What George Gershwin was to American commercial music, what Billy Wilder was to American commercial cinema, Morris Lapidus was to American commercial architecture. Each of them was educated in the inheritance of European high culture. Each of them had a choice between the ivory tower and the street, between old Europe and new America. All three chose new America. All three invented a high popular style, saw it prevail, and each, in varying degrees, paid a price for his success. If Lapidus suffered more than Gershwin and Wilder, it is only because modern music and modern film were genuinely modernist idioms. “Rhapsody in Blue,” Double Indemnity, and Fontainebleau remain, however, as monuments to their wanting everything.
When Lapidus embarked on his Fontainebleau project, he was already a famous designer. He had revolutionized commercial design in Jazz Age Manhattan with his trademark boutiques. In the ’30s, the chain store did for Lapidus’ designs what the phonograph record did for popular music. It became the magic vehicle of dissemination. During this period, the design innovations Lapidus created for toffs and flappers in Manhattan—the Theresa Pharmacy, the Parisian Bootery, the Regal Shoe Store, the Doubleday Book Store, and the Palais Royale nightclub (designed as a speakeasy for Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel)—spread across the country, sometimes under Lapidus’ supervision; sometimes the “Lapidus look” was just stolen. So pervasive was Lapidus’ influence on the look of postwar America that it’s hard to imagine now that in 1931, in Jacksonville, Florida, Lapidus had to argue strenuously with Mr. Mangel, of Mangel’s Ladies Apparel, to let him paint the interior of a new shop in a variety of colors, for the first time ever. Lapidus painted the store in pale greens, roses, and blues. It worked.
Hollywood was quicker on the uptake than Mr. Mangel. Lapidus’ ’20s-look designs were integrated into the deco chic of movie musical sets throughout the ’30s for Busby Berkeley extravaganzas and movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Lapidus would ultimately steal their versions of his own ideas back for his resort hotels. In this way, Morris Lapidus redesigned the parts of America where most Americans spent their time. Everything from the boutiques on Fifth Avenue today, to the mega mall and themed casino resorts derives from his essential imaginings. Like Norman Rockwell, Lapidus saw the theater of American stores. He understood American commerce as Scott Fitzgerald did, as a landscape of Gatsby-esque dreaming. “It’s all theater,” Lapidus said to me, “that’s where I started. As a young man, I wanted to be an actor, probably because, for immigrants of my generation, who didn’t know anything about America at all, it was all theater, anyway.”
The hotel’s grand opening on December 20, 1954, featured a $50 per plate dinner dance for 1,600 guests. The mountains of fine cuisine included 110 pounds of caviar. Liberace performed at the piano, and Groucho Marx proclaimed Fontainebleau “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
The critics hated it.
They declared it “boarding house baroque,” “the epitome of the apogee,” and “emblems of tail-fin chic.” The New York Times called it “superschlock.” “Pornography of architecture,” sniffed Art in America.
The editors at Architectural Record were so incensed that they vowed never again to refer to Lapidus or his firm.
But to hell with the critics.
The public couldn’t get enough of Fontainebleau.