“The few architects of today who design and build fine architecture, achieve these accomplishments through experience, dedication and sacrifice to the project, the client and the environment…”
—William H. Arthur III, 1962
P H O T O G R A P H S B Y E R N E S T G R A H A M ©
T E X T B Y W M . H A R T H U R I V
Igor B. Polevitzky and the Habana Rivera Hotel
Habana Riviera under construction, early 1957.
Credit: Hinman Photography.©
Igor B. Polevitzky (June 21, 1911 – May 5, 1978) was an American architect, most recognized for his contribution to the architectural styling of Miami and Miami Beach hotels, residences and the development of the tropical modern home in South Florida from 1936 throughout 1959. If you visited Miami today and did not see one of his buildings, you would have undoubtedly seen references to his work. A young Russian immigrant then graduate from the Beaux Arts University of Pennsylvania School of architecture, Polevitzky along with few other Miami modernists, transformed a new style of architecture that responded to the coastal climate, the history of the south Florida region and demands of the client. The style of architecture was so unique it was later coined the term (MiMo), an acronym of “Miami Modernism”. Polevitzky’s eminence extends beyond Miami to Havana, Cuba where he completed his first and only international work; the Havana Riviera Hotel. Polevitzky’s firm’s reputation by 1957 attracted casino promoter Meyer Lansky and led to the design of what would be later realized as the epitome of resort-construction in Cuba and one of the world’s first “all air-conditioned” hotels. Polevitzky’s contribution to the perception of North American architecture in Cuba, and his relationship with Lansky speaks to a historically important Miami-Havana connection that exists even today. Comparatively, Polevitzky’s concern with design, climate and how style can help to achieve coexistence between indoor and outdoor spaces, was shared with the architects in Cuba during this same time. As a result, Polevitzky’s design for the hotel and willingness to corroborate with local architects and designers of the time, led to the building’s relative embrace by architectural critics living in Cuba.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Igor Polevitzky was the son of Russian electrical engineer Boris Alexander Polevitzky and Katherine Polevitzky, a state physician and microbiologist. Igor had two older twin siblings, Krenia and Irene Polevitzky, born three years earlier. In November 1922 at the age of 10, he and his family immigrate to the United States suddenly, through Finland, then Germany and settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for reasons that are relatively unknown.
Polevitzky’s father immediately receives a position with General Electric through a friend living in the United States, while his mother Katherine receives a research position at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where Igor was able to later attend in 1929. Although he originally attended engineering courses for a year and a half, he was directed to the school architecture where he studied under the well-known architect and critic of Modern Classicism, Paul Philippe Cret; who was credited for having major influence on Igor. Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945) is French-born American architect and industrial designer who heads the school of architecture since his graduation from École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France in 1903. Cret, popularized for his contributions to the Pan-American Union Building (now the Organization of American States Building), the Folger Shakespeare library, the University of Texas campus at Austin, the National Naval Medical Center, in Maryland and numerous other projects, was known for his adoption and application of monumental classical traditions to modernist innovations. Considered streamlined and forward thinking throughout his career in the United States, he teaches at the University until 1937. Polevitzky graduates Cum Laude from University of Pennsylvania under Cret in 1934.
Benson Residence (Tropotype) completed in 1937.
Credit: Ernest Graham. ©
After graduation, Polevitzky and classmate Thomas Triplett Russell move to Miami and begin a career focus on tropical design. Working closely with other modernists of the time in Miami, their firm: Polevitzky and Russell Architects opens in 1936 at 528 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Florida, bringing a new Modernist approach to Miami and Miami Beach. It is important to note that at this time in Miami, the effects of the depression had just begun to pass and the city was beginning to amass settlement and tourism, a trend that continues until the US entry into World War II, which hindered construction and the progression of architectural implementation in much of the region. Before this time, Polevitzky and Russell Architects create numerous notable and influential works, including: The Gulf Service Station and Hotel, Miami, Florida, 1936,the Greif Residence, Rivo Alto Island, 1937, the Sailing Baruch Residence (Tropotype ), Miami, 1938, the Greenwald Residence, Rivo Alto Island and the Albion Building, Miami, 1939.
One of the first hotel projects for Igor Polevitzky, the Gulf Service Station and Hotel, contained a few different elements of commercial and leisure activities. It was a combination of a gas station, hotel, radio room, and a restaurant on the coast of Miami Beach. The main feature of the design was a lighthouse that had an operational beacon and acted as the organizational center of the project. The project is an early milestone for Polevitzky whom familiarized himself with the challenges of multiple uses within the same building. This is later recognized within his completed body of work, and considered one of its foremost qualities. The hotel was upstairs while a restaurant and base of the lighthouse structure was at ground level. The stair was made into a focus around the lighthouse to serve as the main access point for patrons to enter the hotel lobby from the waterfront. The design effectively allowed for the separation of different functions while also integrating everything with the central beacon. The success of this project acted as a basis for the continuation of this style of project throughout Polevitzky’s career2.
Entrance of the Shelbourne Hotel in 1940.
Credit: Ernest Graham. ©
In 1939 though an interview in the newspaper, Polevitzky introduced what he later termed, “the four stages of indoor-outdoor living” where his plans began to demonstrate a progression from the living room, to the dining room, a screened porch and then to the outside; becoming a common theme in his designs for years to come.
In 1941, both Polevitzky and Russell are forced to take jobs with the army airforce, Russell as an intelligence officer with the Eighth Air Force photo-reconnaissance division where he designed air base plans and operations buildings for 15 bases in the Southeast US and the Caribbean until 195210, while Igor as a Chief Engineer. Little is known of the work he performed for the army airforce. It can be seen however, upon his return to Miami that his work incorporated the use of new materials, including the use of open web steel trusses, most recognized in the 1949 Heller residence #2, or “Birdcage house”, the most popular and last of Polevitzky’s “Tropotype” houses.
After the war, Polevitzky worked independently for several years while Russell was still engaged with the armed forces. Polevitzky used this time to improve his practice, becoming increasingly innovative with design and use of materials, particularly in the residential sector when government-subsidized homes were booming in demand.
Golden Strand Hotel in 1947.
Credit: Ernest Graham. ©
In 1951, Polevitzky’s mother remarries in Burlington, New Jersey many years after his father’s mysterious death in Russia sometime between 1922 and 1928, to Vladimir Zworykin, the “father of television,” owner of RCA, and inventor of the iconoscope or ‘eye’ of the Television camera, also a Russian-trained physicist.
In the same year, Polevitzky partners with Verner Johnson. Their office is called Polevitzky, Johnson and Associates, is located north of downtown Miami at 250 NE 18th Street. Polevitzky continues to work along the same lines he did before the war and the rich quality of his portfolio seems relatively unaffected by the terms that a partnership sometimes implies. Polevitzky is interviewed on occasion, and explains to the Miami Herald that he views his houses as an “envelope for living,” an ambiguous blending of interior and exterior spaces, which helped to relate the home to its immediate environment. Simple considerations like the sloping of roofs and extending overhangs on houses proved well-suited for the intense sun and rain in tropical Miami. Polevitzky offered a great deal of attention to post-war housing, particularly during a time that architects and developers were criticized by some for spending too much investment in hotels and tourism while many veterans were homeless at the time. After completing a great number of homes designed for the government under the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (aka G.I. bill), Polevitzky resumes work on the hotels and restaurants in Miami and Miami Beach.
Sea Tower, under construction in 1958.
Credit: Florida Photos, Inc. ©
Meanwhile in Havana, Cuba, rapid expanses in hotel, shopping and gambling establishments are emerging, and centered almost exclusively on American tourists. The connections between the two cities, Miami and Havana have been long-time subjects of political interests, but perhaps moreover in the connection of architecture. Their links of influence and the progression of designs enjoyed between the two is intriguing. More specifically, the share of concepts between the two cities creates an important parallel for Polevitzky.
A long-standing history of tourism and movement between South Florida and Havana traces back to the beginning of the Ten Years War, where from 1868 to 1878 great numbers of Cubans began to flee to the states with many settling in Key West mainly due to its proximity to Havana. The cigar, sugar and coffee industries are among the first to follow, so did “retail tourism” as Cuban defectors move and push Key West towards becoming a major economic strength of the region. By 1889, Key West had become the largest and wealthiest city in Florida4.
Shortly thereafter, a progression of Cuban occupation from Key West to Miami begins to evolve. This was officially established in 1925 when Cuban President Gerardo Machado saw the great business potential of Miami and ordered a Cuban consulate to be built5. This gesture permutated with the 1920’s Tourist Boom that of advertised luxury and pleasure in the world of travel. Tourism, was an increasing economic draw for the two cities, and led to the marketing and advertising of the various facets of entertainment an opportunity for the exchange of culture. At this time, upper-class Cubans were traveling to destinations such New York and Europe, while wealthy American couples were making weekend trips to Cuba. Socialite magazines in Cuba such as Bohemia and Social, which specifically targeted the wealthy of Cuba promoted this exchange with lines such as “Take a little hop to Miami.” 7 These publications appeared closely-aligned with the New York model of high society and often featured colorful, vivid images representing Miami on the cover. Similarly, pamphlets and magazine advertisements produced in the United States encouraged American tourism in Cuba, commonly referring to Havana as, “the ‘Paris of the Caribbean,’ for night life, gambling, water sports, and old world charm.” 5 As the exotic components of Cuban advertisement began to migrate from “historically-significant” to more “hedonistic land of sex, promiscuity, gambling and drinking”, Havana grew more and more attractive towards American tourists. The use of American hard currency had a tendency to attract American crime organizations, particularly so during the time of prohibition in the United States (1920 to 1933).
By 1939, Havana was burdened by several key crime figures, including Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel and the Lansky brothers, Meyer and Jacob “Jake”. After several shifts in presidencies and political parties in Cuba, Meyer Lansky remained politically influential in Cuba. In 1952 was appointed by Cuban president Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar to oversee gambling concessions in the country. Lansky likely utilized political devices and American celebrity investments to expand his gambling operations. At the December 1946 Havana Conference Lansky offered political-backing to investors with whom he referred to as his secret partner— later revealed to be Batista. For unknown reasons, the Havana Conference concludes with the declaration that Miami is a “free-city,” one not subject to the usual rules of territorial monopoly practiced by similar crime syndicates in other cities such as Las Vegas.
By 1955, Lansky had almost exclusive rights to gambling rights in Cuba. Batista had changed Cuban gambling laws and instituted Hotel Law 2074, granting a gaming license to anyone who invested $1 million USD in a hotel or $200,000 USD in a new nightclub; the Cuban government would receive a $25,000 USD fee for each license plus a percentage of the profits from each casino established. After the successes of the Montmartre Club Casino at Hotel National and several other smaller establishments, Lansky prepared to build what would become his most prized establishment, the hotel later named the Havana Riviera.
In 1956, Lansky establishes the Riviera de Cuba S.A. company to fund the construction of the hotel, and though the incorporation papers listed the names of Miami hotel operators and several textile and construction companies, the funds eventually used to build the hotel were provided by the Bank for Economic and Social Development (BANDES), a state-run development bank created by Batista8. Additional funding came from associates of Lansky, and the owners of Las Vegas hotels such as the Desert Inn, Fremont Hotel and Flamingo.
Originally commissioned to be located on a traffic island near a high-income neighborhood along the Malecón, the hotel project was called Hotel Monaco and was to be designed by eminent architect Philip C. Johnson. After several meetings and even the production of an initial design by Johnson, he is frustrated by the hotel promoters and abandons the project. “According to the architect [Johnson], the project remained un-built because the demands of the promoter Meyer Lansky were impossible to meet9.” Meyer Lansky seeks Los Angeles architect Wayne McAllister, the designer of several prominent Las Vegas hotels. McAllister clears his firm’s workload to work on the project but still finds himself unable to meet Lansky’s requirements. Discouraged that his hotel may not have the striking visual effects of the Las Vegas hotels or notoriety of Philip Johnson, Lansky is placed in contact with Polevitzky, Johnson and Associates. It is alleged that Lansky’s team first sought the talent of Morris Lapidus’ firm but it is unlikely Lapidus would have agreed to the project’s demands. Lansky is attracted to the firm’s consistency and after an initial meeting, Lansky quickly provides a retainer to commence with the design of the hotel in early 1957.
In an unusual gesture, Lansky becomes highly-involved with the firm’s progress and visits the Polevitzky office frequently. With several other high-profile hotels under construction in Miami and many others still in the design stage, the firm is full of activity. Polevitzky dedicates his employee William H. Arthur to the project full-time, who works day and night until the design is completed. Arthur then travels to Havana periodically to observe the project’s construction. Two of Lansky’s requirements were that the project be constructed in six-months to prevent competition after its completion, and that the details of the construction remained confidential. This was particularly important, since a third requirement of the project was it needed to have defense mechanisms to prevent an armed forces attack. Payment installments were paid to the office by Lansky himself, in cash and were often accompanied with a review of the project’s status. An occupied sedan parked outside the office waited for him. Meetings were usually short, arranged at Polevitzky’s office or the 550 building on Brickell Avenue where Polevitzky had an unlisted satellite office. Polevitzky introduces Lansky to builder Irving Feldman of 605 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach, whom he has a longstanding relationship with. Already familiar with similar constructions by the firm, such as the Carlton Terrace Apartments in Bal Harbour, Florida, Polevitzky is confident that Feldman can meet the construction and chronological requirements of the Riviera.
Braznell Residence completed in 1958.
Credit: Rada Photography. ©
Upon Polevitzky’s assignment by Meyer Lansky, the project was renamed Hotel Habana Riviera and was the largest all-inclusive resort undertaking in Cuba in 27 years, since the Hotel Nacional in 1930. The Riviera was envisioned as “The Riviera of the Caribbean”, and considered the epitome of resort-construction. It was the first large-scale hotel in Cuba to have air-conditioned rooms and one of the first in the world to be “fully air-conditioned“. Considered Polevitzky’s most influential project, the Havana Riviera is constructed in six months. It was the culmination of all of his years of tropical regionalism, experience in hotel design and presented in a global scale, yet it wasn’t in the city that he spent his career addressing.
Today the hotel is considered one of the last North American developments in Havana before the 1959 Revolution, and the first non-residential international project for the firm. Unfortunately, with the popularization of air-conditioning, many of Polevitzky’s teachings were abandoned by the public in lieu of enclosed boxes of contained comfort. Allan T. Shulman, professor at the University of Miami explains, “Cosmopolitan, well-educated, analytically minded, but somewhat diffident, Polevitzky was one of the most respected but least appreciated of Miami architects. His work was considered intellectual and avant-garde, and although he was well published, he seems to have made little effort to explain or popularize his approach. Thus, his adventure in evolving an architecture for Florida was an inherently personal one1.”
Igor faced a private reaction to the Miami climate, he had a skin allergy that ironically kept him in air-conditioning most of the time. He and his wife Irene frequented Voelkel’s Glacier Lodge in Estes Park, Colorado. It was suggested they move there permanently which they did in the early sixties. Partially disabled and bound to a wheelchair from a cruise ship accident, Polevitzky dies in 1978, suffering from severe burns and smoke inhalation from a dropped match in his home.
The predominance of Modernism in Miami tailored to the tropical climate is still very visible today, and in the 1950’s, Polevitzky and Johnson were at the forefront6. ∎
1. Shulman, Allan T. “Igor Polevitzky’s Architectural Vision for a Modern Miami.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 23 (1998). Pages: 334-359
2. Perrottet, Tony. Insight Guides: Cuba. Apa Productions. 1998. Pages: 15-19.
3. Luis Rodriguez, Eduardo. The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965. Princeton
4. A Chronological History of Key West A Tropical Island City, Stephen Nichols, 3rd ed.
5. Harper, Paula. “Cuba Connections: Key West-Tampa-Miami.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 22 (1996). Pages: 279-291
6. Newspaper article missing.
7. Advertisement. Social Magazine. May-June. 1938.
8. “Offshore Banking: The Secret Threat to America,” Dissent, Spring 2003.
10. APPENDIX C: PROFILES ON SELECTED ARCHITECTS ASSOCIATED WITH WHERRY, CAPEHART, AND APPROPRIATED-FUNDS HOUSING PROJECTS Military report (Koyl 1955:478; Koyl 1962:352).
11. Guilbert, Juliette. Florida InsideOut Magazine pgs 124-126.
12. Shulman, Allan and Camber, Diane. Miami Modern Metropolis: Paradise and Paradox in Midcentury Architecture and Planning.
13. Cantor, Judy. Dwell Magazine, March 2005: pg 82.
14. Year: 1930;Census Place: Yeadon, Delaware, Pennsylvania; Roll 2033; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 179; Image: 481.0.
15. Broward County Historical Commission. “Broward Legacy vol. 27 no. 1 (summer 2007)”. Nov 29, 2009 < https://www.digitaltree.com/pdf/legacy_vol27_no1_summer2007.pdf>.
16. Abba, Anthony. Broward County Community—wide Design Handbook “History of public space”. February 1, 2005: B1.11
17. Churchill, Sara. “‘Florida Home’ Architectural Style Bauhaus Meets Post-WWII Practicality in These South Florida Houses”. suite101.com. Feb 29, 2008 <https://house-architecture.suite101.com/article.cfm/florida _home#ixzz0XkxUpuOL>.
18. “Milestones”. Life Magazine Monday, Nov. 26, 1951: Zworykin- Polevitzky marriage.
19. “Bird-Cage House”. Life Magazine June 5, 1950: pgs 63-65.
20. Gott, John K. “Thomas Triplett Russell was local historian”. Fauquier Times Democrat Newspaper. Wednesday, July 12, 2000: 1.
21. Restelli, Steven. From His Personal Photographs “Dr. Vladimir Kosma Zworykin, Television Pioneer”. The Restelli Collection. October 2, 2009 <https://framemaster.tripod.com/index-2.html>.
22. Unknown. Miami Magazine Online, “Homes are a Hallmark of Miami’s Postwar Years”. Living History Collection. November 3, 2009 <https://www6.miami.edu/miami-magazine/winter05/journal.html>.
23. Hine, Thomas. BNET Business Library “Miami Swank and its opposite”. Arts Publications, Humanities. Nov and Dec 2007 <https://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_7558/is_200711/ai_n32252813/pg_2/>.
24. Luis Rodriguez, Eduardo. The Havana Guide: Modern Architecture 1925-1965 . Princeton Architectural Press, New York. 2000. Pages: xvi, 140
25. Perrottet, Tony. Insight Guides: Cuba. Apa Productions. 1998. Pgs 15-19.
26. Cott, Lee. Architecture and Tourism. Online Article. https://drclas.fas.harvard.edu/revista/articles/view/56, 2002
27. Advertisement. Social Magazine. May-June. 1938.
28. Cubarte Gallert. Online Article. https://www.galeriacubarte.cult.cu/g_artista.php?item=77&lang=eng , 2006
29. Owen, Wendy. Art Experts, Inc. Online Article. https://www.artexpertswebsite.com/pages/artists/dirube.html , 2007
30. Moruzzi, Peter. Havana before Castro: When Cuba was a tropical Playground.
31. Almanac of Architecture & Design 2006 (Almanac of Architecture and Design)
James P. Cramer, Jennifer Evans Yankopolus
32. South Florida Historical Museum (Now Miami Museum).
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