From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.
Along the tourist-ridden bars that dot South Beach’s Ocean Drive towers Villa Casa Casuarina, a 23,000 square foot plot better known as the former mansion of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace until his tragic death in 1997. Since the highly publicized murder that took place on the porous coraline front steps of the mansion, 1116 Ocean Drive has continuously garnered immense media attention, not only because of the murder, but more recently as the set of the 2018 FX true crime series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
As a result, the home and its story have become a taboo spectacle of the city of Miami. Black wrought-iron gates trimmed in gold enclose the premises, keeping the tourist attraction at bay while the inside is kept an untouched oasis away from the outside world. Yet, beyond the crime scene photo-op, the sheer magnitude and elaborate signature details of the property show the attention that Versace once put into restoring the historic home following its prior owners.
Before Versace became the focus of fashion, the three-story villa was built in Miami in 1930 by architect Alden Freeman, the heir to an oil fortune left by his father, former treasurer of Standard Oil Co. The structure was modeled after Alcázar de Colón, the oldest building in the Americas and former residence of Christopher Columbus’ son. A lover of history, Freeman even brought an authentic coraline brick from Alcázar de Colón that still resides at the right side of the main entrance to the mansion.
The property in its heyday had a total of 24 apartments that Freeman filled with guests and friends. Approximately 130 decorative medallions were lined along the perimeter of the second story in the courtyard, all of which are still in place. The subject matter of the medallions depicts people’s portraits, places, and historical events that held historical or personal significance with Freeman. He additionally commissioned Yugoslavian sculptor Vuk Vuchinich to create a statue for the home. The bronze Kneeling Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love) statue was created in 1928 and has resided in the house ever since.
Freeman died at Casa Casuarina in 1937 due to prolonged illness and the house was then sold to Jacques Amsterdam for 0,000, after which he turned it into rental complex, Amsterdam Apartments. Amsterdam made a few changes to the home, including an elevator and moving the bronze statue of Aphrodite from the courtyard to the front of the home to greet guests with love. The mansion was passed through the hands of several owners and was even renamed Christopher Columbus apartments for a brief period of time.
At the peak of his career in 1992, Versace was passing through Miami on the way to Cuba for vacation and began a love affair with the city from that point forward. It’s reported that while on Ocean Drive, he spotted the bronze statue of Aphrodite at Casuarina’s front entrance and after taking a tour, “instinctively” purchased the home in its entirety for .95 million. “We took a walk in South Beach, and Gianni just stopped in front of the building and said, ‘I want this house,'” said Donatella, his sister, in an interview.
With a blank canvas, Versace got to work.
The 24-apartment structure was converted into one home with 10 rooms, a bar, a library, two kitchens, three sitting rooms, and 10 bathrooms, undergoing a whopping million in renovations. He purchased the Revere Hotel that occupied the adjacent property for .7 million, subsequently tearing it down to make room for the garden and pool area. He worked alongside his trusted design team (Terry Scott, artist Sybil de Bourbon Parme, and Wallace Tutt), all of who he worked with on his homes in Milan and Lake Como.
Inspired by Greco-Roman antiquity, Versace expressed a vision of his heritage throughout the house as he did in his designs. The mosaic garden pool where Beyoncé and Jay-Z had their 2014 New Years party is made from 24-karat gold mosaic tiles inspired by Versace’s Marine Vanita print seen on his silk scarfs. Milanese tiling company Fantini Mosaci designed the intricate Italian mosaics seen throughout the home, including the famous medusa face that holds center stage of the garden. As the largest medusa insignia in the home, the piece was actually crafted in Versace’s home of Calabria, broken apart, and shipped to Miami.
Versace welcomed friends and family alike, prescribing his close friends including Elton John and Princess Diana a specific room when they stayed at the mansion. Now called the “Mosaic suite,” it’s alleged that Madonna preferred this suite due to it being the only room with a sunken jacuzzi tub. Various guest rooms were situated in the wing of the home that overlooks the impressive mosaic pool.
For astrology lovers, Versace installed his own rooftop observatory in the home up a narrow staircase on the third story. The ceiling of the observatory is navy blue covered in golden stars, a common motif in mosques, synagogues, and churches around the world. Glowing gold against a deep blue creates the illusion of the heavens, representing the divine realm on earth. It’s reported that Drake wrote songs in the observatory, and if you stand in the center to hear the impressive acoustics, you’ll see why.
The second floor of the courtyard was Versace’s area of the house. His personal bedroom adorned in baroque Trompe-l’œil frescos by Miami-based artist Allyson Krowitz featured a drawing room attached to his apartment (now one of the hotel’s restaurants). As a cheeky gesture from Versace, he placed a rare 17th century Knoll settee upholstered in Versace-print velvet in his drawing room. Historians believe the Knoll settee was created for the lady of the house’s bedroom chamber, a sofa that allowed her privacy with her lover while her husband was out of town. When looking at the facade of the mansion, Versace’s balcony centers directly above the main entrance, overlooking the entire front of the property onto Ocean Drive.
Perhaps the most impressive of all were the suites were the ones Versace lovingly created for his family. Four suites occupy the first floor of the courtyard: the “Signature Suite” for his older brother Santo, the “Azure suite” in powder blue for his nephew Daniel, the “Aviary suite” for his niece Allegra’s love of birds, and the “Venus suite” for his beloved sister Donatella.
As his muse, Donatella received the grandest room of the mansion. Occupying 1,500 square feet of the mansion, Donatella’s room features the only double balcony that directly overlooks the mosaic garden from the main wing. Four sprawling Biedermeier-style closets are concealed and embedded into the walls of the bedroom. The ceiling, coated in a bed of gilded white roses, was painted on canvas in Milan by Fontana Decorazioni and shipped to Miami especially for her room.
Versace’s presence in the community blended high fashion and the beach town for the first time. Versace influenced South Beach, and in turn, South Beach influenced Versace. He even named his Spring/Summer 1992 collection South Beach, followed in 1993 by his coffee table book South Beach Stories, photographed by Doug Ordway.
In 1997, Versace was fatally shot on the front steps of the mansion. The house sat empty for around three years until it was purchased by American entrepreneur Peter Loftin in 2000 for million and used as a members-only club. After filing for bankruptcy in 2013, it was bought at auction for a .5 million cash deal with VM South Beach, LLC and turned into a boutique hotel. Though the Versace family took many of the signature relics of the house after Versace’s passing, most of the original interior is still intact. The hotel group reproduced furniture and touched up aspects of the rooms based on archival photos to replicate Versace’s home as close as possible to the original.
Looking past the lore and legend that lies on the outside steps, a piece of Versace’s impressive legacy resides in the home as a structural representation of his adoration for the people and places closest to him. Versace’s work as a designer was special because it was cut from the same fabric he was. We’ll never know the real stories that took place in the home, but between the frescos and celebrities, these walls can pretty much speak for themselves.END
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