Iconic Architect Morris Lapidus’ Projects Discovered in Rego Park

Visits: 0

The Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, & 63rd Drive Shops Morris Lapidus’ Family Preserves His Legacy

By Michael Perlman

Morris Lapidus in his office, 256 East 49th St, Dec 13, 1946, Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner

“I am a Modernist,” once said the late Morris Lapidus (1902– 2001), a native of Odesa, Ukraine, who is remembered as one of the world’s foremost hotel, commercial, and industrial architects. He specialized in the Mid-Century Modern and Neo-Baroque style, and is credited with the designs of over 1,000 buildings throughout his over 50-year career. 

His influence came to Rego Park, with the design of shops along 63rd Drive, when he worked with Ross-Frankel, Inc. as a retail architect. He held this position from 1928 to 1943, making his Rego Park project an early work. Ross-Frankel’s president and founder was Evan Frankel, a native of Austria who became a builder and designer in New York. Besides shops, the firm specialized in offices. Mr. Ross was the senior partner. 

Historic limestone Art Deco/Moderne shops that line both sides of 63rd Drive, extending from the south side of Queens Boulevard, establish harmony and represent a gateway to Rego Park, a partially planned community founded in 1923. They are also situated on 63rd Drive and Saunders Street, as well as on the north side of Queens Boulevard near the Mobil gas station, and further east from the 63rdDrive subway entrance on the south side of Queens Boulevard. In the early 1940s, these properties introduced anchor shops to residents and commuters along Rego Park’s major commercial corridors. Today, one retail unit is featured in the Historic Districts Council’s complimentary “Six To Celebrate” Rego Park guidebook, in collaboration with Rego-Forest Preservation Council.

Rainbow Shops 63rd Dr-Saunders St designed by Morris Lapidus with Ross Frankel Inc Photo by Gottscho Schleisner December 22 1942

The assemblage’s facades are reminiscent of 1939 World’s Fair pavilions. They offer striking horizontal and vertical striated stonework with curved corners and elements, along with a horizontal band for signage. Most side facades are an early example of white glazed brick with glass block windows. These features survive largely intact. Storefronts once dramatically showcased goods with curved windows, recessed lighting, and freestanding glass showcases. Two notable examples of Lapidus’ storefront and interior spaces are the former Rainbow Shops on the northwest corner of 63rd Drive and Saunders Street, photographed by the prized firm Gottscho-Schleisner on December 22, 1942, as well as the fashionable Crawford Clothes, which existed on the southwest corner of Queens Boulevard and 63rd Drive. A 1945 edition of “Illumination” referenced this project to be lighted throughout by recessed lens units in the ceiling and in the soffits under the mezzanine floor.  

According to Miami Living Magazine, Lapidus began to develop a formal language that adapted European modernism for American retailing. It read, “Understanding that the first principle of store design was to attract attention, Lapidus utilized modernist visual and spatial elements to create eye-catching, complex compositions that sequenced signage, lighting, and display across façades, vestibules, and interiors.” 

Morris Lapidus’ iconic El San Juan Hotel lobby, Puerto Rico

Lapidus previously worked for Warren and Wetmore, the prominent Beaux Arts firm, and one of his projects involved designing a garage feature for the Vanderbilt Mansion, where he incorporated a sculpture of Mercury, the God of Speed.  

In 1943, Lapidus relocated to Florida to launch his own firm. His greatest achievements include landmarked hotels in Miami Beach, which consist of the Fontainebleau Hotel (1954) and the Eden Roc (1955), as well as Puerto Rico’s El San Juan Hotel (1958), and Manhattan’s landmarked Summit Hotel (1961). In Forest Hills, his influence could be found in the Modernist form of The Majestic’s lobby at 110-20 71st Avenue in 1952. 

Lapidus was undeniably a people’s person and revolutionary. He said, “If you create the stage setting and it is grand, everyone who enters will play their part.” Another quote is “My whole success is I’ve always been designing for people, first because I wanted to sell them merchandise. Then when I got into hotels, I had to rethink, what am I selling now? You’re selling a good time.”

Much revolved around making an entrance and elevating a guest’s spirit. Hotel Fontainebleau was advertised as a world-famous resort on 14 acres that won international acclaim for its superb service and facilities. In addition to 1,000 rooms, it would offer complimentary golf, tennis, ice skating, bowling, billiards, a pool, gardens with fountains, ballrooms, and evening galas. The marble bowtie floor, Baroque sculptures, and the curved “Staircase To Nowhere” fused historic elements with Modernist flair of the 1950s. The El San Juan Hotel’s wood and marble lobby, with its signature oval bar topped by a crystal chandelier as guests enter, is one of the greatest Neo-Baroque expressions. 

Morris Lapidus’ signature storefront, Postman’s, 436 Fifth Ave at 39th St, 1939

Lapidus’ autobiography “Too Much Is Never Enough” was published in 1996, and four years later, The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum honored him as an “American Original” for his lifetime of work.   

Upon viewing the 63rd Drive storefront photos, Hendersonville, North Carolina resident Jennifer Lapidus, the granddaughter of Morris Lapidus, said, “Historic preservation is so important, as it protects not just buildings, but the place that emerges as a result of these buildings.” She is hopeful that her grandfather will be remembered as “someone who left his mark on this world by creating spaces that are felt and experienced.” 

Jennifer Lapidus is the founder and principal of Carolina Ground and author of “Southern Ground.” She fondly recalls experiences in her grandfather’s spaces as a young girl. “It all seemed so fantastical! My sister and I would race down the hallway to their apartment aiming for their front door which had the doorknob in the center. My best friend was Joanna Mufson, and her grandparents had a cabana at the Eden Roc. Joanna and I spent endless hours running around, exploring these spaces; the multiple levels at the pool area, the curved walls, and the bar that looked into the swimming pool above. It was experiential!” 

She remembers her grandfather as a great storyteller, who inspired her to want to leave her mark on this world. She expressed much gratitude and said, “He left his mark by observing people and understanding what can and should work for spaces, whether this was in a retail shop or a hotel. There was an idea of observing human behavior, and interacting with it through what one does in the world. This is very interesting and something he inspired in me.” 

1927 ad in “The Bulletin, Vol. IX

Being a creative visionary runs in the family. Among her fondest memories was when her grandfather approached her at a Thanksgiving dinner. She reminisced, “I was running a wood-fired bakery, milling my flour in-house and making sourdough breads. This was in the late 1990s, very early in the artisan bread movement. He told me he was proud that I was creating my own path.” At her grandfather’s funeral, his artist friend shared the backstory. “My grandfather asked her to explain what exactly I did for a living. She did, and said he was proud that I had created something,” continued Jennifer Lapidus. 

Daughter-in-law Wendy Lapidus of Miami, Florida, the widow of Morris Lapidus’ son Richard, shared a superb example of his psychology of merchandising found at A.S. Beck shoe store, where she often shopped. “When I was a teenager, I attended Miami Beach High School near Lincoln Road Mall, which he designed. At the shop, you entered after walking through an area of full height glass display on either side of you, before you reached the door. Shoes were displayed at different levels. After you entered, you were drawn to where the most expensive shoes were in lighted display niches on the back wall, so by the time you arrived at the back, you saw every shoe in the store. There was no way you could avoid buying something.” 

In the late 1970s, when she attended architecture school, Lapidus was beginning to be studied. “At University of Miami, he was not yet recognized as the precursor to post-modernism,” she said. 

Morris Lapidus’ granddaughter Liz Lapidus resides in Atlanta with her husband, Jeff Levy, and is a public relations professional. She feels that his storefronts are often overlooked while considering his legacy, but they lend a voice about what led him to architecture. “He attended school for theater, and took much of those insights to the stores. Lights drew customers in, and the storefronts set the stage.” 

Morris Lapidus’ renowned Fontainebleau in a circa 1966 postcard

Liz Lapidus finds it most striking as to how her grandfather’s designs still bear relevance. She explained, “The Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, and Lincoln Road Mall are always hopping. They still draw huge crowds throughout the day and well into the night. He thought about how people would interact with the designs and to each other. He knew that if he created a stage, he could make everyone feel like a star. His ‘Staircase To Nowhere’ is a perfect example. You would take an elevator up to a coat check and then descend a curving staircase for everyone to see.”

Besides being a brilliant architect, Morris Lapidus was a talented artist, and she remembers him as being quite curious. “He made me curious about aesthetics, but also the ‘why’ of design. He designed the lively Lincoln Road Mall as a pedestrian shopping district, since cars don’t spend money. He lit up his designs to draw people in, like a moth to a flame. His curving facades were striking, but for him to stand up a folding card made me see that a curved building had a stronger foundation than a form-follows-function box.” 

Lapidus’ spirit and voice continue to come alive through first-hand experiences. She feels very fortunate to have traveled with him to Amsterdam, where he would be awarded by the Dutch Architects’ Association, and meet with an author who was writing “Morris Lapidus: The Architect of the American Dream” (1992). “When we were on the plane, the pilot strolled by and casually asked how we were. My grandpa replied, ‘I might as well tell you. I’m a famous architect receiving an award and meeting with a writer who is penning a book on me.’ He had the same reply for the airport assistant, and again for the hotel receptionist when we checked in. Exasperated, he finally turned to me and said that this was what my grandma did for him (since she passed away not long prior), and now it’s my job. I reveled in it! I might as well tell you, it led me to a career in PR.” 

Liz Lapidus also recalled their 1995 New York business trip. “After dinner with my Uncle Alan, Mo joined me for a nightcap back at the Royalton, where I was staying. You could see my grandpa’s influence on the hotel’s designer, Philippe Starck, who created the lobby as a stage with incredible lighting. Everyone felt like a star. It was getting late, so two very handsome doormen flung the doors open, and we walked out to a warm summer night where he could catch a cab to his hotel. He looked down the street to The Algonquin Hotel, and casually mentioned that a group of writers used to always invite him there. I asked if he meant Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Why didn’t you go?’ I asked. He just shrugged and said, ‘Who had the time?’” 

In the postscript of “A Pyramid in Brooklyn” (1989) by Morris Lapidus, prominent American architect Philip Johnson wrote to Lapidus prior to his retirement: “You were way ahead of all of us by 25 years because we’re now back into a style like ‘Art Deco,’ somewhat of the classics, something of the modern style, but all blended into a form of Postmodernism, which seems to be in the ascent.”

Postcard of the Fontainebleau & its famed Staircase To Nowhere & bowtie floor, circa 1954

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow by Email