Only a few of the buildings constructed during the great boom of the 1920s remain as part of today’s skyline. In addition to a court house, several office buildings and a theater, the boom provided three iconic hotels along Biscayne Boulevard which comprised Miami’s first skyline. The Columbus, Everglades and Watson were all built during this era. Having been constructed in 1917, the McAllister Hotel preceded the boom by a few years.
However, only the Watson Hotel remains standing to this day. While it has had a long history of financial troubles, a few controversies, and a lot of name changes, the hotel has demonstrated resiliency from its inception. While most long time residents remember the building as the Miami Colonial Hotel, YVE is the latest brand operating there today. This is the story of the people and events that have shaped more than ninety years of history along Biscayne Boulevard.
Callie Watson & Strand Hotel
By the early 1920s, the city of Miami was growing well beyond its accommodations. It was common for hotel operators from other parts of the country to see this problem as an opportunity. When a widow from upstate New York saw an ad to purchase the lease of a hotel in Miami, she decided to take a chance on a young city far from her home.
Callie H. Watson and her son were running the Watson Hotel in upstate New York when they assumed the final three years of the lease for the Strand Hotel in 1922. The Strand was located at 226 N.E. Second Street, which is now the location of a Metro Mover Station in downtown Miami.
The Strand Hotel was built in 1919 by George A. Persch of Philadelphia. It was five stories in height and contained 68 rooms. The Watsons purchased the remaining term of the lease from John S. Giannone, who placed it on the market because of health issues.
Watsons Purchase Lot to Build New Hotel
Callie and her son operated both their namesake hotel in Niagra Falls and the Strand Hotel in Miami while searching for property to build a much grander hotel. As the 1920s progressed, so did construction activity. Miami was experiencing a great real estate boom by the mid-1920s.
The boom hit its peak beginning in 1925. In February of that year, the Watsons found a corner lot that was perfect for their next project. The lot was located a block and a half east of the Strand Hotel, on the corner of North Bayshore Drive and N.E. Second Street. In the summer of the next year, North Bayshore Drive was renamed to Biscayne Boulevard.
In a Miami News article entitled “Early Days in City Recalled”, published in 1931, Bobo Dean wrote that the lot purchased by the Watsons for their hotel was once an empty lot used as a playground by children of early pioneers who lived along the bay at the beginning of the twentieth century. There was a dock that jetted out from the property before fill extended the shore line east to accommodate Biscayne Boulevard and Bayfront Park.
The Watsons got approval to erect a fifteen-story hotel with accommodations for up to two hundred rooms. The estimated cost for the project was $1 million. Following the approval of the plans by the Miami City Commission, construction began in the summer of 1925.
Construction and Opening of the Watson Hotel
The architectural plans were drafted by George E.T. Wells and G. Lloyd Preacher of Atlanta, Georgia. The project was financed by Northern Capital and the general contractor was Realty Construction Company.
By July, the construction of the foundation was underway. The contractor described laying out the foundation as one of the more difficult tasks of the project. The immense pilings had to be driven deep into poured concrete and spaced close together to ensure the long-term stability of the building.
On the first floor of the building was the lobby, kitchen, dining room and shops along with an arcade. Furnishings and decorations were in keeping with Spanish architecture. The mezzanine floor provided lounges, writing facilities and smoking rooms. A promenade overlooking North Bay Shore Drive extended along the eastern end of the building. There were provisions made for a roof garden to be added at later date.
The lobby had a beamed ceiling and was decorated in tile. The designs of the ceiling and other parts of the public spaces were taken from those found in an armorial room in a famous villa in Barcelona, Spain.
Floors on the lower level were finished with tile, while upper story floors consisted of terrazzo. The building was framed with steel and consisted of an artificial stone exterior to provide a Spanish appearance. The project was originally scheduled to be completed by December 15, 1925.
Although the Watsons had planned on opening their hotel prior to the end of the year, construction delays extended their informal opening to June 26, 1926. A shortage of both materials and labor were responsible for the delay in opening. The Watson Hotel began accepting guests after the informal opening, but didn’t have its grand opening until July 1st. However, the dining room didn’t officially open until October 1st.
Winds of Change and Bankruptcy
The building boom of the mid-1920s changed Miami’s skyline dramatically. Nowhere was that more evident than along the bay front in downtown Miami. As part of the project to create Bay Front Park out of bay bottom fill, the city also decided to expand North Bay Shore Drive and rename it Biscayne Boulevard in August of 1926.
While the expansion of the boulevard was largely considered a positive change, it also created chaos. While it was being expanded, stretches of the road were closed to street and sidewalk traffic. It suddenly became very difficult to access shops and hotels. While the boulevard project was a nuisance, the great hurricane of 1926 was a game changer.
On September 18, 1926 the Great Miami Hurricane swept over Miami and caused tremendous damage and loss of life. It was a once in a generation storm that brought everything to a standstill in Southeast Florida. It is largely considered the last event that led to the bust of the building boom. Everyone was impacted by the storm.
Considering that the Watsons relied on construction loans and other debt to finance the building of the hotel, the storm and its aftermath represented the end of the Watson’s involvement with their hotel. On February 1, 1927, the Watson Hotel was in bankruptcy. George W. Moore was named receiver.
By October of 1928, Moore named James J. Helm as the new manager. Helm ran both the Pancoast and Fleetwood Hotels on Miami Beach before being named manager of the Watson Hotel.
On September 2, 1929, the Watson Hotel was sold to the newly formed Miami Watson Corporation. This company was established by George E. Roosevelt of Roosevelt & Sons from New York, and Edward E. Fleming of the law firm Burdine, Terry & Fleming. The group purchased the Watson Hotel for $350,000.
Edward Fleming became president of the corporation and oversaw operations until they could find a buyer. The purchase of the hotel was largely considered a short-term investment. A little more than six months later, they found a buyer.
Renamed to Miami Colonial in 1930
Just as the opening of the hotel was bad timing for the Watson family, so was the acquisition of it by the principals of the Miami Watson Corporation. They purchased the property two months prior to the stock market crash of October 29, 1929. What was a bad economy in South Florida got progressively worse after the crash.
The difficult tourist season in 1930 most likely accelerated the desire of the group to move the Watson Hotel. As luck would have it, they found an outside investment group interested in buying the business.
A syndicate of wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturers came into Florida and made an investment in a variety of commercial properties throughout the state in April of 1930. One of the businesses purchased by the group was the Watson Hotel.
The investment team from Pittsburgh acquired seven properties in Florida for a total of $3.1 million. The list of hotels and apartments included: William Penn Hotel and Venetian of Miami Beach, Watson Hotel and Henrietta Towers of Miami, La Concha in Key West, Bay Shore Royal in Tampa, and Orange Court in Orlando.
The Watson Hotel represented $400,000 as part of the overall transaction. Despite difficult financial times, the Watson Hotel Corporation still made a profit of $50,000 during their nine months of ownership.
After the finalization of the purchase on May 10, the new owners organized the properties within the Colonial brand. As part of the rebranding effort, the Henrietta Towers became the Colonial Towers, and the Watson Hotel was renamed to the Miami Colonial Hotel on September 20, 1930.
Count of Covadonga
Once heir to the crown of Spain, Don Alfonso (Count of Covadonga), met his untimely death while staying at the Miami Colonial Hotel. The one-time Prince of the Asturias came to Miami to get away from a chaotic past.
When the Prince met and fell in love with a “commoner” from Cuba, he renounced his title as prince to marry his love. Dona Edelmira Sampedro y Robato was a Cuban beauty who the prince could not resist. The couple, both 27 years of age, got married in Switzerland in 1934. The couple took the title of the Count and Countess of Covadonga.
The marriage began to fall apart within the first year. The Count lost his youngest brother in a car accident. The men in the family all suffered from hemophilia. His brother bled to death from his injuries incurred in the accident. The story was a very strange foreshadow of what would happen to Don Alfonso a few years later.
The Count took his brother’s loss very hard. He began asking his secretary, Jack Fleming, to administer morphine injections as a coping mechanism. This routine led to him becoming addicted to the drug which ultimately led to the couple’s divorce in 1937.
Following his divorce, the Count and Jack Fleming left for New York and then relocated to Miami. Upon his arrival, Don Alfonso began to partake in the night life of South Florida. He became a regular at the Pirate’s Den at 2300 NW 14th Street.
It was an early morning accident on September 6, 1938, that proved fatal for the Count. He was enjoying a late night with Millie Gaydon, who was a cigarette girl he met at the Pirate’s Den, when the two got into a car accident. The couple left Frank White’s Casino to head back to the Miami Colonial when Millie lost control of her car on Biscayne Boulevard and crashed into a pole.
Don Alfonso suffered cuts to his head and face, a broken leg and a possible skull fracture. These injuries would not have been life threatening to most people. However, given the Count’s condition of hemophilia, they proved to be very serious.
The Count was taken to the emergency room, but after initial examination and the doctors insistence that he remain in the hospital, he had Jack take him back to the Miami Colonial to be treated by his personal physician. However, his conditioned worsened and he was rushed to Victoria Hospital. He died at noon in the hospital.
Millie Gaydon was charged with manslaughter. However, at the coroner’s inquest, she was absolved of the manslaughter charges. Millie disappeared out of the headlines and back into anonymity after the charges were dropped.
Controversy at the Continental Restaurant
By the late 1950s, the Miami Colonial was under new management by a group of well-known Miami Beach hoteliers. Abe Allenberg, Morris Fisher and Morris Rosenberg invested and remodeled the hotel. Max Fisher, the brother of Morris, opened the Continental Restaurant in a building connected to the hotel in January of 1957.
The Continental Restaurant was opened for ten months when it was at the center of controversy. The restaurant became a popular spot for local and state politicians, media members and businessmen. Max Fisher stated that the County Commission regularly held meetings in the restaurant during bond drives.
Everything changed when Max Fisher was accused of “knowingly and willingly” running a place of prostitution out of his restaurant. According to the complaint, Fisher was providing escort services for some of his high-profile patrons. Although several women gave testimony that implicated Fisher, he was acquitted of the charges in December.
The accusations were high profile enough to scare off the regular clientele. Even though Max Fisher was exonerated, his restaurant was a place to be avoided by Miami’s political and business leaders. It was never the same after the stain of implication ruined the reputation of the proprietor.
New Exterior in 1961
Many of the downtown hotels along Biscayne Boulevard decided to either modernize or redecorate their buildings prior to the beginning of the 1960-61 winter season. The management of the Miami Colonial Hotel chose to modernize their structure with a complete change in its exterior.
The hotel had featured a Spanish style exterior that many felt was dated. During the early 1960s, there was an urban trend sweeping the nation to update a building’s façade with three-dimensional colorful tiles. The change was to provide a more artistic and aesthetically pleasing appearance.
The Miami Colonial was chosen as a showcase site for the new type of building exterior. Hoganas-Billesholms of Sweden specialized in the installation process of the three-dimensional tiles. The Miami News reported: “architect A. Herbert Mathes has created an abstract mural of color, light and shadow in a geometric pattern… The new tile concept gives a wall a decorative pattern which brings it to life. The play of light and shadow animates the surface and expresses individuality.”
While the exterior may have been modern and artistic in 1961 when it was installed, it certainly lost a lot of charm from its original Spanish motif. It would add a lot to today’s downtown if ownership decided to remove the three-dimensional tiles and restore it to its original façade.
Max Orovitz Buys Hotel in 1963
On September 30, 1963, a well-known business leader and philanthropist Max Orovitz purchased the Miami Colonial Hotel. Orovitz helped plan and build Mount Sinai Hospital. He served as president of the hospital from 1948 until 1960, when he was elected chairman of the board of trustees.
Max arrived in Miami in 1925 and served in an executive role in several different companies including: Public Gas Company, General Development Corp, Maule Industries, Scott Perry Corporation and Florida Power and Light. He was elected to the board of trustees for the University of Miami in 1955. The University’s Library for Human Relations and the Max Orovitz Building for Administration Services were named in his honor.
In 1956, Orovitz became a member of the Dade Coordinating Commission, which drafted the Metro Charter. He was also the director of the Crime Commission of Greater Miami. His ownership of the hotel gave it stability during a time when downtown Miami was beginning to change dramatically.
Max Orovitz owned the Miami Colonial for ten years. He sold the property to a German investor by the name of Nicholas Gald in May of 1973.
By the time Nicholas Gald purchased the hotel, the area around the Miami Colonial became more and more dangerous. Those who used to live in the city moved to the suburbs. The vacancy was filled by vagrants, transients and criminals.
An event on August 16, 1973, demonstrated how bad the area around the hotel had gotten. At 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, two officers pulled up to the Torch of Friendship in Bayfront Park to check on a homeless man who one of the officers had arrested a week earlier for public intoxication.
However, when the officers got out of their squad car, 45-year-old Ramon Ramos began to open fire on the officers. The bullets narrowly missed the officers and shot out the windows on their squad car. They immediately called for backup, and a scene from Miami Vice played out in the Miami Colonial more than ten years prior to the hit show airing its first episode.
Ramos ran into the nearby Miami Colonial Hotel, through the entrance, and past the front desk to lock himself in the lobby bathroom. Luckily, there were not a lot of people in the hotel’s first floor at the time. The employees hit the ground as the chase found its way into the hotel lobby. It didn’t take long for twenty officers to converge on the bathroom in an armed standoff.
After Ramos emptied his gun into the bathroom door, one of the police officers convinced him to surrender. He was taken into custody, but put the Miami Colonial in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Unfortunately, this event was common for Miami during the 1970s and 80s. Downtown Miami was considered a dangerous place and the hotels along Biscayne Boulevard suffered from that reputation. There are several more stories of drug deals leading to murder in the hotel in the mid-1970s. Overall, it was no longer a place that tourists could feel safe.
Nicholas Gald didn’t own the hotel for very long. Whether due to crime in downtown Miami or financial considerations, he ended up selling the establishment to Enrique Del Campo in November of 1978. Del Campo was a hotelier from Spain.
Miami Colonial in 1980s
Within two years of Del Campo purchasing the Miami Colonial, Miami had to find a way to accommodate a large influx of Cuban refugees that arrived as part of the Mariel boat lift in 1980. One of the big challenges for the area was trying to find housing for the new arrivals.
One of the places that the government used to accommodate some of the new refugees was the Miami Colonial. Some of the Cubans who arrived as part of the Mariel Boat Lift lived in the hotel for several years after arrival according to Adriana Spitale, wife of Enrique Del Campo.
The Miami Colonial was a popular and reasonably priced place to watch the Miami Grand Prix in the mid-1980s. While other Biscayne Boulevard hotels were raising prices for rooms with a view of the Grand Prix track, the Colonial kept their rate to $32 per night. South Florida residents were renting rooms to get an aerial view of the race.
By the end of the 1980s, the ownership group decided it was time to sell the hotel. Del Campo, and his partner Angel Ruiz, ended up selling the establishment to a Panamanian hotelier. Idelfonso Riande purchased the hotel under the corporate name of Belgrano Properties LLC in August of 1989.
Riande was well known in Panama as a business leader and hotel operator. He was friends with the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. It was widely believed that Noriega was a business partner with Riande and it is possible that Noriega could have been a silent investor in the Miami Colonial Hotel.
Shortly after purchasing the hotel, Riande changed the name to the Riande Continental Hotel. The hotel was referred to by many names from 1988 until Riande sold the hotel in 2005. The frequency of the name change attempted to link the hotel to what was most recognizable in the area at the time. The words “downtown” and “bayside” were often added to the hotel name during this era.
Connection to New York’s Studio 54
In December of 2005, Riande sold the hotel chain to the ‘316 NE Second Street Owner LLC’. The new owner was a corporate entity headed by Ian Schrager who was best known for being the co-founder of Studio 54 in New York.
When Schrager and Steve Rubell signed a lease for the Gallo Opera House in January of 1977, they made night club history by renovating the opera house into Studio 54. It had ties to the mob and trouble with the police from the very beginning. The club was shut down in December of 1979 when the co-founders were charged with tax evasion. They were found guilty in January of 1980 and spent three and a half years in prison.
After getting out of jail, the friends got into the boutique hostelry business when they started Morgan’s Hotel Group. The first hotel opened in 1984 introducing the boutique lifestyle hotel concept. Schrager later owned the Delano Hotel on Miami Beach as part of this venture.
Schrager and partners sold the Morgan’s Hotel Group and started the Ian Schrager Company in 2005. In the same year, he purchased the Riande Continental Hotel in Miami. Shortly after the sale, the Riande was dropped from the name. The new company also purchased the Continental Hotel on Miami Beach. Both acquisitions were financed by Lehman Brothers.
However, the real estate market crash of 2008 took its toll on Schrager’s investments in South Florida. In April of 2009, Lehman Brothers foreclosed on several properties including the Continental Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard. The property remained in receivership until 2011.
B2 to YVE Hotel
In September of 2011, a partnership between Weston-based Insite Group and Washington DC-based Carlyle Group purchased the Continental Hotel out of bankruptcy for $13.5 million. The partnership invested money to renovate the building to market it as an affordable boutique hotel concept.
The group refurbished the restaurant in the lobby into a gastro-pub concept called Downtown Bistro. It renamed the hotel as B2 and re-opened in January of 2013 in time to accommodate concert-goers for the Ultra Electronic Dance Music concert held in Bayfront Park.
In August of 2014, the Insite and Carlyle partnership sold the hotel to HHR Eat Downtown LLC for $57.5 million. The group renamed the hotel from B2 to YVE Hotel in January of 2015 and has operated under this brand name ever since.
As the hotel approaches one hundred years in downtown Miami, it certainly has experienced its share of adversity and even more change. While its early days as the Watson Hotel have long been forgotten, it is nice to see that the building has survived. Imagine how different the Biscayne Boulevard skyline would be if the McAllister, Columbus and Everglades hotels were still standing with the YVE Hotel. Hopefully, this building will continue to thrive as a reminder of Miami’s first significant building boom.Click Here to Subscribe
- Interview: Adriana Spitale and Enrique Del Campo on November 5, 2017.
- Miami News: “Strand Hotel Lease is Bought by Watsons”, November 22, 1922.
- Miami News: “N. Bay Shore Dr. and Second St. Site Selected”, February 17, 1925.
- Miami News: “Watson Hotel New Structure”, July 26, 1925.
- Miami Herald: “Hotel Permit Issued”, August 6, 1925.
- Miami News: “15-Story Hotel To Be Erected”, August 11, 1925.
- Miami News: “Watson Hotel Thrown Open Informally”, June 26, 1926.
- Miami News: “Street Delays Cost Property Owners Dearly”, August 22, 1926.
- Miami News: “New Manager Named for Watson Hotel by Receiver Moore”, October 20, 1928.
- Miami News: “Bondholders Pay $350,000 for Watson”, September 3, 1929.
- Palm Beach Post: “Capitalists Buying Seven State Hotels”, April 9, 1930.
- Tampa Times: “Covadonga Dies in Miami After Auto Accident”, September 7, 1930.
- Miami Herald: “2 Obtain Colonial Hotel Lease”, September 6, 1953.
- Miami News: “Bank Names Max Orovitz”, February 8, 1954.
- Miami Herald: “Barroom Chatter is Cited”, October 11, 1957.
- Miami Herald: “Sad Tale: The Big Ones Got Away”, November 3, 1957.
- Miami Herald: “Politicos Bar Beats Vice Rap”, December 19, 1957.
- Miami News: “3-Dimension Tile Comes to Miami”, April 2, 1961.
- Miami News: “Gunman Surrenders; Drama Ends”, August 16 1973. Author: Rick Abrams.
- Miami News: “Funeral Services Set for Max Orovitz”, January 23, 1979.
- South Florida Business Journal: “Continental Bayside Foreclosure”, April 17, 2009.
- South Florida Business Journal: “Continental Hotel Bayside sold for $13.5M”, September 15, 2011. Author: Brian Bandell.
- Curbed Miami: “Downtown Miami’s New B2 Hotel: To Ultra or Not to Ultra”, January 22, 2013. Author: Sean McCaughan.
- South Florida Business Journal: “B2 Sold”, August 15, 2014. Author: Emon Reiser.
- Cover: Watson Hotel from Bayfront Park. Courtesy of Florida Memory.
- Figure 1: Strand Hotel postcard.
- Figure 2: Watson Hotel foundation in 1925. Courtesy of the Miami News.
- Figure 3: Biscayne Boulevard after 1926 Hurricane. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 4: Miami Colonial Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard in 1931. Courtesy of HistoryMiami.
- Figure 5: Millie Gaydon, Jack Fleming & Don Alfonso in 1938. Courtesy of Tampa Bay Times.
- Figure 6: Miami Colonial in 1965.
- Figure 7: Gunman shoots at Police Squad Car in 1973. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 8: Miami Colonial Hotel in 1986. Courtesy of Adriana Spitale.
- Figure 9: YVE Hotel in 2017. Courtesy of YVE Hotel.
One thing not mentioned was how it was also used as a hotel for cruise ship workers coming into Miami to join cruises at the Port of Miami. The cruise ship companies would often house the crew members in the Colonial prior to sails.
As usual Casey, you provided us with another great look back into Miami’s history.
I was just curious about the date for the new exterior of the Miami Colonial, the following site shows a postcard published in 1958 – https://picclick.com/agD-Miami-FL-The-New-Miami-Colonial-Hotel-152943993264.html
Date obtained from code in the stamp box, “8CK” is 1958 according to this site – https://www.playle.com/Teich_Postcard_Dating_Guide_2016.pdf
I looked on the links you provided and don’t see the date 1958 posted anywhere. I have an article from April 2, 1961, announcing the use of the tile shown in the postcard you provided a link. Although the cars in the postcard look like late 1950s model cars, they would have only been a few years old in 1961,
In 1991-92, this building got a total inside renovation. When Riande Hotel chain bought it I was a contractor worker involved in this renovation. One very weird thing about this building. When they pulled up the carpet from the lobby floor. It had Swastikas and Iron crosses in the tile. We found this very weird for downtown Miami, but they were there. I have a few artifacts from the original Watson Hotel. One being the brass mailbox that was in the lobby. The stupid immigrant workers pulled it off and threw it in the dumpster. I also have an original elevator hall fixture from their 1925 Haughton Elevators. The place was a real time capsule in 1925 construction. I really enjoyed working at this building.
Yep I was one of them in 1986, working as a baker for Carnival Cruise lines!
In the 2009 movie, PUBLIC ENEMIES, it was suggested that the John Dillinger gang spent sometime at the Miami Colonial. Is there any record of this? I’m certain the name John Dillinger would never be found on a hotel registry, but there may have been evidence or at least some rumors of his visit. Any other big names associated with the hotel? The colonial must have attracted some notables in it’s day..
I have not come across any articles that have mentioned that John Dillinger was a guest at the Miami Colonial. I will do some more digging.