Passing through Miami to Cuba in the early 1990s, luxury fashion designer Gianni Versace asked his cab driver to show him something “fancy and fun about Miami.”
The cab driver chose South Beach. After a few minutes at the News Cafe, Versace saw something akin to the zeitgeist of Saint-Tropez and Capri during the 1970s — and made a snap decision.
“Why do we not stay here and not go to Cuba,” Versace recounted in an interview to the Miami Herald in 1993. “It was love at first sight.”
Versace cemented his love for Miami Beach by buying and renovating historic Casa Casuarina from a grungy three-story apartment complex into an opulent private residence in 1992. Five years later, he was gunned down on the front steps of his beloved Ocean Drive mansion. He had just returned from a morning walk to the News Cafe.
In the 20 years since his death, Casa Casuarina has changed owners twice and been auctioned at bankruptcy court. It was nearly sold to real estate mogul Donald Trump in 2013. And it’s also become a macabre tourist destination in the years since Versace’s murder.
Here is a timeline of the house’s history:
1930: Casa Casuarina was commissioned by Standard Oil heir Alden Freeman. Unlike its contemporaries built in the Art Deco style of the era, Casa Casuarina was modeled on a 16th century castle: Alcazar de Colon, Christopher Columbus’ son’s family home in the Dominican Republic. Legend has it that the name — which translates to “house of the Australian pine” — comes from the title of a W. Somerset Maugham novel, “Under the Casuarina Tree.” Or the name could honor the only tree on the lot that wasn’t swept away by the hurricane of 1926.
Casa Casuarina included a replica of the Homage Tower, where Columbus was imprisoned by King Ferdinand, and an observatory dome at the end of the courtyard. The walls are decorated with more than 100 portrait medallions of people who intrigued Freeman, from Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, to Mussolini and Lenin.
Miami-Dade County records put the price of construction in 1930 between $105,000 and $130,000, and up to $1 million when furnished, according to previous Miami Herald reporting.
Freeman lived in the house with his adopted son, Charles Boulton, and Boulton’s family, with guest rooms for their artist friends.
Although never proven, their living arrangements and the practice of disguising romantic partners as adopted sons suggest that Freeman and Boulton might have been gay, said local Miami Beach historian Carolyn Klepser, who researched the history of Casa Casuarina for the Miami Design Preservation League.
“In 1930, that was all cloaked in secrecy,” she said.
1937: Following Freeman’s death, Boulton sold the house to Jacques Amsterdam for $100,000. Anderson named it the Amsterdam Palace and turned it into a 24-room apartment building. He also moved the Kneeling Aphrodite statue that Freeman kept in the courtyard to the front entrance.
In the 1940s, South Beach was considered a middle-class resort area before spiraling into what Miami Herald real estate writer Christopher Boyd called a “borderline slum” with “aged people in hotel deck chairs” in the 1970s.
1979: Miami Design Preservation League founder Barbara Baer Capitman pushed the federal government to recognize South Beach as a national historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.
1986: Developer Gerry Sanchez and the owner of Radio Mambi, Amancio Victor Suarez, bought the Amsterdam Palace from Slim Kebaili for $1.2 million. Kebaili called it “an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Before Sanchez bought the building, Amsterdam Palace was rented by the month mainly to young professionals, including artists, writers and blue-collar workers.
“It was funky, as everything was at the time,” said Jane Dee Gross, a tenant at the Amsterdam in 1983. “There weren’t that many apartments so everyone knew one another and their pets and it smelled like pot all the time.”
Gross remembers walking through the common areas, still decorated with Freeman’s sculptures and friezes, and thinking it was like living in “a museum full of busts.” Her rent for a one-room apartment was $250 a month.
Sanchez told the Herald at the time that he had ambitions to turn the building into an exclusive restaurant or club that doubled as a “national center of homage” to Christopher Columbus.
1987: South Beach, with its Art Deco buildings, was becoming chic.
Until the mid-1980s, Ocean Drive was considered the stomping grounds for “senior citizens and Marielitos,” said Saul Gross, president of Miami Beach real estate company Streamline Properties.
“We weren’t even sure people wanted to live on South Beach,” said Gross, who is married to Jane.
Miami Beach redevelopment director Stuart Rogel told the Miami Herald that the city was only beginning to understand it had a tarnished jewel of a district in its possession.
“Until recently, the city had the idea that nothing was worth saving in the Art Deco District,” Rogel said, in 1987. “It looked old, it looked bad and we wanted to get rid of it. Now we realize we are sitting on top of a resource of immense value.”
“South Beach has the urban feel that we like, but none of the expense,” Dick Thomas of Manhattan, who discovered South Beach while on vacation, said in the same article.
“Two years ago, this was still the elephants’ burial ground,” Jacksonville real estate investor John Allan told the Herald in 1987. “There wasn’t a thing here to attract anyone with money. I see that as changing, and changing fast.”
1989: Suarez bought the Amsterdam for $1.1 million, a dip in price from only a few years earlier.
1992: Gianni Versace bought the Amsterdam Palace for $2.95 million in March and changed the name back to Casa Casuarina. Renovations to the building’s interiors began at the end of July. Interior designer Terry Scott told the Herald that floor plans included ripping out partitions separating the 24 apartment units and putting in eight bedrooms, two kitchens, three sitting rooms, 10 bathrooms, a bar, a library, four living rooms and central AC.
1993: Versace bought the Revere Hotel next door for $3.7 million to raze and turn into a private garden and mosiac pool garden, angering preservationists. Because the Revere was built in 1950, it was considered a non-contributing historic building and was not protected from demolition, unlike historic buildings that date back to the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
Versace’s spokespeople argued that the Revere was hardly an example of fine architecture and that it blocked the southern side of Casa Casuarina’s detailed facades.
“Sometime you have to weed out the forest to make it stronger,” Versace attorney Cliff Schulman told the Herald in 1993. “The Revere is a weed.”
The Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board approved the destruction of the Revere Hotel, but its fate prompted the city to amend the preservation ordinance that protects non-contributing buildings.
1997: Versace was gunned down in front of Casa Casuarina by spree killer Andrew Cunanan, who committed suicide in a houseboat on Indian Creek eight days later.
2000: Telecommunications millionaire Peter Loftin bought Casa Casuarina for $19 million. He rented it out for high-end parties at $10,000 a night.
2001: Versace’s belongings were auctioned at Sotheby’s in April, exceeding $7.8 million in sales.
2004: Loftin turned Casa Casuarina into an invitation-only club. Memberships cost $3,600 a year with a $50,000 one-time fee.
2009: Fort Lauderdale lawyer Scott Rothstein joined Loftin as a minority investor in Casa Casuarina’s restaurant in August. A few months later, Rothstein was arrested for running a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. The Miami Herald reported that Casa Casuarina faced $160,000 in state and federal tax liens amid a downturn in bookings. In December, restaurateur Barton G. Weiss took over management of Casa Casuarina from Loftin and renamed it the Villa by Barton G.
“The concept never worked, “ Weiss told the Herald about Loftin’s management. “They operated it like the Hugh Hefner party palace. And it’s so not.”
2011: VM South Beach, an entity affiliated with the Nakash family in New York, filed a federal foreclosure lawsuit against Casa Casuarina and Loftin in December after Loftin failed to pay the mortgage on a loan that VM South Beach had acquired from a German bank.
2012: Loftin placed Casa Casuarina on the market in June for $125 million, before dropping the price to $100 million and then $75 million.
2013: Loftin filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy. Three bidders put up the $3 million deposit and paperwork showing at least $40 million in financial liquidity, including Donald Trump. The Versace mansion sold for $41.5 million at auction in an all-cash deal to the Nakash and Gindi families, who own the Hotel Victor nearby. Donald Trump lost out at $41 million. The Nakash family decided to continue running Casa Casuarina as a restaurant and boutique hotel.
2017: Cable television series “American Crime Story” filmed at the Versace house in May. Season Two will focus on Gianni Versace’s murder. The house now has a market value of $23.4 million, according to Miami-Dade County property records.