By Allie Lavine
In 2005, you and your wife purchased The Betsy Ross, a historical hotel on Ocean Drive, and completely renovated it, renaming it The Betsy-South Beach. What is the backstory?
Our Hotel was originally called The Betsy Ross, as it was built right before WW2, during a time of great patriotism and homage to Americana. We purchased it in 2005, renovated it floor to ceiling and reopened it in Fall 2009, with a brand that embraces global culture, and a design that is reminiscent of some of the world’s great Colonial Style hotels. Our goal was to create a place that feels like home – yet a home with unforgettable grace an embracing atmosphere, and understated elegance. We also wanted to create a gathering place where people could convene to talk about ‘things that matter.’ We’re pleased that our Lobby provides the perfect place to relax, whether one chooses to read, attend a concert or salon, or engage with a special friend. Most remarkably what we actually hear from our guests over the years has been that when they step through the doors, they feel like they are coming home.
I heard that your father was a poet. How did he influence and inspire your love of literature?
My father died when I was only seven years old. To be honest, there was all kinds of culture in our home. From poetry, for which my Dad was a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, to music, which all four of us siblings studied and shared, to great art on the walls. I was raised to believe that there was no higher calling than the gifts of creativity offered by artists and the arts.
My mother is just three years short of her 100th birthday, and to be honest, she’s been the biggest influence in my life in terms of valuing arts and culture. She is still an avid reader and an advocate for the power of the arts to bring people together and to address the most important issues of our time. Her perspective on ‘what’s important’ has shaped my life tremendously and inspires our PACE work at Betsy. (PACE is our cornerstone Betsy program that weaves Philanthropy, Arts, Culture, and Education into everything we do.) From where I sit, the creative process and lifestyle are both true measures of success above and beyond conventional definitions of the term.
April is National Poetry Month. Can you tell us a little about the PACE programs, and how art, literature and culture are expressed in the hotel?
Betsy’s PACE programs take place year round and embrace all arts disciplines. We’ve hosted almost 100 salons featuring visiting artists, since 2009. We also annually produce and present events as unique as an a cappella festival, a conference on Jewish Literature, a jazz festival, and a summer classical music festival. But even with all of this, it’s no secret that we have a special place in our hearts for poets and poetry.
We feature signature programs during National Poetry Month like Soapbox Poetry from our Front Porch - an exhibit that links visual arts and language, and an annual poetry reading hosted by South Florida Poet and MacArthur Genius Award Winner, Campbell McGrath, called Under the Influence. Throughout the month of April (and actually all year long) we take pride in knowing that our hotel is full of people who write. From Juan Felipe Herrera (current US Poet Laureate) who visited us in January 2016, to Obama inaugural poet Richard Blanco (March, 2016), to any number of poets whose audiences are just emerging, we admire and want to support them all.
Guests who visit our hotel are also embraced by the written word in many ways. When they retire at night, we place a bookmark on their pillow. Rather than encourage sweet dreams with the traditional, expected, piece of chocolate, we inspire with a poetic phrase by a great poet. Guests who choose to visit the spa will find that there’s a poem attached to every treatment, representing a broad range of world cultures. Finally, a library in every room makes it easy to read during their stay, whether they wish to read on the beach, on our roofdeck, or in the privacy of their rooms.
My father’s life as a poet, and his poetry are deeply connected to The Betsy story. It’s at his desk, ensconced in our writer’s room, that all of our visiting writers work. And it’s his poetic line that we attach to our hotel logo: Expect no more. This is happiness.
The Betsy has been very active in a number of charitable organizations. What has been some of your most meaningful philanthropic work?
We’ve worked with 250+ charitable partners to date, and our efforts have been rewarding in so many different ways. From large to small organizations, including local, national, and international entities, the work of the charitable sector, both in terms of the people served and those that do the work, is so inspirational.
Our model for philanthropy is somewhat different from the norm, as we seek to partner with organizations at an organic level sharing ideas and human resources. We are always excited to work with organizations that are aligned with The Betsy’s core principles of ‘giving back and sharing fruits of success in South Beach and beyond.’
The Writer’s Room, a working studio space for visiting writers housed inside the hotel, sets Betsy apart as the “only literary arts hotel,” as described by CNN. Can you tell us more about this program and who has participated?
Early on when we were rolling out the concept of The Betsy’s PACE program, it became clear that one of the things we wanted to cultivate was a space for writers. In preparing to create the space we called together members of the distinguished local writing community to hear their advice on how to create the best workspace.
We’re proud that we were able to accommodate their ideas, include some of our own and create a final design of a simple elegant space, fashioned after a 1950’s NY studio. What pleases us the most is the awareness that great work has already been created in that space. To date, more than 300 creatives have stayed in The Betsy Writers Room, where they are invited to write at my father’s desk, representing a literary arc of past, present, and future. It also brings attention to South Florida as a wonderfully conducive place to write – with ocean breezes, sun, sand, and sky as key influences.
Typically residents of our Writer’s Room stay with us for about five days. Their only obligation is to do a community-facing event because we want them to meet our local community. For example they might teach a Master Class at the local high school or University or they might discuss their work in a Betsy breakfast salon.
Past guests have included well known writers like Amy Tan, Christina Baker Kline and Ben Mezrich, award-winning poets like Gerald Stern, Jan Wagner, and Reginald Dwayne Betts, and thought leaders like Michael Berenbaum (a founder of the US Holocaust Museum) and Emilia Sosa (Tony-award winning Broadway Costume Designer). A complete list of alumni of our program are listed on our website.
The Betsy is known for being an environmentally friendly hotel. What have been some of the hotel's “green initiatives?”
The Betsy is ‘green solution’ oriented wherever possible, with energy conscious decision-making from the inside/out. We call our ongoing efforts The Betsy ‘Going Green’ Initiative, because we recognize that we are on a pathway toward ‘Green.’ For example, we use green liquid care products, implement a linen and towel reuse program and use non-toxic cleaning supplies. We understand that we are on a continuing journey to become as green as we can. We are particularly pleased that our current property expansion initiative has created new opportunities to implement green programming.
Given the Betsy’s commitment to the arts and wonderful South Beach, Miami location, it seems like the perfect place for art lovers and collectors to stay for Art Basel. Are there any special events that take place at the hotel during that time? How else do you get involved with the art fair?
Yes, there is a natural synergy between The Betsy and Art Basel. We offer the perfect place to stay for collectors, curators, and discerning guests who love visual art and want a luxury hotel experience. We always mount our own shows during Basel as well, with recent exhibits in 2016 that included the 20th century artist, Grace Hartigan, and a unique commissioned light box installation by Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier, as well as the work of South African artist Judith Mason. Dr. Leslie King Hammond has been our Betsy curator since we reopened the hotel in 2009, and always hosts a series of salons during Art Basel – as well as curating shows all year long.
What are the Betsy's plans for the future?
Opening in Fall 2016, The Betsy will expand into the adjacent historic Carlton Hotel, creating a single unified property. This project joins the work of two historically significant architects, L. Murray Dixon and Henry Hohauser, who laid the groundwork for Miami Beach’s celebrated Art Deco aesthetic.
This careful expansion of The Betsy – South Beach is about more than just creating additional rooms, it’s about enhancing the Betsy guest experience while staying true to our commitment to a high level of intimate, personalized service. Of particular importance to the Betsy family is that we will be able to further expand our PACE programming which weaves philanthropy, arts, culture and education through every aspect of the hotel experience.
When complete, the new footprint of the Betsy Hotel will have a total of 128 hotel rooms including 35 suites. Thirty of the rooms and suites will feature balconies, a unique characteristic typically not found on historic properties. The expansion will also carve out substantial additional event and performance space.
Allan T. Shulman of Shulman + Associates is the architect of record. Mr. Shulman is an award-winning Miami architect, professor and author with a distinguished record of historic preservation. Diamante Perdersoli and Carmelina Santoro are returning to provide interior design services reflective of the award-winning work they did in connection with the renovation of the Betsy – South Beach in 2009.
All photos courtesy of The Betsy - South Beach