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

Andrew’s Destruction of Homestead Air Force Base

August 17th, 2016 On Aug. 24, 1992, Homestead Air Force Base was obliterated. Like much of the surrounding communities, Homestead AFB was ravaged by the full fury of Hurricane Andrew, leaving the military base in complete ruin. By the time base personnel and aircraft had been evacuated, Hurricane Andrew had grown to a category five storm Read More...

Cruising back in Time: The History of South Florida’s ports

July 27th, 2016

Norway ship at the Port of Miami. Photo courtesy of During the height of the cruise season millions of passengers will board luxury liners. How did South Florida’s cruise industry begin? Embark on a high-seas adventure featuring the history of two of the world’s largest and busiest sea ports, PortMiami and Port Everglades, and get a sneak peak at the largest cruise ship coming to Port Everglades Read More...

Exploring Cape Canaveral

June 29th, 2016

On July 11th 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down in Cape Canaveral from its last mission, ending the era of the 30-year Space Shuttle program. The retirement of the shuttle in 2011 left the United States without the ability to send astronauts into orbit for the first time since the early 1980s, leading some to wonder whether America was abandoning its leadership in space travel Read More...

Welcome Aboard the Houseboat

June 1st, 2016

Houseboat communities have a long history in Florida. These laid-back waterfront neighborhoods attracted free spirits looking for a seafaring lifestyle that wouldn’t break the bank. Floating homes gained mainstream success due to 1960s crime genre films like Lady in Cement starring Frank Sinatra and the popular detective TV series Surfside 6 Read More...

A Walk Down Memory Lane: South Beach in the 70s

May 17th, 2016

For most of its history, Miami Beach was the hottest vacation destination in the world. That was until the 1970s, when the city fell out of fashion with tourists. The growing popularity of air travel, which beckoned tourists to exotic locations, and the opening of Disney World in 1971, siphoned tourism away from the Beach Read More...

Legacy of the Nautilus: From Hotel to Hospital

April 27th, 2016

Photo courtesy of   Although not the most famous of real-estate developer Carl Fisher's original Miami Beach hotels (that distinction would  go to the 1912 Flamingo Hotel), the Nautilus Hotel was undoubtedly the most illustrious. Built in the early 1920s, Fisher employed renowned architects Leonard Schultze and Fullerton Weaver to design the one million dollar Mediterranean-style resort Read More...

Florida’s First Television Station

April 1st, 2016

  [caption id="attachment_3226" align="aligncenter" width="306"] Capitol Theater Downtown Maimi. Photo Courtesy of[/caption] In 1925, Mitchell Wolfson and Sidney Meyer founded the Wolfson-Meyer Theatre Company. One year later, they opened the Capitol Theater, an innovative auditorium in the heart downtown Miami Read More...

Developers Unveil Proposals for Miami Dade College’s Downtown Site

March 16th, 2016 Miami Dade College is currently seeking one lucky developer to enter into a partnership for the 2.6 acre parcel located next to the Freedom Tower. Formerly the location of the Alcazar Hotel, the space is currently being used as a parking lot for the Wolfson Campus Read More...

White Weddings in South Florida

February 11th, 2016

Coral Castle Often associated with the engineering triumphs of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Egypt, Coral Castle was built by a reclusive eccentric named Edward Leedskalnin, who excavated gigantic quarried stones to construct his mysterious castle. Originally located in the tiny town of Florida City in the 1920's, the site was later moved to its current location in Homestead, Florida Read More...