It’s the second most photographed residence in America after the White House, and in a city where flash and celebrity are worshipped like the sun, it might be the biggest star of all. Its magic brushes off on visitors – each time you enter or exit, the tourists gathered outside will whisper, “Hey, isn’t that … ?”
The Villa By Barton G, a.k.a, the Versace Mansion, is the latest tenant at this luminous South Beach palazzo, which has dominated Ocean Drive since it opened on Christmas Day 1930. Built as a seaside artists’ retreat by Standard Oil heir Alden Freeman, the Spanish-style “Casa Casaurina” has had more lives than the cats that once patrolled the marble courtyard when late Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace lived here from 1992 to 1997 before his untimely murder. The cats are gone, but much of Freeman and Versace’s artistic visions remain.
The Villa opened in March this year offering 10 richly appointed suites, 24/7 butler service and gourmet stylings by chef Jeff O’Neill in The Dining Room, an intimate Old-World fine-dining establishment with a stellar wine list and authentic Rosenthal Versace china.
“Transforming the Versace Mansion was an extraordinary endeavor,’’ says Barton G. Weiss, whose “Barton G” brand includes Miami-based restaurants and event production and destination management businesses. In his first effort as an hotelier, Weiss thankfully kept signature design items from both the Freeman and Versace eras, including approximately 130 decorative medallions that line the upper story of the Villa’s courtyard. The hand-crafted relief paintings pay homage to an eclectic mix of historical figures, including Cleopatra, Emma Goldman, Mussolini, Gandhi, Lenin and John D. Rockefeller.
Sculptor Ulric Henry Ellerhusen created many of the Villa’s most notable works in the 1920s and ’30s, including four pillar-busts surrounding the courtyard fountain. The “herms” portray Columbus (Europe), Confucius (Asia), Frederick Douglass (Africa) and Pocahontas (North America). Ellerhusen’s signature sculpture is the “Kneeling Aphrodite” who greets guests once they are ushered past the formidable wrought iron gates. Apparently, it was this bronze beauty that enticed Versace to come inside the property. The rest, as they say, is history.
Versace purchased the house in 1992 and spent more than $32 million renovating it. Aside from the furniture, which the Versace family sold at auction after his murder, Weiss kept many of the late owners’ special touches. The designer had a great love for Roman mythology and works by Italian master artisans and his intricate frescos are still located throughout the property. Additionally, there are hundreds of handcrafted mosaics. Most stunning are the pebble mosaic walls of The Dining Room made with thousands of river rocks and the large Medusa head pebble mosaic in the Mosaic Garden.
Staying here is an opportunity to explore Versace’s colorful and playful mind. In the Signature Suite, plush zebra print sofas rest atop intricate Persian rugs and under a cheetah motif-ceiling mural. This is mix and match at its richest – couture interior design, if you will. The double king-sized bed below an expansive Roman mural exudes opulence. For a feminine vibe, try his sister Donatella’s former room, the amour-inspiring 1,428 square-foot Venus Suite. Its whimsical vine frescos and private balcony perched above Ocean Drive and the mansion’s Thousand Mosaic Pool make it fit for a princess.
On a breezy Miami night, guests can sip Cuban coffee on the veranda overlooking the colorfully illuminated pool; its shimmering 24-karat gold inlay mosaic tiles lie still in the calm water. If only tiles could talk. Beyond the towering walls, intermittent shouts and the throbbing sounds of car stereos emanate from Ocean Drive – a world away from these cozy confines. One could be in Marrakesh or the Maldives, Paris or New Orleans. Perhaps Freeman planned it this way; he was a bit of a mystic – Weiss is now considering a renovation of the domed rooftop observatory Freeman used to stargaze with. Legend has it that Freeman also built a time machine on site, and Versace left it intact. True or not, the mansion has been transporting visitors into a fantasy world of luxury and privilege for more than 80 years. Now, thanks to Barton Weiss, we can take that journey, too.
Christmas in July Special
Why wait until December? Stay at The Villa By Barton G for three nights from July 1st to July 31st and get an airport transfer, a private butler, suite accommodations, an American breakfast for two, a half-day shopping excursion with a South Beach model, and a 60-minute mixology class for $1,095 per night (double occupancy). Call 305-576-8003 to reserve. Mention WL magazine!