic building by the city of Miami Beach. Despite strong opposition from the Miami Design Preservation League, Versace bought the Revere Hotel next door and demolished the building.

Versace invested an additional $32 million in renovations in which he added the south wing, the pool and garden and turned the 24 apartments into 10 large suites in the original house and an additional two new suites in the south wing. He also removed the elevator shaft in the courtyard, replaced the fountain and reconstructed the observatory, adding a new copper dome. The renovations took almost three years to complete.

Gianni Versace’s life ended tragically on Tuesday, July 14, 1997, at 8:30 am. Versace – abiding by his typical morning routine – left Casa Casuarina and walked to the News Café, then strolled back to his home. As Versace was opening the ornate wrought-iron gates of the Mediterranean-style mansion, serial killer Andrew Cunanan approached him and fatally shot the 50-year-old twice in the head with a 40-caliber pistol.

Casa Casuarina remained uninhabited for nearly three years until September of 2000, when Gianni Versace’s sister Donatella finally sold the estate to Peter Loftin, a telecommunications magnate from Raleigh, North Carolina, for $19 million. Loftin used the mansion as a private residence as well as a hotel, membership club, and a private events venue from 2001 until the end of 2009.

In December of 2009, events entrepreneur and restaurateur Barton G. Weiss leased the property, took over the mansion, and reopened the building as The Villa by Barton G. The latest owners of Casa Casuarina, the Nakash family, purchased the mansion in 2013 through their Jordache Enterprises also famously known as Jordache Jeans. Jordache Enterprises has put the building up for lease. Circulating rumors speculate that the family may have plans to turn the mansion into a mixed-use luxury retail property complete with a Victoria’s Secret and an Apple Store. For the time being, the former residence of celebrity designer Gianni Versace still functions as a restaurant, boutique hotel, and special event venue.

Gianni Versace’s death will be the subject of an upcoming television drama on season 3 of American Crime Story. Based on the book Vulgar Favors by Maureen Orth, the mini-series, which will be titled Versace/Cunanan, will focus on Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who fatally shot the fashion designer on the steps of his Ocean Drive mansion in 1997.  Production is set to begin in early 2017.

-Ursa Gil

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