“Never in its history has the residence now known as The Villa by Barton G been described in ordinary terms. Built in 1930 by Charles Boulton and Alden Freeman, two life-long bachelors, one (Freeman) an eccentric millionaire and the other (Boulton) a younger landscape designer; the residence has always been equated with extravagance. Originally named Casa Casuarina, after a lone Australian Pine (Casuarina tree) left standing after the Great Hurricane of 1926, the name was also inspired by a collection of six short stories from author W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Casuarina Tree” about a group of British adventurers in Malaya.
Freeman was a great admirer of Maugham’s writings. Casa Casuarina was a masterpiece. The house was designed as an exact replica of the Alcazar de Colon in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic). That residence, constructed between 1506 and 1510, was the home of Diego Columbus (son of Christopher Columbus) and Doña Maria de Toledo, niece of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. A brick from this original residence is prominently featured in the front façade of today’s Villa by Barton G. Boulton and Freeman incorporated great works of art and sculpture throughout the building.
By 1935, the name was changed from Casa Casuarina to Amsterdam Palace after its new owner, Jac Amsterdam. The name Amsterdam Palace lingered on for decades. In the early 1980s, British tour operator Bryn Roden moved into the Penthouse of a now very subdued mansion. The house had long since declined to become a bohemian low-rent apartment building. The building was controlled by Gerry Sanchez, a cigar-smoking wheeler dealer in the early days of South Beach, who drove around in a white Rolls Royce. Sanchez would often ask Roden for rent in advance. Roden would pay him three months in advance for two months free.
The house traded hands again, selling for $1 million dollars to a local investor. Then, in 1991, on his way to Cuba, Italian designer Gianni Versace stopped in Miami to visit his sister Donatella who was here on a photo shoot for an advertising campaign. He hired a local driver to show him what was best to see in Miami. The astute driver took Versace to News Café so that he could witness the action of a nascent fashion industry and its plethora of models, cameramen and wannabes. Versace was entranced. He felt the energy that was coalescing around South Beach. He cancelled his trip to Cuba. On an evening walk of Ocean Drive soon thereafter,
Versace stopped in front of the aging Amsterdam Palace and told his sister that he wanted the house.
When touring the house on one of his subsequent visits, Versace instructed one of his assistants, upon visiting Bryn Roden’s penthouse apartment and seeing a beautiful wrought-iron chandelier, “I want a picture of that and make sure it’s here when I buy the place.” And “buy the place,” he did. Versace paid $2.9 million dollars for the Amsterdam Palace and then, after realizing that he was going to feel quite confined in the building’s little courtyard, he paid $3.7 million dollars for the derelict 1950 Revere Hotel next door. Then he promptly tore the Revere down.
This move angered many activists in the town’s preservation community and Versace had to make amends by funding an effort to tighten South Beach’s preservation ordinances. He was also persuaded to fund a salary for the city’s first preservation officer. The teardown of the Revere did give Versace room to expand and he built a breathtaking mosaic pool surrounded by a verdantly landscaped courtyard and a complimentary addition to the original mansion.
Versace lavished $30 million dollars on the 16,000 square foot estate. He brought in craftsman from all over Europe and decorated sumptuously in a combination of Empire style and his own over-the-top baroque designs.
Versace’s presence also drew the A-list of jet-setting celebrities: Gwyneth Paltrow, Elton John, Cher, Madonna, Sting and an endless parade of other illuminati and European dignitaries. South Beach was at its zenith and Versace was the host of the party. The party all came to an end on July 15, 1997, when a serial killer who had been stalking Versace approached him that morning while he was mounting his front steps and shot him in the back of the head.
Unable to live with the awful event that had happened there, Donatella Versace sold the house to a North Carolina telecom millionaire by the name of Peter Loftin for $19 million dollars. Loftin turned the mansion into a private club and continued to welcome celebrities, models and all of the beautiful people. After operating the house for quite a few years, Loftin reached out to Barton G. Weiss, a catering phenomenon with a high-powered clientele culled from his work in New York and Miami. Weiss took over the mansion in a long-term contract and rebranded it “The Villa by Barton G.”
He created a clothing line for Bloomingdales and Saks. He moved to Miami in the early ‘90s. When he did eventually settle here, he had a huge vision which he was told was “not obtainable here.” Unable to find a company to buy that matched his criteria, he started his own. Beginning in a garage, Barton G expanded rapidly, bringing in catering and lighting crews from New York. After establishing a reputation as one of the most sought-after caterers in Miami, Weiss was offered the opportunity to take over Versace’s former mansion.
The new vision that Weiss laid out for the mansion and for all of Ocean Drive was to bring back the locals and reassert Ocean Drive as a cultural hub. In a grueling 90 day, 24 hour a day, seven day a week schedule, Weiss restored every element of the house. This included tracking down rare European artisans to restore the frescoes, glass, mosaics and overall architectural features.
The finished result is a 10-room hotel with butler service from the moment you enter the building (no check-ins); elite, hand-picked social functions; and a restaurant that is limited to 50 guests a night. The property also features an in-house spa, the “G” Lounge, and an offering of shampoos, conditioners, body lotions, massage oils and fragrances created by Barton G. Weiss himself.
Weiss employed his design talents to create brilliant original fabrics in the rooms. Although careful not to change things that were already great, he has brought his own, highly-evolved design sense to the mansion. Alden Freeman, Charles Boulton and Gianni Versace would be pleased with the care and stewardship that is being put into “their” house. Barton G. Weiss is certainly taking on his era with great care.