Party time returns to Ocean Drive

Gianni Versace's flamboyant Miami home was famous for its wild nights. Now, a telecoms tycoon plans to reopen his designer palace as an exclusive club. David Usborne reports from South Beach
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The Independent Travel

Strolling the length of Ocean Drive in Miami's South Beach you devour the scene. Hyper-tanned men and women, lost in their own private cat-walk fantasies, brush past you. Cars with open roofs idle outside the crammed cafés and restaurants. Everyone is vying to impress everyone and the mood is vulgar sexy.

Amid this cacophony of casual crass there is also architecture. South Beach is America's museum of beach-side Art Deco. But number 1116 stands out. It is the Casa Casuarina, a Mediterranean mansion behind palms and wrought-iron railings. Limestone steps lead to its closed decorative gates.

It is the steps that will capture your attention first. Here is the spot where a former owner of this splendid folly, the fashion superstar Gianni Versace, was gunned down in 1997. You jostle with the knot of other tourists that will inevitably have gathered here and ponder this strange crossroads of celebrity and death. Finally, you lift your gaze to the house itself - and wish you could look inside.

Unfortunately the Casa, first built in 1930 by Alden Freeman, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, to replicate the 16th-century home that once belonged to the son of Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo, is not open to the public. A sign reads "Private", and a chain discourages anyone from ringing the bell. There is only one means of gaining entrance here - you will need a personal invitation from its current owner.

This is Peter Loftin, a telecommunications tycoon from North Carolina who has "retired" at the tender age of 46. He is divorced with a six-year-old son, and has the build of an American football quarterback. Mr Loftin bought the property from the Versace family in 2000 for $19 million (£12m). Fortunately, he turns out to be a gregarious guy. He likes people and likes them in his house. Even a reporter, who took special pleasure stepping over the chain and passing through the gates to meet him inside for lunch. The looks on the faces of the tourists left behind on the pavement are easy to interpret. "He must live here now." No such luck.

This is all business and I am meeting Mr Loftin to talk about guests far more important to him than myself. Later this year, his house will be opened as private club for the very well heeled. The idea came to him as soon as he moved in. Either a club or a very exclusive hotel. But then the economy dipped and the terrorists struck in America, so he paused. For the last couple of years he has been renting the Casa Casuarina out for the occasional private party and event. Last weekend, the Mayor of Miami was the host at an awards night there. Al Gore has been, and so have the likes of London socialite Brooke De Ocampo.

Now he has determined the time is right to launch "The Club at Casa Casuarina". America, he calculates, has got past the first traumas of 9/11 and people are ready to live it up a little. So last week, he started sending out preliminary invitations to 150 specially selected people, in an attempt to build a first foundation of future members. Many of the invitees - including former tennis star Jimmy Connors - are Mr Loftin's friends.

The charter members will then help him decide who else might be approached to join. And to keep the mix "interesting", he will give honorary memberships to a few artsy, but not necessarily wealthy, types as well.

"I want a diverse crowd," he explains as we sit down to rock crabs and white wine in the exquisite dining room at the front of the house, the railings and gawking tourists visible through the windows. "From artists to writers and accomplished people in all fields, business people, movie stars, whatever." And he hopes they come from all over the world. British people, he says, he finds especially amusing: "They are very interesting to me." How much will these lucky few have to pay to join him in his sumptuous sanctuary? Mr Loftin pauses between sips of the Chablis and smiles. That is one detail he prefers not to divulge.

Pampering there will be. The moment members arrive, he boasts, an attendant will hand them a bathrobe embroidered with their initials, in case they decide first to plunge in the eye-popping pool, with its exuberantly-decorated tiled bottom and gushing fountain that Mr Versace - never known for design understatement - had built for himself. Inside, spa specialists will be ready with the most exotic treatments. To clean up, members will step into Versace's sexy shower rotunda, with its inlaid marble floor, frescos on the stone walls and faux-Greek columns separating the four stalls. Above all, the club will be a luxurious refuge amid the hubbub of South Beach. Dining tables will be laid for members in any of the public rooms they choose, some surrounding the three-storey open courtyard in its core. Or they will eat on the terrace by the pool.

Drinks will be served inside in the Freeman Suite or at a glass bar on the mansion's roof, overlooking the ocean. Climb a little higher and guests will find themselves inside the bronze-domed observatory that Alden Freeman built to top off the whole structure.

What there will not be are any rooms for overnight stays. There are enough local hotels to look after that. But all else will be possible. "Whatever you want, we'll get it," Mr Loftin says. If that means a helicopter, so be it.

But the main attraction, surely, will be the Casa itself. It is not yet 75 years old, but the building is to South Beach what the Pavilion is to Brighton. Here, it counts as historic. And like the Pavilion, it is credited with sowing the first seeds of tourism in the area when it was completed for Alden Freeman and his companion, the landscape designer, Charles Boulton, in 1930. It is named after a lone casuarina tree, or Australian pine, that survived on this site after a brutal storm in 1926.

While Mr Loftin declined to buy any of Versace's furniture - it was subsequently put up for auction by the Versace family at Sotheby's - he has not touched the house's unique decor or architecture, whether features added by Versace or dating back to Freeman.

Versace spent $30 million (£17m) adding his own flamboyant personality and joy of excess to the Casa. As I take a pre-lunch tour, I appreciate his hand at every turn. He expanded the property south into an adjacent lot (where a hotel once stood) to build the pool, terrace and a guest wing that will house the club's spa. He laid five million tiling pieces for the mosaic floors throughout. Every stone staircase has tiny fragments of precious stones exquisitely inlaid on the risers of their steps. Bedroom ceilings are painted with designs taken from his scarves. (Or were the scarves inspired by the ceilings?) Bathrooms are marble and stone. His own suite, with rich wood panelling and purple stained-glass windows, has the air of a prince's palace or perhaps a bed-chamber of the ancient Gods. Peek into his private dressing room with its fine cabinets and you will find the sticky labels that Versace put on his drawers: socks, sportswear and so forth.

"I am the custodian of the house, I have to be respectful of the past owners," says Mr Loftin, admitting that his may not be the most artistic of eyes. He is the founder and former CEO of the telecommunications company, BTI, in North Carolina, where he has another home. Mr Loftin spends about 60 per cent of his time in the Casa nowadays. But he says that he has come to realise that something is missing. "It is a piece of art in itself, but when you have been here long enough, you understand that it needs people. This house has a soul and it tells you to bring people in here."

That has certainly been its history. When Alden Freeman built the Casa Casuarina, he had it divided into 22 tiny apartments so all his friends could visit. After his death in 1937, it was acquired by Jacques Amsterdam. As "The Amsterdam Palace", its apartments became the homes of artists and hippies. But by 1992, the property had declined into virtual disrepair. That was when Versace fell in love with it and bought it. Once his renovations were completed, the house became famous for his wild nights with guests such as Madonna - one bedroom is still named after her - Elton John, and of course all of the Versace clan. His presence on South Beach and the whispers about his parties helped fuel the renaissance of South Beach in the Nineties as the must-go destination for the chic and wannabe-chic.

Can Mr Loftin hope to have the same kind of impact on South Beach as he gives the house its newest incarnation? Perhaps not. For one thing, the area is far more developed now than it was when Versace made his splash here. Today there are new and pricey restaurants, clubs and hotels, either recently opened or under construction, everywhere you look. But he is adamant that he will turn it back into a place for adult play and relaxation just as it was in the days of Versace. Mobile phones will be banned, and he will discourage guests from business dealing. "People aren't having so much fun as they used to and they need to have some fun," he explains. While he acknowledges that he has been partly inspired by Donald Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, about an hour north of here, he wants his place to be less stuffy. "I don't want just the same old country club crowd." Here they will be allowed to let their hair down.

Mr Loftin clearly is no Versace - nor would he want to be. But some veterans of the South Beach scene have their doubts whether he is the right person to bring the mansion back to life. "I can't imagine it and I can't imagine him doing it either," says Tom Austin, a long-time chronicler of South Beach society. "Loftin is a bit of a vulgarian, if you know what I mean." Mr Austin was often a guest of Versace and has also been to couple of parties at the mansion since Mr Loftin arrived. And he didn't much care for what he saw. "Just acres of girls and then the horndogs," he said, referring to all the men eyeing the female flesh.

"It had a certain spirit before, because Versace was an emblem of a kind. And he had the whole fashion thing going and the gay element which tied into the fashion. I don't know if you can recapture that."

Mr Loftin has the advantage of being about the most friendly former mogul you are ever likely to meet. He has an almost boyish, perhaps even naive, glint in his eye as he imagines the kinds of members he expects his club to attract. And he is confident he can get the mechanics of the club right, at least. "There is a special way to treat people and I want to go above and beyond what people are used to."

He is currently negotiating with an exclusive concierge company to answer the members' every whim. A high-end local caterer, Barton G, already serves at his occasional parties and will stay on to feed the club members, preparing most of the meals off-site. (The kitchen in the mansion, just off the main courtyard as you come in through the main doors from the street, is surprisingly pokey.) And Mr Loftin has his eyes on a well-known spa entrepreneur to come in and take care of that side of the business. The beach, beyond Ocean Drive, looks after itself. Although with the privacy offered by the club and the splendour of its pool, you wonder how many members will actually want to get sand between their toes.

But will they come? And, more importantly, who will come? In a way, the key months will be those before the club actually opens its doors late this year. Mr Loftin has hired a notable New York PR guru, Nadine Johnson - widely adored in New York's arts and entertaining circles - to help recruit the right sorts and, more importantly, generate exactly the right kind of buzz. The Independent is only the second newspaper he has sat down with so far, after the New York Times, to talk about the project. Mr Loftin is perfectly well aware of the importance of crafting the right word of mouth.

Nothing, though, is going to dent Loftin's enthusiasm for the time being. Even the risk of losing money does not seem to overly distract him. "You have to try and make it into a profitable venture. I don't know how profitable it will be, but we are going to work on making it that way." But it is clear, that if all goes well with the club, he will be about as happy as anyone in happy-crazed South Beach. "This could be one of the greater things I accomplish in my life."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Three airlines fly non-stop between London Heathrow and Miami: American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.aa.com), British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com). In May, fares through discount agents for non-stop flights are typically £500. You can save up to £150 or so on a round-trip if you are prepared to change planes in Paris, Frankfurt or a US city. These deals are also useful if you are starting from outside south-east England.

Local buses run direct from Miami airport to South Beach. Taxis charge a flat rate of $24 (£15) to South Beach, or you could opt for the slower door-to-door service with Super Shuttle ($11.50 or £7 to South Beach).

STAYING THERE

In South Beach every other building seems to be a renovated Art Deco hotel. The Delano (1685 Collins Ave at 16th Street; 001 305 672 2000; www.ianschragerhotels.com) is one of the best, with doubles next month for $435 (£230), room only. The Tides (1220 Ocean Drive; 001 305 604 5070; www.islandoutpost.com) is a bright, white vision designed by L Murray Dixon in 1936. It has 45 suites, all with ocean views from $475 (£256) a night, room only. The National (1677 Collins Avenue at 16th Street; 001 305 532 2311; www.nationalhotel.com) has atmospheric Old Havana Nights in the Art Deco lounge; doubles from $168 (£105), room only. The Kent (1131 Collins Avenue; 001 305 604 5068; www.thekenthotel.com) is a colourful Art Deco conversion has rooms from $164 (£103) including breakfast.

EATING THERE

For the Latin vibe head to Larios on the Beach, 820 Ocean Drive (001 305 532 9577), which is part-owned by Gloria Estefan.

MORE INFORMATION

The Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, Suite 2700, Nations Bank Building, 701 Brickell Ave (001 305 539 3000; www.gmcvb.com) has free maps and brochures. It opens 9am-5.30pm from Monday to Friday.

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