Renovation of Surf Club, where Winston Churchill painted, goes to Surfside Commission Monday

The venerable Surf Club, among the last of the grand jazz-age Miami-area private clubs, is on the verge of a transformation that would restore the faded luster of its historic Mediterranean Revival building and crown it with a trio of crystalline hotel and condo towers.

The fast-moving plan, which goes to a vote at the Surfside Commission on Monday, comes months after the club — afflicted by shrinking membership and growing maintenance costs — agreed to a $116 million buyout by the Koc Group, a Turkish conglomerate.

In public hearings and forums leading up to Monday’s vote, Koc and its local partners pledged to open the club and its facilities to the public for the first time. Their project also promises a fiscal windfall to Surfside, a once-sleepy beach town north of Miami Beach that is undergoing a wave of upscale beachfront development.

The ambitious plan has been embraced by preservationists, town leaders and the Surf Club’s 122 remaining owner-members in part because it would embark on a radical renovation of the landmark 1929 building. The developers propose to strip away substantial and unsympathetic later additions, including an entire service wing and a long wall along Collins Avenue that hides the club from view, and restore or recreate original murals, light fixtures and doors.

By the end, they say, the building will appear much as pioneering Miami architect Russell Pancoast designed it, both inside and out. Architect Kobi Karp, whose firm is handling both the restoration and the design of the new buildings, said the process was aided by the availability of Pancoast’s original plans, which elucidate details as minute as moldings and doorknobs.

At the same time, the developer proposes to add significantly less building density to the 6-acre club property, which spans both sides of Collins, than allowed by Surfside’s code, so that neither the historic building nor its low-scale Surfside neighbors will be overwhelmed by the new structures, supporters say.

The scale of the additions has nonetheless taken some long-time residents aback, and residents of an eight-story condo directly to the south, the Surf House, are mounting a last-minute campaign objecting to a service and garage entrance at 90th Street that would face their building’s front entrance. But there has been little public opposition to the project.

“This deal was designed backward — we really considered the relationship to the community and the members first,’’ said Robert Zarco, an equity Surf Club member who, as its general counsel, negotiated what he described as a complex transaction with the developers. “This group was the most amenable to preserving the history and heritage of the club.’’

That history has been long and colorful. The club, which opened in 1930, predates the founding of Surfside and was designed by Pancoast in the highly ornate, and authentically detailed and proportioned, high-Mediterranean style then in vogue, with high beamed and vaulted ceilings, majestic colonnades and massive fireplaces.

Though it lacked a golf course, it boasted a broad stretch of virgin beach and quickly established itself as an exclusive center of social activity, beach lounging, and dining and dancing for local grandees and equally grand winter visitors, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and, later, stars like Elizabeth Taylor. But its most famous guest, in 1946, indisputably was Winston Churchill, who spent his time at the club painting seascapes.

The club was linked by 91st Street directly to exclusive Indian Creek island and its golf-course estates, where many of its members lived. Over time, its membership embraced the eminently respectable and the somewhat racy. Still today its roster of owner-members includes some big names, including legendary retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, an Indian Creek resident; investor and former corporate raider Carl Icahn; and Charlie Cavalaris, longtime owner of the famed S&S Diner near downtown Miami, which the city designated a historic landmark after he sold it.

As part of the deal with Koc, Zarco said, the proprietor-members will automatically receive memberships for life in the new Surf Club, though most of the original building and its amenities will be available for use to walk-in visitors.

Koc and its local partners, Fort Capital Management, promise direct public beach access through the club’s vaulted, cathedral-like central hallway, known as Peacock Alley, which stretches from the Collins Avenue entrance to the waterfront.

They also pledge to enhance public beach access at the dead-ends of 90th and 91st streets, which form the club property’s south and north boundaries and are heavily used by town residents to walk to the shore.

The historic building, legally protected as a designated historic structure by Miami-Dade County, would function as the free-standing hub of a new 285-unit luxury condo-hotel. The new units, obeying the town’s strict height limits, would be spread mostly throughout three 12-story, glass-sheathed towers on the beach side.

Across Collins, on the current site of the club’s parking lot and tennis courts, would rise two four-story buildings, one of them a parking garage designed to look on the outside like an apartment house. The other building would have two floors of residential units over parking.

Although the new buildings are out of scale with the one- and two-story historic club, county preservation officer Kathleen Kaufman wrote in a report, the project represents a reasonable balance. The proposed renovations to the historic building, she wrote, are “meticulous’’ and “to the highest standards of preservation.’’

At the historic building, the developers plan to restore a wide keystone staircase leading down to the beach from a broad terrace now taken up by a latter-day bar and dining room, which will be removed.

The developers will also rebuild the club’s famed horseshoe-shaped row of wooden cabanas, a key condition of the county preservation board’s unanimous approval of the project. Churchill is believed to have made an oil painting of the beach entitled The Surf Club, Miami, from the deck of one of the cabanas.

One cabana will be designated as the Winston Churchill cabana and will be decorated with Surf Club artifacts and memorabilia.

The cabanas, however, will be moved closer to the shoreline to make room for the project’s southernmost tower. That tower will be curved both to echo the shape of the row of cabanas and, because it recedes from the beach at its southern end, to preserve at least a portion of the ocean vista for the Surf House to its south. The 1966 building is oriented west-east and most of its windows, as well as its main entrance, face directly north.

At a four-hour September hearing before the town’s planning board, which unanimously endorsed the project, some residents expressed reservations about the new buildings’ scale and effects on its lower-height neighbors, including the potential for blocked water views and shadows on the beach.

Surf House resident Tom Brothers praised the planned historic renovation but called the proposed new buildings “gargantuan,’’ adding: “It will completely alter and change not only the skyline of Surfside but the spirit and essence of this community.’’

But town manager Roger Carlton said the plan meets existing zoning, and noted that he and his staff helped shape the project to harmonize with its surroundings as much as possible in hours of in-house negotiations. The developers are seeking no variances, he noted, but the town and the county preservation board attached 67 conditions to the plan.

The development will add $2.7 million annually in tax revenue to the town’s bottom line, Carlton said, and the developers have also promised $1.5 million in contributions to town projects and improvements.

Source: Miami Herald

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