Leaning outside the window of Miami's 550 Brickell building, my grandfather William Hamilton Arthur III could see two black sedans waiting for his firm's client— hotel and casino promoter Meyer Lansky. Meetings were short and the conference room door closed. The architectural firm in which my grandfather was employed was one of Miami's finest. Meeting rigorous schedules, answering unusual requests and producing some of the most advanced building designs of the period, the firm he worked for was Polevitzky, Johnson & Associates, Inc.
The year was 1957 and across the Florida Straits in Havana, Cuba, other architectural firms were working along similar lines—meeting with promoters to create the most successful hospitality designs they knew possible. Waiting for input by the Cuban architect Manuel Carrera Machado, an international dialogue was emerging between two architectural firms. The dialogue would be centered on the prominent Mid-Century Miami Modern (MiMo) architect Igor B. Polevitzky.
Leaning back into his non air-conditioned drafting room, my grandfather was an assistant and draftsman for Polevitzky. Pressing permanent ink against aligned stacks of Mylar sheets dried by desk fans, Polevitzky's office utilized a drawing technique now considered arduous and un-editable. Polevitzky had assigned him to a project that was newly titled: The Habana Riviera Hotel. The client that he was waiting for was the project's promoter, who required complete construction drawings within 2 months. The project demanded an immediate design response, an ability that separated Polevitzky's firm from the other architecture firms of Miami.
Having just completed a design for the Carlton Terrace Apartments in Bal Harbour Village, Polevitzky presented the same drawings for the Riviera with some modifications. To be located in Havana, the Rivera was made more elegant and distinct. Its balconies more sweeping and the top of the tower more grandiose. The windows were larger, arranged more frequently and the promoter required a much more dramatic porte cohere.
As Lansky rushed out of the conference room and downstairs, Polevitzky came to my grandfather's table and asked him to replace all the windows on a scale model of the Riviera before morning. Not an unusual request in the Polevitzky office, it was a task that would likely take all night to complete. My grandfather mentioned that Polevitzky offered him a cash bonus for this task, drawn from the briefcase that Lansky had left behind.
Once the Riviera was under construction, its promoters encouraged input from local artists and architects. A collaboration over the finishes and art installations for the project emerged and a theme of international dialogue and cultural exchange followed. The benefits of this were three-fold; Polevitzky's office became heavily influenced over the designs made by local muralist Rolando López Dirube, sculptor Florencio Gelabert and painter Cundo Bermudez, while the North American patrons of the hotel largely enjoyed the relatively exotic motifs.
Since the Riviera's construction, it has survived several political shifts and remains admired by most Cuban architects and critics today. Locals are still charmed by Polevitzky's design integrity, authenticity and enthusiasm for collaborating with local artists and architects.
The success of the Riviera as a hotel and casino was tremendous and blanketed with many interesting circumstances. The building was blessed by Cardinal Archbishop Manuel Arteaga after its opening. The project famously repaid its investors within the first 4 months. It was one of the first "all air-conditioned" resort hotels in the western world and the first in Cuba. The interior designer of the hotel, Albert Parvin came to be one of the building's owners. In 1957, American President John F. Kennedy purportedly received an orgy in one of its rooms and in 1959, the Riviera became the first international broadcasting site for the leaders of the Cuban revolution. For Polevitzky, it became known as one of his best projects.
Two years after the completion of the Riviera, Polevitzky exited Miami and spent most of his time in Estes Park, Colorado. By 1962, the post-war architectural firms of South Florida began to feel the effects of a market crash and were also competing against a surge of Cuban architects who moved their offices to Miami after the 1959 revolution. The activity of Polevitzky, Johnson & Associates, Inc. significantly slowed, subsequently disbanding that year.
The 550 Brickell building in which Polevitzky worked no longer exists. What does exist, however, is a potential for architects in Miami and Cuba to once again reconnect on building issues salient to the region today— a connectivity which was pioneered by Polevitzky and marked by the Habana Riviera Hotel.—William Hamilton Arthur IV
· Igor Polevitzky coverage [Curbed Miami]