When members of Miami Beach’s preservation board approved the demolition of an addition to the historic Versailles Hotel, they largely overlooked one small detail: a 90-foot-long mosaic mural on the building’s Collins Avenue facade that depicts Apollo pulling the gleaming chariot of the sun across the sky.
South Beach hotelier Mitch Novick, a former Beach preservation board chairman who knows and admires the mural, was dumbfounded. And a subsequent bit of research by Novick confirmed it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.
It turns out the Modernist glass-mosaic mural was created for the Versailles addition in the mid-1950s by Jack Stewart, a well-regarded artist whose work is in some major museums and collections around the country. As far back as 1994, Stewart’s wife had written the city to ask that the mural, one of his biggest works, be designated a historic landmark, but the city apparently took no action.
Now, 20 years later, Novick has undertaken a campaign to save the mural with the help of Stewart’s widow, artist Regina Stewart. Together, they hope to persuade the Versailles’ new owner, arts-focused developer Alan Faena, to preserve the work as part of his ambitious, and highly publicized, multi-block Faena District.
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“I’ve known about this piece for decades. I remember driving by it as a kid,” Novick said. “I think it’s spectacular. Unfortunately, the city dropped the ball on this one.”
Faena has promised to preserve the mural, which Novick said is attached in sections to the building with metal anchors and thus easy to remove and relocate, but has not decided what to do with it. Novick, who’s worried the mural will disappear from view for good, says it should remain in the area for which it was conceived.
Because the city has already approved the demolition, there’s not much it can do now to compel Faena to preserve or incorporate the mural into his project, said Miami Beach planning chief Thomas Mooney — nor, in any case, is there a way of designating a mural as historic separate from the building it’s attached to, he added.
The preservation board could have made preservation of the mural a condition of the demolition authorization. But the mural and its significance seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle.
When Faena went to the historic preservation board for permission to demolish the addition, neither his team of lawyers and architects nor city planners made any reference to it. Neither did the formal report evaluating the addition, which Beach preservation manager Deborah Tackett says was prepared by Faena’s group and accepted by the city.
Herb Sosa, then chair of the preservation board, said no one seemed aware of the mural’s worth and no evidence of it was presented during the hearing. And though Novick asked the board to look into the mural, he had not at that point done extensive research on it.
“I didn’t know any of the history of it,” Sosa said. “The level of importance wasn’t stressed. There was no detail as to who the muralist was. We have amazing experts on our board, but we don’t know every single detail of every single building.”
This is the second recent case in which redevelopment threatens a familiar mural on the Beach. Preservationists are also trying to salvage a mosaic mural by local artist Enzo Gallo that adorns the exterior of a bank on the corner of Alton and Lincoln roads. That building is also scheduled for demolition.
Unlike that mural, however, the Versailles work sits squarely in a historic district, and is by an artist with national art-world recognition.
The Versailles Hotel, a 1941 Art Deco tower by architect Roy France which Faena plans to fully restore and convert to condos, is an integral piece of the Collins Waterfront Historic District and thus legally protected. But the preservation board approved the demolition of the later addition because it’s not considered architecturally significant — in fact, some say it marred the design of the original when it was grafted on to its southern flank in 1955.
The Versailles commission, at 17 feet high by 92 feet long, was an unusually large piece and helped launch Stewart on a prolific public-art career that ran in tandem with his studio painting, said David Houston, a curator and Stewart expert who’s working on a book on the artist’s mosaic work.
“It’s an early and important piece for Jack, and it’s a wonderful piece of Miami’s history,” Houston said.
The glass mosaic tiles were painstakingly attached to aluminum frames in Stewart’s New York studio. A photo provided by his widow shows famed painter Alex Katz, then a young man, working on it as a studio assistant.
The mural depicts Apollo, of Greek mythology, racing his sun chariot towards his twin sister. In the Greek tradition, that would be Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, but the figure is identified by the artist as Diana, the later Roman equivalent of Artemis. Just around the corner, on the building’s south facade, are figures identified as Latona, which is the Roman name for Leto — the mother of Apollo and Artemis — alongside her young twins.
Stewart, an Atlanta native who began painting and attracting notice before he was a teen, studied at Yale with modern-art giants Willem de Kooning and Josef Albers. He then studied architecture at Columbia University when he began doing murals, taught at several major arts schools and became vice president and provost at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In the early 1970s, Stewart gained fresh renown as one of the first to take graffiti seriously as art, extensively documenting spray-painted subway cars and their “writers” through photographs and a book, Graffiti Kings. Today regarded as a landmark book, it was reissued in 2009. Some of his subway-car photos are in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans holds a collection of Stewart’s paintings, which ranged from abstraction to figuration and, later, Southern landscapes. After Stewart’s death in 2005, his papers went to the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
Faena has publicly said he is committed to saving the mural, but he’s not promising to make it a part of the district, which spans both sides of Collins Avenue and incorporates the arts as a key element, including a cultural center designed by star architect Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
Faena’s attorney, Neisen Kasdin, said his client is conducting a study, but he noted that most of the district has already been designed and approved, and accommodating the expansive artwork would not be easy.
“Alan is committed to preserving the mural,” Kasdin said. “There’s no question about that. Alan recognizes it’s important. The only question is, how?”
One possibility: Developer Avra Jain, who is restoring several mid-Century motels along Biscayne Boulevard’s Miami Modern historic district, has offered to find the mural a proper home in her latest venture, a new arts district in nearby Little River. The 7.5 acres she and her partners have bought consists mostly of warehouses, but they expect to do some new construction as well, and could design a building to accommodate the mural, she said.
“We would be happy to take responsibility for it if they can’t find an appropriate alternative,” Jain said. “We would treat it like an art piece, for sure. Once you have something like that in mind, you can build around it. We don’t think it should just disappear.”
Kasdin called Jain’s offer “very interesting.” But Novick, while expressing appreciation, said he thinks Faena should keep the mural, commissioned and designed for Collins Avenue, as close to the original location as possible.
Jain’s offer, he said, “is wonderful — except that this mural belongs, in my opinion, in the context of the Collins historic district it was made for.”
He added: “I am cautiously optimistic that Mr. Faena will do the right thing. It would be disrespectful to remove it and send it to Little River.”
Sosa, the preservation board member, said he agrees with Novick. Relocating the mural to Little River, he said, should be an option of last resort.
Faena and his partners acquired the beachfront Versailles last year as the latest piece of his project, which also includes a restoration of the storied Saxony Hotel two blocks south and a new super-luxury condo tower, now under construction, in between.