Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Gilded Age Home of Henry Flagler

Henry Flagler was the man who put much of Florida on the map. His Florida East Coast Railroad kept pushing further and further south until he finally stopped at the end of Florida in Key West (and then he passed away shortly afterwards). Along the way he built luxury hotels like St. Augustine's Ponce de Leon and Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana. For his wife he built a 75 room home known as Whitehall in Palm Beach. Today this 1902 Beaux Arts style masterpiece is the Flagler Museum, and visiting it fulfills one of my goals for 2011. While it's not quite as palatial as the Vanderbilt's Biltmore House in North Carolina, I was blown away at the grandeur and opulence of this Guilded Age home.

The immense mansion, located between Flagler's Breakers Resort and Lake Worth, is in unbelievable shape for a building exposed to the Florida elements for over 100 years. In 1925 the property was converted to a hotel and a large addition was added to the rear of the building. In 1959 Flagler's granddaughter purchased the property back and the Flagler Museum opened in 1960.

The motel addition between the main home and Lake Worth no longer stands

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida

Flash photography inside the museum was prohibited so I was limited in what I could shoot. The space is incredibly ornate and the opulence of the age oozes from every inch of the building.

The bedrooms all had different decor and color schemes. I call this one the "matchy-matchy room" for obvious reasons.

Mrs. Ephemera and I loved the space created for Flagler's train car, completed in 2005. Reminiscent of 19th century train station, the large room is home to the Cafe de Beaux-Arts from Thanksgiving to Easter. As it was June when we visited, it was not open. Darn, we'll just have to come back again!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Finding "LaMo"

I don't have much experience exploring Ft. Lauderdale, aside from several trips to the Mai Kai and one afternoon on Los Olas, the ritzy shopping boulevard. So my trip Hukilau allowed for just a little more exploring of the area, although I must say in my brief stay it was tough to get a feel for the place. Staying in a large hotel on the beach, I ventured out once on foot and by car a second time as we went to breakfast at a local diner. What I found on my quick walk, I'll call LaMo, for Lauderdale Modern, an homage to the acronym MiMo used to describe Miami Modern architecture.

A short horseshoe-shaped road starting at the Bahia Cabana Motel and ending at the Yankee Clipper, yielded some great mid-century commercial buildings; all of them appeared to be either apartments, condos or motels. I'm not sure how many will survive once the economy recovers and waterfront property values soar again, but the discoveries I made make me want to come back to Ft. Lauderdale and dig a little deeper.

These wonderful relief panels are part of the Bahia Cabana Motel. To see the same design in color, click here.

I loved the architectural details on this building

I'm afraid the future of the complex behind these decorative bricks is not bright
as the entire property was deserted behind a chain link fence.

I loved the colors of these plastic panels and tiles on the Blarney Castle Motel

The decoration on this monolithic column is a wonderful mosaic - I love the hanging stairwells too!

I'm curious about what might be under the paint at the Sea Beach Plaza –
might these two figures be made of mosaic tile as well?

This festive kiosk was in the parking lot of our hotel -
while it is not vintage, it was full of character!

While certainly not "LaMo", this taxidermy shop I stumbled across had plenty of vintage charm.

Finally Lester's Diner seemed like a great unpretentious spot for a good Ft. Lauderdale breakfast

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tiki Heads and Mermaid Tales

Back in the days before the world wide web, (how did we function?), my brother and I were such tiki heads that we searched both coasts of Florida looking for Tiki Gardens never realizing it had closed a decade earlier. He had an enormous tiki bar in his Daytona Beach apartment and brought back real tikis from both Hawaii and Tahiti. Had the Hukilau been going on back then, we would have thought we had died and gone to heaven. The tiki scene was just beginning to blossom when my brother and I turned our interests elsewhere, and since then tiki culture has really taken off. Even downtown Orlando has a contemporary South Pacific themed bar called the Monkey Bar decorated with images from tiki artists like Shag.

Hukilau 2011 group shot

Hukilau has been going on for a decade or so in Ft. Lauderdale, and after seeing pictures of it last year, I wanted to go. There are bands, programs, room crawls, rum competitions, seminars and lots of great stuff for sale. While heavy partying is a thing of the past for me, the real draw was an opportunity to see a presentation about a short-lived roadside attraction called Aquarama by my friends Jeff and Kelly from Vintage Roadside.

When Jeff and Kelly create a shirt based on a mom-and-pop mid-century roadside business, they do painstaking research to learn about the history of the place. They have three Florida designs: Casper's Alligator and Ostrich Farm near St. Augustine, the Atomic Tunnel from Daytona and Tiki Gardens from Indian Rocks Beach. When researching the roots of Aquarama, a mermaid themed attraction from the Lake of the Ozarks region of Missouri, they were able to make a deep connection with the owner's son, Marc Johl. And that opened up the floodgates to a treasure trove of information and one really great story.

Vintage postcard showing the entrance to Aquarama

The tale begins with Marc's father Wally Johl, a 1940s crooner who for a time sang in nightclubs in the Miami area and even launched his own club from a former gas station. Wally later created Aquarama in Missouri and with the help of Barbara, a Weeki Wachee trained mermaid, the attraction flourished in the mid-sixties. In addition to dozens of rare images, Jeff and Kelly presented rare film footage, audio recordings and even the actual costumes from this fascinating bit of roadside history. They have tracked down most of the "Aquamaids" and "Aqualads" and gleaned amazing stories about what it was like to work at Aquarama. For example, all the blond Aquamaids' hair tuned green from prolonged periods in the chlorinated water. And the underwater props – large clam shells – were actually cast from an iconic shell oil gas station sign. Those same fiberglass shells are all that remain from the attraction at the Aquarama site today.

The depth and thoroughness of the presentation shows Jeff and Kelly's commitment to keeping memories of this delicious bit of Americana from falling into oblivion and as a result of their work, a reunion of the former employees is planned for next year. They have made the presentation previously at the West coast's large tiki gathering, Tiki Oasis in San Diego and have plans to give it at a conference next year. At both Tiki Oasis and Hukilau their talk was capped off with a Q&A from a live mermaid, none other than Marina herself. Marina described how her aquatic talents began when she learned to free dive at the age of three in the Caribbean. As an adult after seeing the mermaids perform at Weeki Wachee, she saw a way to combine her love of the water with her passion for dance, (she was a performer at the Mai Kai), and that's when she began to develop her underwater artistry now seen at the Wreck Bar.

After the presentation folks lined up to see the Aquarama costumes and talk to Marina. The energetic crowd surrounding the presenters was a testament to the success of the program. A bit of mid-century mermaid magic was just passed to the next generation.

Always a good sport, Jeff shows off the Aquamaid costumes

A mermaid tail from Aquarama contrasted with one of Marina's early tails

Your truly with Marina

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mermaids, the Wreck Bar & the Yankee Clipper

After World War II, Florida experienced one of those growth spurts it's famous for, as many GI's moved their families south to the Sunshine State. One of those vets was George W. "Bob" Gill, who built six properties in Ft. Lauderdale including the Yankee Clipper Hotel, an enormous beachside building that looks like an oceanliner washed up on the shore. Well kinda.

Vintage postcards show the Yankee Clipper during it heydays

The Clipper as it appears today

The 1956 structure, which today is part of the Sheraton Hotel chain, was the first in the area to host a large scale Polynesian revue, according to the hotel's mermaid-in-residence, Medusirena Marina. When the shows stopped in the 1960s, many of the performers moved onto Ft. Lauderale's legendary Mai Kai, according to Marina. Fortunately, the Yankee Clipper's Wreck Bar, a lounge created to look like an old Spanish Galleon, endured.

When I first learned of the Wreck Bar, I heard that there was a chance of it going the way of the Dodo during the hotel's renovations a couple years ago. But that didn't happen and if the crowds squeezing into the tiny bar during Hukilau are any indication, the future of this dark little bar looks bright. The tikiphiles were all there to see the show, for the Wreck Bar is one of only a handful of surviving "porthole" bars with windows into a swimming pool just behind the bar. And in this pool, live mermaids put on acrobatic, alluring shows like you used to see in movies like "Where the Boys Are".

Marina is the star of the show, and this half fish/half human performer is responsible for the resurrection of this lost art, and she is truly an artist, combining "aquatic theatre, dance and spectacle." She has a "pod" of aquatic performers, and for the performance I witnessed it included three mermaids, three pearl divers, a pilot (or boat captain) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Obviously they were pulling out all the stops for this large, appreciative audience.

Marina in red surrounded by her pod

By the time Mrs. Ephemera and I got to the Wreck Bar, it was too full for two more, so we went topside and enjoyed being "backstage" throughout the bulk of the show. Marina was like a circus ringmaster directing her pod and I was amazed at how long they could all hold their breaths underwater (no Newt Perry breathing apparatus for these mermaids!) I squeezed into the bar towards the end of the performance and captured a few below-the-surface images, but the sheer volume of appreciative fans made it tough to get into position.

Beauty and the Beast

In the tiki community, Marina is a widely known, and I have enjoyed her entertaining Facebook posts for about a year. So it was an honor to meet her and hear her speak about her craft the next day. Stay tuned for part 2.