When the Illusory is Real: Richard Haas’ Fontainebleau Trompe-l’oeil Mural

Perhaps it was foreboding, ominous, or just plain bad luck, but in 1986, when Richard Haas’s iconic mural on a side addition of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach was christened, the Mayor of Miami Beach Alex Daoud tried to smash a champagne bottle on the wall and couldn’t. The bottle didn’t break. Around a decade later, Mayor Daoud was indicted on forty-one counts of bribery and sentenced to federal prison. Yet another decade passed and Haas’s mural came down, reduced to rubble, despite the pleas of residents fighting for its preservation.

Miami Beach isn’t historically known for its iconic public art, but for nearly twenty years, a beloved 13,000 square foot, six-story trompe l’oeil mural allowed passersby to take an illusionary peek inside the Morris Lapidus designed Fontainebleau Hotel. The mural figuratively opened up the supplemental building that was obstructing the original hotel at the time. That work is still remembered fondly amongst Miami Beach natives and visitors from the old school.  Some still lament the decision to tear down the building with the mural, as Head of Special Collections Cristina Favretto explains, “Miami’s skyline changes at a vertiginous pace. Buildings appear and disappear almost overnight. Sometimes the change is good, and sometimes it most definitely is not.” She goes on to explain that, “the destruction of the Haas mural is not only in the ‘not good’ side of the story, but in the ‘what were they thinking?’ side.”

Richard Haas

Richard Haas (b. 1936) has a decades-long and much-celebrated career of architectural murals. A 2005 book on his work entitled The Prints of Richard Haas 1970-2004, describes his work as “depicting in painstaking detail the physiognomy of particular buildings,” and later, “a clear eyed view of western civilization’s achievement through its mastery of scientific engineering.” Countless of Haas’s murals have peppered the American and international urban landscapes, putting architecture on architecture, in a wondrous and somehow playful style, inspiring and delighting onlookers.

The original Fontainebleau mural design maquettes—or preliminary design sketches—for the project were recently donated to the Special Collections by the artist himself. The larger maquettes, painted in gouache on board, are quite large themselves, measuring at around four and a half by three and a half feet. Today, Haas looks back on the project fondly and describes the mural’s style as it “really related to a kind of deco meets moderne.” Haas and his patrons wanted to respect Lapidus’s original building. They wanted the rest of Miami Beach to see the majestic Fontainebleau. So they opened it up the only way an artist could: through mirage.

Alternative Design No. 1

Also in the donation are three alternative design collages, constructed of mixed media and depicting early scrapped schemes that Haas clearly didn’t utilize. Alongside preliminary street photographs, which appear to be used for references, these images of depictions that didn’t make it are fascinating to show the artist’s working and thinking process.

 

Mural Overlay on a photograph of Collins Avenue

Haas admits that his client, the Muss family, owners of the hotel, asked for more prominence of the pool, which would be a major draw for patrons, and you can see this process unfold in the folders at Special Collections. You can also see extensive documentation about the project, including correspondence between the artist and client, periodicals, as well as later letters from supportive residents when, after more than two decades, the project appeared to be doomed. Favretto explains that she is “very grateful to Mr. Haas for his generosity in donating these materials to Special Collections, where [staff] can retain tangible documentation of the mural as evidence of a time when creativity didn’t automatically have to bow down to practicality or the almighty dollar.”

Haas’ prepared “canvas”

The mural—which stood from 1986-2003—was remarkable; two Art Nouveau style stanchions flank the main image of the Fontainebleau Hotel, itself inspired by the stylings of Finnish architect Gottlieb Eliel Saarinen, father of the famed architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen. On top are two native birds intertwined with local foliage. The intention is to frame the image of the original hotel, standing firm as guardians of the opening, which by precise detail brings the Lapidus building through a six-story wall. Its lush pool invites the viewer to paradise. The mural itself stood as a striking unity of architecture and art, mischievously showing the hotel behind the hotel. Haas explains that the building “needed a dramatic opening” and then jokes that it was “very hard to come upon the original Lapidus building as you’re driving” because the view is obstructed. So he opened up the wall.

Preparing to photograph one of Haas’ framed maquettes for this post.

Looking back over this work in the context of his career, Haas explains, “I’ve lost a lot of murals, probably that’s the biggest loss.” Haas laments today, and goes on to explain poignantly, “it had been so long [that] it had almost detached itself from me and become part of the city itself.” Favretto puts the work and its donation further into context, explaining that Miami is “now a city of murals,” noting, “but so many of them will be gone without a trace a few years from now. I hope other artists will have Mr. Haas’s presence of mind, and that they’ll think about contributing to our ‘Amazing Things That Aren’t Here Anymore’ collections.”

Much like its home on Miami Beach, Richard Haas’s Fontainebleau mural was a beautiful act of artifice. We are not here to speculate on the future of the island itself (and thankfully, disgraced Mayor Daoud has no christening power), but the mural lives on in Special Collections, forever reminding us of a time when private business took large-scale creative risks and we could all enjoy a brief peek into paradise.

Off the record, the writer was able to confirm one case of a motorist driving into the trompe l’oeil mural staring a little too deeply into that paradise. In addition, there has been unconfirmed speculation that American Pie and Orange is the New Black star Natasha Lyonne ran into the mural during her 2001 Miami Beach DUI. When asked of this potential other outcome of his mural, Haas was somewhat shocked.

“Oh dear,” he gasped. But it seemed a little knowingly.

Maybe this gargantuan symbolic vision of paradise on a multimillion-dollar hotel is like everything on Miami Beach. It is an artificial reality, beautiful and serene, which has the always present potential to hit you in the head. And like all beloved things here, it was eventually destroyed under the guise of making more money.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections