from the Archives

Sunny Isles Motel Row

“It used to be called Motel Row. And for good reason. Dozens of two-story motels lined Collins Avenue. Some had whimsical themes and architectural flourishes. Concrete camels, mermaids and pyramids…Families and retired northerners flocked to the low-key accommodations along A1A, then set out for a day at the beach and an early dinner at the Rascal House deli…Times change. And in the case of Sunny Isles Beach, the buildings have, too. Most of the small motels are gone. In their place: skyscraper condos with names like Oceania, Aqualina and Trump”….excerpt from Miami Herald article dated December 15, 2019 entitled, “Here is what Motel Row looked like before Trump and other big buildings remade skyline”

Motels like the Castaways, Dunes, Aztec, Driftwood, and Waikiki to name a few, were replaced by a mammoth towering skyline. These hotels built in the 50’s, were for tourists seeking cheap lodgings that had quirky names and facades to match; a fiberglass pyramid with Sphinxes at the Suez, mermaids at the Blue Mist, horses pulling a black carriage at the Colonial Inn, and sculptures of pharaohs on horse-drawn chariots at the Dunes. . There were weekly shows at the Colonial Inn and the Marco Polo and frequent celebrity sightings such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Outdoor tiki bars were behind every motel and bands played nightly under the stars. Their names inspired exotic far away places like Bali, Tahiti, Mandalay and the Tangiers. Nearly half of them were designed by Norman Giller, a Miami Beach architect most noted for his post-war Miami Modern style of architecture. Snowbirds flocked to Sunny Isles Beach each winter for decades, especially when the Art Deco hotels of South Beach were renovated in the late 80’s and rates shot up. What brought them back to the same hotel, year after year, was the tight-knit community of friends.

Starting in the late 1990’s these unconventional motels were being demolished one by one, to make way for “progress” in high rise condominiums. Many motel operators who spent their lives running these places said that despite the millions coming their way, they would have preferred to stay. “We were forced to sell out. We don’t want to,” said F.W. Bob Lucas back in 2000, who owned the Suez Oceanfront Resort for 33 years and ran it with his son Robert for 20 years. “The powers that be downtown do not want this to be a resort-motel destination for the regular middle class anymore. They’re trying to get just the high-rollers.”

One of the last reminders of the kitschy motel row that lined Collins Avenue, was the New York style deli “The Rascal House”. Founded by Wolfie Cohen in 1954 and famous for its generous portions, it was frequented by locals and tourists alike and even the famous, such as Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn and gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. In 2006, after operating for half a century, the City Commission gave the owners approval to level the restaurant and build a 15 story mixed use building. Today the life-size concrete camels and bedouins in white robes at the Sahara Motel are still standing. However, there is word that the motel most likely will be demolished soon to make way for a high rise, sealing the fate of yet another nostalgic era. 

Fiberglass Sphinxes with a pyramid at the Suez Resort Motel.
The Fabulous Driftwood Motel at 171st Street and Collins Avenue
Sculptures of pharaohs on horse-drawn chariots at the Dunes Motel
Pool at The Aztec Motel at 159th Street and Collins Avenue
Pool at the Waikiki Motel at 188th Street and Collins Avenue
Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House Restaurant; photograph donated by Nancy Liebman
Life-size concrete camels and bedouins at the Sahara Beach Motel.

What would Miami Beach be like without Historic Art Deco, Mediterranean, and MiMo buildings?

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