Seated in a plump leather chair in the third-floor lounge of Casa Casuarina, his elaborately decorated Miami Beach mansion, Peter Loftin does not look the part of someone who excels at hosting exclusive parties. The 47-year-old millionaire, who earned his fortune in the telecommunications industry, sports disheveled blond-white hair and wears a red Casa Casuarina polo shirt and shorts, but he radiates a quality that all successful hosts possess: supreme confidence, both in himself and his surroundings.
The North Carolina native seems at home amid the lounge’s arched stained-glass windows, wrought iron chandelier, decorated ceiling beams, and coffered wooden doors installed by noted 1920s interior designer Addison Mizner, whose surname Loftin pronounces correctly as MY-zner, but perhaps with overemphasis on the i. Loftin’s aesthetic contribution to the space was removing the rococo-looking antique furnishings and the white paint that former owner Gianni Versace had applied to the walls and replacing them with sofas, chairs, and a paint scheme in shades of tobacco brown befitting a cigar lounge. The only Loftin addition likely to offend anyone’s tastes is a photo in the adjoining bar of himself with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Despite Casa Casuarina’s opulence, Loftin insists that there is one thing that it will never have in excess. “It needs people, but not masses of people—that would destroy it,” he says. “Casa Casuarina has a history and a future, and I want to be part of its future.”
His vision for Casa Casuarina is as bold as those of its two prominent former owners: Standard Oil heir Alden Freeman, who built the house on Ocean Drive in 1930 and festooned its walls with medallions depicting historic figures; and Versace, who acquired the property in 1992 and rejuvenated it in his distinctly flamboyant manner, adding a vibrantly decorated 6-foot-deep pool, installing a copper-lidded marble toilet that cost $10,000, and adding trompe l’oeil flourishes to the walls and ceilings.
In 2000, Loftin purchased the home from the Versace family for $19 million and, he estimates, he has spent at least $12 million more to transform it into an exclusive social club that will debut officially on October 14. (Since January, the property has been in preview status, serving its 110 members from Thursday through Saturday; the opening will inaugurate a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule.) Casa Casuarina will extend what managing director Reto Gaudenzi calls “temporary memberships” to guests who book one of its 10 rooms. (See “Membership’s Privileges” at end of article.)
Loftin has experience with exclusive social clubs, having been a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, more than 70 miles north in Palm Beach, for almost a decade. But he intends Casa Casuarina to be different from Trump’s club; he envisions it as a place where habitués of rarely overlapping realms have a chance to meet and talk. “[Mar-a-Lago] showed me that a social club was a great idea,” Loftin says. “I wanted to replicate it in a place that wasn’t so country-clubbish, that was more diverse. [The membership is] a cross section of people who probably never cross paths but have one thing in common: Casa Casuarina. They can get to know each other in a laid-back South Beach atmosphere, with no stuffiness and no ties.”
A likely favorite topic of conversation among members is Casa Casuarina itself, which is laden with alluring details and demands repeat viewings. It seems as if every nook, crevice, and corner of the 30,000-square-foot, three-story estate has been beautified, and several splendid details hide in plain sight. Kimberly Acker, operator of Casa Casuarina’s on-site spa, recently was leading a tour of the property when a guest asked for more information about a piece of artwork, an unpainted bas-relief scene of toga-clad people that occupies a spandrel above a staircase leading from the third floor to the roof deck. Acker stopped, scrutinized it, and said, “I’ve been here since October , and I’ve never seen it before.”
Other Casa Casuarina staff members have had similar experiences. “Even after a year here, it happens to me sometimes,” says Gaudenzi, whose career includes a three-year stint as general manager of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz in his native Switzerland, where he invented the game of snow polo (See “Ice Capades”.) “I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I’m not an esoteric person, I’m a practical person, but this house is magical,” he says. “People come here, and they’re in a good mood. It’s amazing, and it’s because the house itself is unique.”
If it is true that wealth distinguishes the eccentric from the crazy, then Alden Freeman, who was said to have inherited tens of millions of dollars, was an eccentric who tried to spend himself crazy. However, construction costs for Casa Casuarina, which was erected during the early years of the Great Depression, barely dented his bank account, costing $1.4 million in modern dollars.
Casa Casuarina originally contained 23 apartments that were ostensibly for rent but which Freeman often shared with his friends. A 24th apartment, located on the third floor, served as his personal quarters. He set aside another apartment for Charles Boulton, a 33-year-old landscape architect who Freeman had adopted as his son. Although Boulton was a married father—Boulton’s then-1-year-old daughter, Jane Margaret, turned the first spade of dirt at Casa Casuarina’s groundbreaking ceremony in June 1930—he is rumored to have been the intimate companion of Freeman, who never married.
Two competing theories purport to explain the origin of the name that Freeman gave the mansion, which refers to the Casuarina tree, also known as the Australian pine. The first claims that the name commemorates the only tree left standing on the Miami Beach lot after a 1926 hurricane devastated Florida and killed hundreds. If true, Freeman had this lone survivor removed to make way for the mansion. The second theory cites The Casuarina Tree, a collection of W. Somerset Maugham short stories about the struggles of Britons living in colonies in Malaysia and Borneo. It is possible that Freeman, who was born in Cleveland and spent several years in New Jersey before moving to Miami, empathized with Maugham’s characters—although the South Beach of 1930 was a long way from the Borneo of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When Versace acquired Casa Casuarina in 1992, he also purchased an adjoining hotel and demolished it to make room for a two-story wing and an outdoor courtyard with a swimming pool decorated in colorful mosaics. The only thing the courtyard lacks is a Casuarina tree; managing director Reto Gaudenzi was shopping for one in late June.
A Mayflower passenger descendant whose father, Joel, was the first treasurer of Standard Oil Trust, Freeman held democratic, populist views that some found odd in a man of such great wealth. In 1928, Freeman voted for Herbert Hoover but donated $1,000 to his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, because he felt that supporting America’s two-party system was as important as supporting a preferred candidate was.
Freeman imprinted his Ocean Drive palace with his interests, chief among them an admiration for Christopher Columbus. Set in the lower right of Casa Casuarina’s cream-colored facade is a red brick from the Alcázar de Colón, a mansion that was built for Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son, early in the 16th century in Santo Domingo, the city that would become the capital of the Dominican Republic. Casa Casuarina is modeled after the Alcázar de Colón, which is believed to be among the oldest Spanish buildings in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus imagery also appears within the Miami Beach mansion, on tiles marked with the explorer’s family crest that decorate flights of stairs and some of the Mizner-designed doors in the third-floor room now known as the Davidoff Lounge, named for its corporate sponsor.
A turret at the east end of the courtyard resembles the Tower of Homage, a structure in Santo Domingo where a royal administrator from Spain imprisoned Christopher Columbus in the year 1500 on charges of mismanaging a colony. The Casa Casuarina homage to the Tower of Homage is made from bricks salvaged from the rubble of the Royal Palm Hotel, which Henry Flagler, another Standard Oil millionaire, built in Miami in 1897. The Royal Palm was razed while Casa Casuarina was under construction.
Freeman’s other interests are apparent in the numerous plaques and medallions that decorate the property. The second floor features a particularly intriguing set of medallions inside the aforementioned brick turret. In the center is a plaque featuring a right-facing profile of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, accompanied by the legend “A certain rich man.” These same words begin the biblical parable of the dishonest steward, in which a manager, knowing that his master is about to fire him for cause, summons his master’s debtors and cancels part of their bills. Because Joel Freeman served Rockefeller in the same way that the biblical steward served his master, this might be an instance of the son mocking his father.
To Rockefeller’s right is an image of Vladimir Lenin, labeled “Who will not work shall not eat,” and to Rockefeller’s left is Benito Mussolini, whose face-forward visage glowers without comment. Freeman never explicitly explained why he arranged the medallions in this order, but one could assume a political commentary lies in his flanking Rockefeller with Mussolini and Lenin and turning him toward the Russian dictator. The rest of the medallions lining the turret form an eclectic group that includes Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Tolstoy, and pioneering social worker Jane Addams.
The estate’s official name always has been Casa Casuarina, but the combination of fate and celebrity has branded it as the Versace mansion. On the morning of July 15, 1997, the 50-year-old Italian designer, returning from a morning stroll to a nearby café, was about to open the front gate when Andrew Cunanan approached. He fired two bullets into Versace and walked away, leaving him fatally wounded on Casa Casuarina’s steps, his keys still dangling from the gate lock. Versace died soon after at a local hospital, but he was not Cunanan’s first victim, only his most prominent. The 28-year-old Cunanan recently had killed four other people, and when he took his own life a week after shooting Versace, he took with him any explanation for his murder spree.
Although Versace owned Casa Casuarina for only five years, he appeared to cherish his time there. In the early 1990s, Versace wanted a home in Miami Beach but disliked the Art Deco style that prevailed throughout the city then as it does now. Casa Casuarina, a home so flagrantly out of step with its Ocean Drive surroundings that it seems to revel in rebuking Art Deco, immediately won him over. He purchased it in April 1992 for $2.95 million.
Freeman himself had spent only seven years in the house, dying there under more peaceful circumstances in 1937. (Newspaper obituaries say that he died of an unnamed long illness.) Boulton, Freeman’s adopted heir, sold Casa Casuarina to Jacques “Jac” Amsterdam, who converted it into an apartment complex. By the time Versace viewed the building, Casa Casuarina’s impoverished owners had allowed it to deteriorate.
Versace spent an additional $32 million refurbishing the property, and also purchased the neighboring Revere Hotel for $3.7 million, razing it and filling the space with a garden, a new wing of the house, and a pool decorated with colorful mosaic work. (Versace ultimately added more than 1 million mosaic tiles to the property.) The head of Medusa, Versace’s design trademark, appeared on wrought iron barriers, the dining room floor, bathroom drawer knobs in what is now the Baroque Suite, shower drains, and dozens of other places throughout the property in various forms.
Today, a row of black metal posts and black-clad security guards protect Casa Casuarina’s front steps from the hordes of curious tourists who approach to ask if it is the Versace mansion. Eight years after the crime, visitors still lay bouquets of flowers where Versace fell.
Peter Loftin’s first encounter with Casa Casuarina came in the mid-1990s, when he watched a documentary on Versace that included the mansion. Marveling over the beauty of the house, Loftin wondered if Versace ever would consider selling it to him. When the mansion went on the market in 2000, a friend suggested that they visit it. Loftin again was taken with Casa Casuarina, but the furnishings did not enchant him—he says they were “a little too much 18th century for his taste—and he declined to purchase them.
Loftin felt that Casa Casuarina had potential as a social club, but he called in hospitality analysts from Ernst & Young to confirm his instincts. “It had to be a social club,” he says. “I had seen how successful Donald Trump had been [with Mar-a-Lago]. I wanted a social club, but with a more hip, international clientele. All I had to do was polish it up a bit, and we’d have a venue here.”
The polishing took many forms, but it essentially involved doing what was needed to transform Casa Casuarina into a backdrop for its members. “Sometimes we refer to this place as a theater, or stage,” says managing director Gaudenzi. “The dining room is a stage, and so is the roof, and so is the pool,” he says, explaining that few properties have such an abundance of dramatic spaces. Loftin, Gaudenzi, and interior designers Tom and Katia Bates spent the better part of a year selecting furnishings, fabrics, and decorative objects to set those stages. Occasionally, items simply presented themselves, such as the genuine lion-skin rug that Loftin received as a housewarming gift after he acquired Casa Casuarina. The rug eventually found its place in the sitting room of the Safari Suite, and its maned head, fixed in an eternal roar, now faces Ocean Drive. “We’re still trying to nail him to the floor,” says Gaudenzi of the rug, adding that it will remain in the Safari Suite, though some members might find the animal hide to be in poor taste. “It’s part of Casa Casuarina. Those things are part of the show here. You cannot please everybody. If they don’t like it, we’ll give them another room.”
More difficult than securing the lion was equipping the bedrooms of the 75-year-old mansion with phones, televisions, Internet service, minibars, and other conveniences that guests will expect. “We spent months deciding which model of television would go where,” says Gaudenzi. “It’s important, because [bad placement] can kill a room, and we’re not a business hotel.”
Loftin enjoyed decorating Casa Casuarina and says he is not afraid of leaving his mark on the place. Unlike Freeman, however, who built the original mansion, and Versace, who added a new wing and a pool, Loftin has made no sweeping structural changes. Granted, he has reassigned and reshaped certain rooms to serve Casa Casuarina’s members and guests—the Moroccan Room used to be Versace’s gym—but Loftin’s restraint enables the mansion’s idiosyncratic details to prevail.
Casa Casuarina looks fantastic in both senses of the word. Such a combination of styles and decorative items should lead to aesthetic chaos, yet the mansion tiptoes to the edge of absurd opulence without tumbling over. “I don’t want to change the general work, I want to add to it,” Loftin says. “It’s fun and challenging to find ways to make it more beautiful. If Versace were still alive, he might have made some of the same changes that I have made.”
As he speaks, workmen varnish wooden banisters, paint fresh coats of gilt onto the Medusa heads on the iron grilles that cover the first-floor windows, and finish other projects to ready Casa Casuarina for its October opening, when Loftin can officially welcome his guests. “This house cries out for people,” he says. “It’s unfair for one or two families to live here, because it was made to entertain. It entertains in a way that no other place can.”
Casa Casuarina has 110 members, 10 of which are honorary; no maximum has been set, but managing director Reto Gaudenzi says membership could be capped at or about 300. Prospective members must be recommended by two current members or directly invited to join, and those who are accepted after October 14 will pay $50,000 in entrance fees and $3,500 in annual dues. Members receive access to the club’s three lounges, pool, roof deck, observatory, dining room, and day spa services. They also receive a 20 percent discount on room rates and a 15 percent discount on the rental rate for the entire mansion for a party. (The discount does not apply to the services of the on-site caterer, Barton G.) The social club will be open Wednesday through Sunday at noon, but the 10 suites will be available to guests 365 days a year. Nightly rates range from $1,200 for the 412-square-foot Baroque Suite to $4,000 for the 1,006-square-foot Safari Suite.
Casa Casuarina, 305.672.6604, www.casacasuarina.com