Recession tale: The rise and fall of Miami's only 5-star hotel

Miami HeraldApril 3, 2010 

MIAMI — Pigeons live in the barren penthouse nightclub of the former Grand Bay, South Florida's last five-star hotel.

A vagrant recently went to the bathroom in the vacant lobby, where black graffiti colors the walls. The dining room hints of smoke, the remnant of a campfire built on the polished cherry floors.

No local hotel has suffered as steep a fall as Coconut Grove's Grand Bay, which closed two years ago for a $20 million renovation and never reopened.

Now the subject of a protracted foreclosure fight, the boarded-up hotel offers no hint -- inside or out -- that it once epitomized the lavish and libertine Miami of the 1980s.

"It was hot. It was the place,'' said David Feder, general manager of the Turnberry Isle resort in Aventura and a long-time hotelier in South Florida.

"If you were thinking luxury in Miami, you thought the Grand Bay Hotel.''

Michael Jackson and his entourage occupied two floors during their stay in 1984 before the late singer's Orange Bowl concert. Liberace requested a Baby Grand piano for his suite.

On the ground floor sat the Grand Cafe, where the French chef served Everglades frog legs with sheep's cheese polenta. Waiters offered guests white gloves with newspapers to prevent soiled fingers.

Thirteen stories up, the elite partied in Regine's, a nightclub said to sell more champagne than any other establishment in the United States.

"We had our Eden Roc and we had our Fontainebleau,'' Stuart Blumberg, the former president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said of the region's leading resorts from the 1950s. ``But we hadn't seen a hotel like the Grand Bay before.''

In 1987 the Grand Bay was the only hotel south of Palm Beach to win a coveted fifth star from Mobil travel inspectors -- a feat that hasn't been repeated since.

Now the hotel faces official condemnation. In December, the city of Miami ordered the pyramid-shaped building demolished if the owners won't fix it.

It's the latest wrinkle in a legal saga that could last months, if not years.

A court-ordered receiver now oversees the hotel as the owner and lender fight over responsibility for the property's demise.

``It's a shame,'' said Sherwood Weiser, the hotel developer who opened the Grand Bay in 1983 with partner, Donald Lefton.

His office sits a short walk from the hotel, but Weiser keeps his distance from the property he and Lefton sold in 1997 to a hotel conglomerate that would soon become Wyndham International.

"I have no interest in going there,'' Weiser said. "I really don't want to go through it.''

How did things go so wrong?

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