When Nostalgia and the Law Collide


Susan Askew
Susan Askew

When Nostalgia and the Law Collide:

historic preservation board struggles with reducing size of iconic starlight roof

The owner of the Miami Beach Resort at 4833 Collins Avenue had plans to restore the beloved Starlight Roof on its 18th floor in its entirety. Then they ran up against updated fire codes, which require a reduction in capacity to accommodate an evacuation in an emergency. To meet the fire code regulations, the owner asked the Historic Preservation Board this week to allow them to reduce the size of the Starlight Roof by more than half, from 6,845 square feet to 2,667.
The HPB, however, wasn’t willing to let the iconic room go just yet. Just about everyone had a memory to share. Board member Nancy Liebman said, “My son was bar mitzvahed there. He was married there.” Miami Beach Resort’s attorney Monika Entin told the Board she understood it’s importance to the community, “I got married in the Starlight Roof so it holds a very dear sentiment to me.” To the owner, it is an important part of the building. “My client has always wanted to keep the Starlight Roof,” she said.
The life safety issues, however, were insurmountable according to Entin. Various design options were considered including expanding the staircases and adding a third but neither was feasible due to the impact on the overall structure and the huge costs. The only viable option, she told the Board, is to reduce the size of the room. Planning staff agreed. Design and Preservation Manager Debbie Tackett said, “While staff would love to see the entirety of the room restored, we do understand there are significant concerns with life safety.”
Board member Jack Finglass vehemently disagreed. “This is one of the most iconic landmarks in Miami Beach… this is an outrage,” he said. “No one will ever tell me that a room like the Rainbow Room would ever be closed. New York wouldn’t stand for it because of some rule that’s been created since the building was created.” Finglass called it a “dictatorial decision” by the fire department “that is totally against the history and the background of this city.”
Finglass said rules change all the time. New fire retardants may be found in the future. “Once something is gone, it’s gone,” he said, “and I think it’s an outrage not even to try to go above our officials if they’re trying to be dictatorial about something which may change.”
Entin responded, “If we were on the third floor, I’d say ‘you’re right, let’s go fight it.’ But we’re on the 18th floor. If something happens upstairs, my client is responsible for anybody being injured, burned, killed, trampled. That’s the reality of it. The reality is there is a code in the State of Florida.” She added, “Could we appeal it? We might. But there’s no way that life safety on the 18th floor is going to be trumped by aesthetics at this point … I cannot see a fire board overruling it.”
Currently, the room is closed and cannot be used. “Historic preservation also has to take into account the ability to use a property successfully and to continue to use a property,” Entin told the Board. Without an approval to reduce the room capacity, the room will not reopen. “Nobody will ever see the stars in the Starlight Roof,” she said referring to the starlit ceiling. “That’s the reality … We either don’t see them at all or we do the best we can to preserve as much as we can.” She said she understands the nostalgia but added, “That room as you know it could never operate as it used to under the current fire code.”
Liebman urged City staff to explore options with the national agencies regulating historic preservation.  “I could buy into this if we had some input from the National Park Service, the Department of Interior that gives variances,” she said. Saying she wanted to “step out of this little circle of our fire department and go to a higher authority,” she added, “I am not opposed to doing what we have to do. I just want to be clear that we’ve gone the extra mile.”
Other Board members asked if the new plans, which include some hotel rooms on the 18th floor, represented the best options. Kirk Paskal asked to keep the different floor levels. “There is a distinctiveness to this ballroom,” he said. “If we do have to deal with this, I’d like to see that theme carried through in what replaces it.”
The Board agreed to defer the item until its May 9th meeting to “make sure that we’ve left no stone unturned,” said Board Chair, Stevan Pardo.
The application package presented to the Board includes a historical review of the site with photos. A fun read.

Photo: Miami Beach Resort and Spa

happy ending for starlight roof


Susan Askew
Susan Askew
renovation plans approved