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Written by Karen-Janine Cohen   
March 2010

Introducing the first completely restored MiMo motel

The neon “New Yorker” sign is up, the guest-room walls are painted robin’s egg blue, and the motel’s office is nearly ready to greet customers with restored terrazzo floors and gleaming tile work. “Trying to find this tile, it’s a nightmare,” laughs Shirley Diaz, who, with husband Walter Figueroa, has spent eight months and more than $60,000 meticulously restoring the motel at 6500 Biscayne Blvd., doing much of the work themselves, with family members pitching in.

On March 20 the former Davis Motel will open as the Motel New Yorker, the first of the Boulevard’s midcentury motels restored to its original appearance and atmosphere, a classic example of the architectural style known as Miami Modern, or MiMo. (Also part of the property is the Audubon Motel. Separately constructed, it too is undergoing an upgrade. Together the two buildings have 53 guest rooms.)

Cheering on Diaz and Figueroa are the area’s preservation devotees, along with many businesses and residents who believe the renovation is an important step in pushing forward the transformation of Biscayne Boulevard’s MiMo Historic District. They hope the New Yorker will blaze a path other local motels will follow.

Working from old pictures and documents, Diaz and Figueroa are painstakingly recreating the heyday of the New Yorker, built in 1953 and designed by vaunted MiMo architect Norman Giller. The original pink-and-green or gray-and-yellow bathroom tiles look like new. A variety of chairs, mirrors, and other reproduction period furniture is sprinkled throughout the rooms, which also boast flat-screen TVs and other contemporary amenities. Plans are under way to reopen a bricked-over office window and entrance door.

Boulevard boosters also hope the restored New Yorker will draw more people to the area and begin to change the stubborn perception that Biscayne Boulevard remains a haven for drugs, crime, and prostitution. “I hope people will come and see it -- people who still think the Boulevard is riddled with crime,” says Fran Rollason, president of the MiMo Biscayne Association, whose members include businesses, historical preservationists, and local residents.

In 2006 the City of Miami designated the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard between 50th and 77th streets as the MiMo Biscayne Historic District. The city also ponied up $100,000 to fund a business improvement committee with the hope that commercial property owners will agree to subsidize a business improvement district, which could help them upgrade their buildings.

Restoration of the Boulevard’s 1950s-era motels is widely believed to be a key to fueling regeneration. Many in the area see opportunities for an appealing alternative to pricey South Beach hotels, while also supplying rooms for visitors to Wynwood’s art galleries, the Adrienne Arsht Center, and other mainland attractions.

The New Yorker unveiling is also a salve for the collective disappointment at the failure of the Vagabond Motel’s purchasers to make good on its potential as the Boulevard’s crown jewel. Today the Vagabond, designed by B. Robert Swartburg, who also conceived Miami Beach’s Delano Hotel, sits vacant and abandoned, its future a mystery.

Shirley Diaz has a long view of the Boulevard’s ups and downs. Her parents, Victor and Elisa, bought the New Yorker in 1987. Diaz grew up working at the front desk. “I was 15 when I got here,” she says. “The place was a nightmare.” And while the neighborhood has improved, she says there are still drugs and incidents.

But progress is evident, adds her husband. For one thing, Palm Grove, the neighborhood just west of the Boulevard, is steadily attracting more professionals and middle-class families. “We’ve seen this place change,” he says. “You see a lot of people walking with their dogs, taking kids to the park. We see a lot of things we didn’t see before.”

If the New Yorker does succeed, it will reprise a time when Miami tourists drove, rather than flew, from the north. Vacationers with their cars stayed in Boulevard motels, whose architecture reflected postwar prosperity and optimism, says Nancy Liebman, a well-known preservationist who was deeply involved in saving Miami Beach’s Art Deco structures and is now working on MiMo historic preservation.

“It doesn’t look modern now,” Liebman says, “but it was the modern design. The beauty of what architect Norman Giller and others did at that time was to create a feeling openness, the exciting time of the 1950s.”

Revamping buildings is only part of the equation, Liebman believes, noting that revitalization also depends on the city cracking down on crime and code violations. She also believes that motel owners could make common cause by marketing themselves as one. Which is exactly what Walter Figueroa has in mind. “We shouldn’t think like we have 50 rooms,” he says, “but like we have 500 rooms.”

The Motel New Yorker’s March 20 grand opening will get a boost as part of the “MiMo Madness” festival that same day. The annual event brings food, music, and entertainment to the Boulevard. Diaz and Figueroa are even considering synchronized swimmers in their motel pool, a bit of fun to mark the end of a long and arduous process. Diaz puts it this way: “We want to say: Look what a difference we’ve made in the neighborhood!”

 

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