When it opened on New Year’s Day in 1950, the Ocean Palm Motel marked a new era for Sunny Isles, then known primarily for hosting illegal casinos.
Designed by the late and influential Miami Beach architect Norman Giller, the Ocean Palm was built to appeal to the nation’s burgeoning fleet of motoring tourists and families – the “mo” of the motel. It was notable as the nation’s first two-story motel, a modern building with clean, graceful lines.
Everything that followed took a very different design direction – a direction that would define both Sunny Isles Beach and the image of Florida tourism for decades.
Builders and motel owners, eager to grab the attention of motorists traveling a two-mile stretch of the A1A, conjured up a series of kitschy streetside attractions: hulking sirens with coiled tails around the front pillars of The Blue Mist. A spiral staircase that leads nowhere at the Colonial Inn. A giant plaster pelican holding a champagne bucket at Driftwood. The horses and the concrete wagon of the Desert Inn. The fiberglass sphinx in front of the Suez. Sahara camels. Much more.
“Everyone wanted their motel to stand out more than the others,” Giller told the Herald in a 1996 article about the row of motels‘ impending demise as condo buildings rose around and above them. . “They started trying to outdo each other. I guess it was Disney World on a smaller scale.
Sunny Isles’ row of iconic motels grew rapidly in the 1950s, taking shape as an affordable alternative to posh Miami Beach. But his influences really came from a neon hit popping up thousands of miles to the west – Las Vegas.
Consider some of the names – The Desert Inn, The Dunes, The Sahara. The designs also quickly became exotic. Architects like Giller were responsible for part of the Sunny Isles look. He built The Thunderbird, with its long, exaggerated roofline and bold sign, which still stands, as well as the whimsical curved glass lobby of the defunct Driftwood.
But many of the crazy ideas came from owners like Sam and Mel Rubel, who told the Herald in 1996 of the inspiration for the mermaids they called “Maids of the Mist”. It’s an idea they had in the parking lot of a Royal Castle, razed long ago, in front of the Blue Mist. They wanted something to make the place stand out. The mermaids came to them in a flash of inspiration.
Mel Rubel recalled his architect, “who will not be named”, to rebel against the sirens. “He complained that we messed up his building. He said we made it garish.
Perhaps. But the Maids also made it a hit and influenced others along the Strip. “I would like to say that we knew then what we were creating, but we didn’t,” Rubel told the Herald.
Sunny Isles’ informal school of design more or less culminated in The Castaways, a sprawling, extravagantly South Seas-inspired resort. The famous Wreck Bar featured a pagoda roof on steroids. The castaways were demolished in 1985. The Oceania skyscraper now occupies much of the land. Over the next decade, visitor demographics had changed, signaling what was to come. Shops renting videos in Russian and selling Eastern European foods have popped up in malls along the A1A.
In 2022, the Thunderbird and the Sahara are still standing. Most of the others are gone, replaced by the luxury skyscrapers that define what is now the town of Sunny Isles Beach.
Unlike Miami Beach’s Art Deco District, there has never been much enthusiasm for preserving Sunny Isles designs.
The late Ari Millas, a professor of architecture at the University of Miami and an expert on the architectural history of South Florida, told the Herald in this 1996 story that he hoped some remnants of the era would remain.
“It’s fun architecture. It’s architecture of pleasure,” said Millas, who died in 2021. “I would hate to see it all wiped out.”
Millas was a college student when South Florida’s booming hotel and motel market captured national attention. Scholars and critics of the time even gave little respect to high-end designs like Le Fontainebleau and L’Eden Roc, he recalls. And Sunny Isles’ eccentricities were considered laughable, labeled, for no reason Millas remembered, “googie architecture.”
“The thinking back then was more primitive, more orthodox,” Millas said. “These had fun shapes, fun names. They were mashing all these shapes together. Now we’re looking at this, and it’s very interesting.“
Other rows of motels popped up at the time, but Millas didn’t know of any that were flamboyant and reflective of Florida’s tourist heritage. But even more than two decades ago, when old motels still outnumbered high-rises, Millas admitted he struggled to say what was worth saving. Not all were remarkable and as individual motels eroded or disappeared, so did the overall impact.
Even Giller, known as “Mr. Sunny Isles” for his impact and influence, told the Herald at the time that the motels and the look had run their course after nearly half a century. The land was just too precious under them.
“My feeling is that not everything old is necessarily worth saving,” said Giller, who has supported the preservation of Art Deco. “It’s sad to see him go, but I think it’s okay.”