from the Archives

The Splendor of the Helen Mar

The Helen Mar Apartment Hotel at 2421 Lake Pancoast Drive was designed by Robert E. Collins in 1936 for the owner John Marsa. Helen, the locals say, was the name of Mr. Marsa’s mother, and ”mar” is both a part of Marsa’s surname and the Spanish word for sea. The stucco facade of the structure was adorned with black vitrolite horizontal bands. The elaborate parapet was enhanced by the individual balconets projecting from the windows. The interior has 10-foot-plus ceilings, fluted columns and stylized crown moldings. The building’s front entrance is accessible also by a footbridge that stretches across Lake Pancoast.

Years later the Helen Mar’s name was changed to The Pancoast Plaza. In 1987, famed Tony-winning Broadway producer, Michael Harvey, purchased the building for $1.4 million. He spent another quarter of a million to restore the 86 apartments into condominiums and to refurbish the grounds. He also decided to change the original name back to Helen Mar. Harvey lived on the Beach as a kid between 1950 and 1955, but never fully appreciated South Beach’s uniqueness until decades later.

For years, the owners had no vested interest in highlighting the building’s artistic design. During the renovations, sadly they found paint and glop slapped on those true architectural elements. However, when the final project was completed, the building was renovated and fully restored in keeping with many of the original Art Deco design elements.

Mdt Tompkins recalls, “I did a complete redo on the entire building in the mid 90’s including the grounds and pool. Really neat building -ie: basement is designed to flood with every high tide. It’s been doing this it’s entire life…it has holes in the floor to a french drain style system. I would think that there are pile footers 30′ deep (into the hard clay and limestone). It was built before tremme slabs were invented (modern building principles) Been standing for over +85 yrs and HAS had major restorations over the years. We found all sorts of artifacts during our turn at restoration including Navy documents from WWII, as it was used as barracks for officers on leave. Neat bldg and history!!”

Shown is the front and back of 1940’s vintage postcard of The Helen Mar Apartment Hotel.

Back of postcard for Helen-Mar Apartment Hotel; “Overlooking The Ocean and the Helen-Mar Gardens–The last word in luxurious living–The freedom and convenience of your own tastefully furnished apartment–with no housekeeping cares–Living rooms 16×23 feet…twice the size of the average “large” hotel rooms–Complete hotel service–Details and floor plans upon request”

1987 Miami Herald article about restoring the Helen Mar; courtesy of the Barbara Baer Capitman Archives.

The Helen Mar in her most colorful days!

Front of postcard for The Helen Mar Apartment Hotel at 2421 Lake Pancoast Drive

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

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