Ranked as: “Top 25 Business People to Watch: New Leaders of the New Century” “Haute Living Prestigious Haute 100”
“North Carolina Entrepreneur of the Year”
Ranked as: “Top 25 Business People to Watch: New Leaders of the New Century” “Haute Living Prestigious Haute 100”
“North Carolina Entrepreneur of the Year”
Peter Loftin built up his EMPIRE from the back of a small office in North Carolina. He started selling portable phones business to business and knew that the potential for B2B telecom was enormous.
He built up his company into one of the largest telecom giants in the world and just recently stepped down from Business Telecom Inc (BTI) and began to pursue his interest in the arts and philanthropy.
Peter T. Loftin was born and raised in NC to mother, Maree Nelson Loftin, who was an Elementary school teacher and to father, Robert G. Loftin, a Korean War veteran, who retired from the US Government Social Security Administration. While at the Administration, he negotiated the Union contract for all Social Security Administration employees.
Loftin made his mark in the telecommunications industry after the Bell telephone monopoly break up. In 1983 he founded and led Raleigh, NC based Business Telecom Inc. (BTI) to the successful expansion of the corporation to one of the nation’s top telecommunications companies as well as the largest private employer in the city of Raleigh, NC. Loftin is credited with being the pioneer of the flat rate pricing for long distance offering in the telecommunications industry.
Business North Carolina Magazine named Loftin “North Carolina Entrepreneur of the Year”. In addition, NCEITA, the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technologies Association, awarded him and BTI the “Corporate Citizen of the Year Award” for generously providing free Internet services to the disabled in rural schools throughout North Carolina. He was then publically recognized for his contribution by the then Governor of North Carolina, James B. Hunt. In 1999, independent research group New Paradigm Resources ranked BTI seventh nationally among competitive local exchange carriers with approximately $400 million in annual revenues. During Loftin’s tenure at BTI, he successfully completed a $250 million high yield bond issue as well as the sale of an additional $200 million of BTI stock to a private equity firm. He served as Chairman of the Board of BTI whose board members consisted of such prestigious businessmen as Paul J. Rizzo, former Vice-Chairman of IBM and the former Dean of the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.
He has been significantly involved in the business and community affairs of North Carolina. Mr. Loftin was the largest contributor to the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in 1997, which is the largest performing arts venue between Washington, D.C., and Tampa. Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer and the City Council recognized him as the single largest contributor ever to the city of Raleigh.
Loftin’s involvement in the arts encouraged his purchase of Casa Casuarina in 2000. After selling a portion of BTI, he devoted some of his proceeds to real estate endeavors, with Casa Casuarina being one of the most opportunistic properties. Loftin saw this as an opportunity to give back to the community by gifting the magical Casa Casuarina venue for more than 30 significant charities. Since owning Casa Casuarina, he retained the services of Ernst and Young to develop a study of the highest and best use of the property. As a result of the study, and the recommendation of Ernst and Young, he has enthusiastically proceeded to include Casa Casuarina as part of the Boutique Hotel and Club business as well as a luxurious trophy residential property.
Loftin started his own charity when he was in his twenties called “Coats for Kids” which donated winter coats to thousands of needy children during the holiday season. This started his generosity of giving back and since then has served on a number of boards for various charitable non profits. Loftin served on the National Board of Governors of the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. serving with the then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and the now retired General Tommy Franks during the fateful 9/11 attacks. He has also served on other prestigious Boards including the American Lung Association, the Board of Visitors of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC – Chapel Hill, the Advisory Board of the Duke Heart Center at Duke University Medical Center, Founding contributor and Board Member of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science providing children and adults with an unparalleled experience of North Carolina’s natural science, the Board of Directors of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED). While Loftin was on the CED board, he was the founding contributor of scholarships for entrepreneurial high school students.
Loftin also built a camp for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America named Camp BTI, as well as, a significant contributor to Oak Ranch, a facility for underprivileged and troubled youth. He is also a major contributor to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Since the year 2000, Loftin has been a generous contributor to the Special Operations Fund (SOF) which is a fund started by businessmen at the direction of Ambassador David C. Miller, Jr. prior to 9/11 to support the families and their children’s college education of our fallen Tier 1 Classified soldiers. He is also a major contributor to the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, which provides a unique educational experience on United States history and basic core values through the preservation interpretation and recognition of U.S. Army airborne and special operations history, equipment, technology, legend, art and weaponry as well as providing a memorial for the two Delta operators assigned to task force ranger in Somalia who were awarded posthumously the medal of honor for their valiant efforts depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down”. Loftin was also a guest speaker at both the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill and the MBA Program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
Loftin is currently on the Board of the Miami Beach Police Athletic League and in 2006, was honored with a certificate of appreciation by the City of Miami Beach for his contributions to the city which include his sponsorship of and/or donation of Casa as a venue for many charitable functions such as the American Red Cross, Alonzo Morning Foundation, Miami Book Fair, Miami International Film Festival, Scoliosis Research Society, as well as political fundraisers. The certificate also noted that the re-creation of Casa Casuarina as an exclusive private member club and elite private events venue is setting Casa as the leader of the Miami’s new ultra-elite identity, bringing a new level of sophistication to Miami Beach and attracting the height of international society to the city.
Loftin was also an original founder of GlobeSecNine which is now known as Torch Hill Investment Partners. Torch Hill provides growth capital to domestic and international companies involved in the defense and intelligence industry.
Loftin also founded CM3 Group, a counter-terrorism contractor along with Michael Haley (SEAL, Ret.) and Richard Shaffer (FBI, Ret.). Mr. Haley served as a SEAL in various SEAL Teams including the Classified SOCOM Tier One Unit, then upon retirement began employment with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a member of a covert paramilitary maritime unit in support of Global war on Terrorism activities worldwide. Mr. Shaffer directed the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force program for all investigative, intelligence and threat assessment operations in North Carolina including major banks, US Military facilities, nuclear facilities and the high tech industry. CM3 Group is a counter-terrorism security consulting firm with an impressive background and experience. CM3 Group developed and provided counter-terrorism and consultation for the Port of Los Angeles on a multi-year contract working alongside Local, State and Federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Loftin has a wonderful15 year old son with his former wife, as well as two other young children that currently reside with him.
Peter Loftin has been featured in the News for his incredible contributions to society so many times that we should really have another whole website to feature his press coverage. These range from admiring his lifestyle that he worked so hard to build up to revering him for his laid back and generous attitude to featuring his many charitiable contributions. You can also check out the blog for more coverage on Peter T. Loftin in the press.
Author(s): JOANNA KAKISSIS STAFF WRITER Date: September 27, 2001 Section: News In the past two weeks, firefighters from counties and towns in North Carolina have raised more than $1.1 million for relief efforts in New York City. Some donors mailed in money to the Heart of Carolina “Firefighters for Firefighters,” a group set up by WTVD-TV and area firefighters to help their New York brethren after the terrorist attack. Others gave after seeing firefighters standing along busy roads, dropping the cash or checks into firefighter boots.
On Wednesday, telecommunications millionaire Peter T. Loftin flew several Raleigh city officials to New York on his private plane to deliver the check. Aboard were Fire Chief Earl Fowler, Fire Marshal Larry Stanford, Police Chief Jane Perlov and Mayor Paul Coble.
The delegation toured the Red Cross center and the police ground zero command center at the ruins of the World Trade Center and presented the donation to New York Police commissioner Bernard Kerrick and Bergen County, N.J., Sheriff Jerry Speziale. The money went to the New York City Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund, which is administered partly by the International Association of Fire Fighters. Other fire departments across the country also have raised as much or more, association spokesman George Burke said. He said the Charlotte and Concord areas are planning a fund-raiser for next week. “We thank North Carolina very much. We’re not surprised at all at the effort we’ve seen,” Burke said. “Firefighters are givers, on and off the job. … We had at least $5 million in the bank several days ago, and we’re expecting more in the next few days.” Fire departments from Cary, Raleigh and Wake County collected about $438,000 of the $1.1 million. Fire departments in Chatham County raised $115,000, those in Durham $45,000 and those in Orange $34,761. Others contributing to the fund-raising effort included fire departments in Cumberland, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Lee, Moore, Nash, Person, Vance, Warren and Wilson counties. ###
Copyright 2001 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Peter Loftin has been a larger-than-life character in South Beach since he bought Casa Casuarina in 2000, turning the former Versace mansion into an ultra-high-end luxury guesthouse. Today, though, the former party boy is more mellow and is widely credited with helping make Ocean Drive a more civilized destination.
Peter Loftin is a study in contradictions. He is a big bear of a man with a Southern twang and lust for life. He runs in political circles that include Al Gore, John Edwards, the Clintons and Miami police chief John Timoney. He’s tight with Shaquille O’Neal, yet he doesn’t name-drop. He’s a hell-raiser and serious at the same time. He enjoys a belly laugh and flirting with curvaceous women, yet he can turn melancholy rather quickly. He is generous with his money and time, yet the staff at Casa Casuarina formally refers to him as “Mr. Loftin.” He channels his namesake Peter Pan (“I don’t want to grow up,” he says over dinner), yet he talks about his two sons with the precision of a soccer dad. He is anti-lawyer, yet his personal attorney accompanies him for this interview. He is wealthy, but has given up the accoutrements of fine living (private planes and megayachts). Most interestingly, the owner of the Versace mansion (for nearly eight years) is not a fashionista.
Despite the paradoxes, a few facts are undisputable: The North Carolina native grew up in a loving family who nurtured him to follow his dreams. After one semester at North Carolina State University, Loftin did just that. He went door to door selling cordless phones before starting a telecom company (BTI) in the wake of the deregulation of AT&T. By 25, Peter was officially rich and rode the telecom wave until its peak in 2000, which is when he moved to Miami Beach and bought Casa Casuarina for $19 million. Loftin’s arrival on South Beach was not without controversy, as the impish character threw some sexy parties and gained a reputation as a playboy. But he also became a civic organizer and is responsible for helping upgrade Ocean Drive. Four years ago, he transformed Casa Casuarina into a private club and 10-suite hotel (prices range from $1,200 to $5,000 a night), with guests such as Paris Hilton, Simon Cowell and Hilary Duff. Although he still maintains Donatella Versace’s suite as his own, Peter, who is approaching 50, now lives in a less imposing house on Miami Beach and allows the Casa to function as a high-end social club. “I have preserved what Gianni Versace created,” he notes. “I have kept that legacy alive.”
The exquisite stonework, pool area and lighting create a dreamlike atmosphere at Casa Casuarina.
OCEAN DRIVE: Why did you buy Casa Casuarina?
PETER LOFTIN: When I was living in North Carolina, I saw Gianni Versace being interviewed in the courtyard here. I said, This is a beautiful house. I wonder if he would sell that to me. Then I dismissed it; he loved that house too much. I completely forgot about it. Years later, I was on my boat at the Miami Beach Marina and a friend said, ‘Let’s go look at the Versace mansion. It might be for sale.’ This was in 2000. We walked through the house and I said, ‘This place is magical.’ That’s when we went into negotiations with the Versace family lawyer. The young girl Allegra inherited a lot of Gianni’s fortune, and she was involved in making the decision to sell the property.
Was there a vetting process?
Not really. They had many restrictions on the use of their name. Any brand would. I abided by all of this. I refer to it as Casa Casuarina, which is the original name. It was built in 1930 by Alden Freeman as somewhat of a replica of the Alcazar de Colón, which was built in 1510 by Christopher Columbus’ son in Santo Domingo. It was the oldest house in the Americas. Freeman built this house as an apartment building so that his friends could live here with him. He was worth $80 million in the ‘30s. In 1937 Jacques Amsterdam bought the property, and it was an apartment building for many years—until Gianni Versace bought it.
You paid $19 million for the house in 2000.
I have put a lot more into it since then. At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a residential house in Miami-Dade County. Now they have condos selling for $20 million. The appreciation has been rather significant. Another thing I did was to take the music off Ocean Drive. That boom-boom-boom driving down the street. I couldn’t sleep at night. The windows were rattling. I got with the police chief, and he put a task force out here and started ticketing people. It took on its own life and other neighbors got involved. Then an article came out on the front page of The New York Times called ‘The Hot New Sound in South Beach: “Quiet, Please.” ‘ I was the catalyst for that. It made the rest of the street nicer.
What was it like living here as a private residence?
There was a lot more freedom than there is today. I could do anything here—jump in the pool naked, whatever. It’s a little different now.
Does it bother you that people pose in front of the stairs at all hours of the night? The pictures, the stares, the gawking?
Not at all. It had beauty before Gianni bought it. After he bought it, it was referred to as the ‘Versace mansion,’ although he referred to it as Casa Casuarina. Then there was the tragic demise on the steps out front, which collectively have made it a property that people want to see. It is the second most photographed house in the United States behind The White House. More than Graceland. It’s just photographed all the time.
The famous Casa Casuarina entry on Ocean Drive
Peter Loftin with Jon Bon Jovi
Do you ever feel Versace’s ghost? I never feel his ghost. If I feel anything, it’s his genius, spirit and brilliance.
Why did you turn it into a private club and hotel?
The house was built as an apartment building back in 1930. It was meant to accommodate more than a single family. This place screams for people, activity and entertainment. Even when I lived here alone I had a lot of parties. Versace had some great parties, too.
How many members do you have?
250. Many interesting people come here. Just the other night the richest guy in the world was having dinner here.
What comes with membership?
You are able to come in through the front door. You are able to come to the dining room and have dinner. You have access to the pool and beach club. We have a spa. It’s a social club. If you want to impress your clients or girlfriend or wife, this is the place. You can have your birthday party here. There are corporate events: Jaguar just had a party here and brought in their new car. They craned it in.
How much is a membership?
There is a one-time fee of $50,000 and annual fees are $8,000. Most of the members are like-minded fun people. We have several gazillionaires. It’s safe, secure and quiet. You can actually have a conversation here—unlike in nightclubs.
What does luxury mean to you?
If you live a life of luxury, you live a life that is supposedly more special or privileged than that of the average person. It doesn’t mean that you are happier than the average person, though. All we are is a culmination of our memories and experiences.
Do you live a life of luxury?
Compared to where I came from? Absolutely! I would hate for people to ever consider me a snob, though, or think that I have an attitude because of something I have. Material things aren’t as important to me as they once were. Experiences are more important to me now. It’s an experience like sitting under a tree in North Carolina, feeling the fall wind and remembering when you were a kid. You can’t buy that.
You first burst onto the South Beach scene like a bull. Did you ruffle some feathers?
Yes. Anyone who pays $19 million for a house that a slain famous fashion designer owned has to be a little bit out there. I’m a redheaded Southern boy living down here. Not a lot of people look like me. I’m a minority. I’m also a hugger. I hugged everybody in town.
What did you think of South Beach back then?
I was a bit frightened of South Beach. I didn’t show it, though. South Beach was wild, crazy and untamed. South Beach was a foreign territory to me. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Peter Loftin with Jaime Pressly and Yanni
Peter Loftin with Nicky Hilton
How have you seen South Beach change? I’ve seen Pete change. I’ve seen me mature. I understand what South Beach is. I’ve seen many people come and go. The people who survive South Beach want to live here. This is a place where you work and live. It’s not a place where you go out every night and goof off. You have to accept it for that and not let it chew you up and spit you out, which it can. To live here for a long period of time, you’re a survivor. You may get sand in your shoes, as they say, but you also get more experience in your brain. Once you learn how to moderate your social activities, you have a wonderful existence here. I may go to a nightclub once or twice a month. The Casa is more me, not only because I own it, but it’s also less intensive as a party place. You come here to socialize. You don’t come here to get drunk and listen to boom-boom-boom music all night.
What is your favorite aspect of South Beach?
I love the water, people and feeling of freedom. You can express yourself however you want. You can be a guy who rides a bike with a dog in the basket and goggles on. Or you can Rollerblade down the street and text-message 100 people while doing so. You don’t come here to wear a suit and tie. It has the exact opposite air that New York has. New York has a work-hard, energized environment. South Beach has a sexy, have-fun environment. I feel it when I get off the plane.
You are friends with Shaquille O’Neal, Yanni and Jamie Foxx. How do you have so many famous friends?
Owning a fancy piece of property. Some of the people I was friends with before, but a lot of people I’ve met here.
Describe your personality.
I have a very competitive side to me. I don’t like to lose. But I’m not a bad loser. There’s a difference. I shake it off and win the next one. Anyone who makes it on their own has to have that fighting spirit. I can be feisty, but I try to control my personality in a way that’s not too aggressive. Sometimes we need to sit down, meditate and think about our lives. It’s important for people to have introspection. What makes you happy does not come from buying a new airplane. It comes from inside. I’ve pared my life down. It’s simpler than it used to be and I like it better. You have to find out what makes you tick as you get older. My two children make me happy. One is 10 and one is 17 months. When you have children, you start thinking about their future.
To what do you attribute your success?
My mom always wanted me to be successful. It’s amazing how much a mother can influence her child. Bill Clinton was named William Jefferson Clinton and his mother told him he would be President of the United States one day. Most successful people had a mother telling them they could do whatever they wanted.
The Casa dates back to 1930, and there’s the Versace legacy. How will the Loftin era be described?
It will be remembered for great people having great times. That is what this property is about.
Author(s): From Staff Reports Date: October 7, 1999 Section: News
Raleigh — The BTI Center for the Performing Arts will be spiffier thanks to BTI Chairman Peter Loftin and Raleigh businessman Harold Lichtin. With part of a $2.1 million donation from Loftin, the Raleigh City Council approved a list of improvements to the nearly $33 million project including better stage lighting, audio systems and acoustical treatments in each hall. Among the other improvements, the city will add limestone to the western facade of the Meymandi Concert Hall and add a second escalator. Lichtin and his wife have made plans to pay for a sculpture in the center’s plaza. The city will begin looking for an artist. The center is scheduled to be complete in December 2000.
Copyright 1999 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Author(s): JOANNA KAKISSIS STAFF WRITER Date: July 27, 1999 Section: News
Raleigh — The chairman of the Raleigh-based telecommunications company that gave the city $3.1 million in 1997 to help create a premier performing arts center has matched that money with a personal contribution. Peter Loftin, chairman and chief executive officer of BTI, on Monday announced a $3.1 million contribution to the BTI Center for the Performing Arts. The company bought the naming rights for the center in 1997, and construction is now in progress around Memorial Auditorium.
The personal contribution brings the total committed by Loftin and his company to $6.2 million. About $2.1 million is to be used to make additional improvements to the center. An additional $1 million is to go toward establishing a foundation to help bring in economically disadvantaged children for performances so they can learn about the local arts community.
“These cultural experiences can open the eyes of children to a new world,” Loftin said in a media statement. Loftin was out of town Monday and could not be reached for comment.
The $30 million performing arts center is scheduled to be completed by December 2000. It will include Memorial Auditorium, a 2,200-seat hall originally built in the 1930s; the 1,700-seat Meymandi Concert Hall; the 600-seat Fletcher Theater; a front plaza and office space. Raleigh officials said the $2.1 million will allow the city to consider using better materials – stainless steel railings, more expensive light fixtures, highest-quality wood – in the new center. “This is good news,” City Manager Dempsey Benton said. “The opportunities for enhancement of higher-quality finishing materials may be in the public areas, like the lobbies or the main stairway.” City Councilman Benson Kirkman said he would like to see some of the money go to the Carolina Ballet, the nascent company that is seeking rent-free use of the center. “The ballet needs to be part of the larger picture there,” Kirkman said. Benton said the city and BTI will work out specific uses for the $2.1 million portion of the grant over the next two to three weeks. “This is fantastic,” City Councilman Paul Coble said. “It makes you want to kick back and celebrate that you’ve got that kind of citizen that is willing to do this for the city.”
Copyright 1999 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
Certain details remind you that Casa Casuarina, an exclusive club and hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, previously was a private home: The keys to the 10 guest rooms are proper metal instruments, not plastic cards, and the doors can be problematic at times. The most conspicuous evidence, however, is the steady procession of tourists who congregate on the sidewalk outside Casa Casuarina, pointing at the steps where the mansion’s most famous owner, fashion designer Gianni Versace, fell after serial killer Andrew Cunanan shot him in 1997.
Standard Oil millionaire Alden Freeman built Casa Casuarina in 1930, and Versace expanded the Mediterranean Revival–style estate during the 1990s. After Versace’s death, telecommunications businessman Peter Loftin purchased the home, making it the base for an invitation-only club. Opened officially in October 2005, Loftin’s club has approximately 200 members, who have access to the property weekly from Wednesday through Sunday. In addition, Casa Casuarina operates as a hotel, renting its available rooms for a minimum of $1,200 per night.
Club amenities available to hotel guests include services at Casa Casuarina’s Spa Eleven, which champions decadence over health. Spa patrons, who are greeted with a glass of Champagne, can take treatments in a room decorated with antique opium beds and hookahs, and they can request a “massage à trois” performed by three masseuses.
Casa Casuarina 305.672.6604 (from $1,200)
Casa Casuarina, 305.672.6604, www.casacasuarina.com
Seated in a plump leather chair in the third-floor lounge of Casa Casuarina, his elaborately decorated Miami Beach mansion, Peter Loftin does not look the part of someone who excels at hosting exclusive parties. The 47-year-old millionaire, who earned his fortune in the telecommunications industry, sports disheveled blond-white hair and wears a red Casa Casuarina polo shirt and shorts, but he radiates a quality that all successful hosts possess: supreme confidence, both in himself and his surroundings.
The North Carolina native seems at home amid the lounge’s arched stained-glass windows, wrought iron chandelier, decorated ceiling beams, and coffered wooden doors installed by noted 1920s interior designer Addison Mizner, whose surname Loftin pronounces correctly as MY-zner, but perhaps with overemphasis on the i. Loftin’s aesthetic contribution to the space was removing the rococo-looking antique furnishings and the white paint that former owner Gianni Versace had applied to the walls and replacing them with sofas, chairs, and a paint scheme in shades of tobacco brown befitting a cigar lounge. The only Loftin addition likely to offend anyone’s tastes is a photo in the adjoining bar of himself with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Despite Casa Casuarina’s opulence, Loftin insists that there is one thing that it will never have in excess. “It needs people, but not masses of people—that would destroy it,” he says. “Casa Casuarina has a history and a future, and I want to be part of its future.” (Click image to enlarge)
His vision for Casa Casuarina is as bold as those of its two prominent former owners: Standard Oil heir Alden Freeman, who built the house on Ocean Drive in 1930 and festooned its walls with medallions depicting historic figures; and Versace, who acquired the property in 1992 and rejuvenated it in his distinctly flamboyant manner, adding a vibrantly decorated 6-foot-deep pool, installing a copper-lidded marble toilet that cost $10,000, and adding trompe l’oeil flourishes to the walls and ceilings.
In 2000, Loftin purchased the home from the Versace family for $19 million and, he estimates, he has spent at least $12 million more to transform it into an exclusive social club that will debut officially on October 14. (Since January, the property has been in preview status, serving its 110 members from Thursday through Saturday; the opening will inaugurate a Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule.) Casa Casuarina will extend what managing director Reto Gaudenzi calls “temporary memberships” to guests who book one of its 10 rooms. (See “Membership’s Privileges” at end of article.)
Loftin has experience with exclusive social clubs, having been a member of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, more than 70 miles north in Palm Beach, for almost a decade. But he intends Casa Casuarina to be different from Trump’s club; he envisions it as a place where habitués of rarely overlapping realms have a chance to meet and talk. “[Mar-a-Lago] showed me that a social club was a great idea,” Loftin says. “I wanted to replicate it in a place that wasn’t so country-clubbish, that was more diverse. [The membership is] a cross section of people who probably never cross paths but have one thing in common: Casa Casuarina. They can get to know each other in a laid-back South Beach atmosphere, with no stuffiness and no ties.” (Click image to enlarge)
A likely favorite topic of conversation among members is Casa Casuarina itself, which is laden with alluring details and demands repeat viewings. It seems as if every nook, crevice, and corner of the 30,000-square-foot, three-story estate has been beautified, and several splendid details hide in plain sight. Kimberly Acker, operator of Casa Casuarina’s on-site spa, recently was leading a tour of the property when a guest asked for more information about a piece of artwork, an unpainted bas-relief scene of toga-clad people that occupies a spandrel above a staircase leading from the third floor to the roof deck. Acker stopped, scrutinized it, and said, “I’ve been here since October , and I’ve never seen it before.”
Other Casa Casuarina staff members have had similar experiences. “Even after a year here, it happens to me sometimes,” says Gaudenzi, whose career includes a three-year stint as general manager of Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St. Moritz in his native Switzerland, where he invented the game of snow polo (See “Ice Capades”.) “I’ve been in the business 30 years, and I’m not an esoteric person, I’m a practical person, but this house is magical,” he says. “People come here, and they’re in a good mood. It’s amazing, and it’s because the house itself is unique.” (Click image to enlarge)
If it is true that wealth distinguishes the eccentric from the crazy, then Alden Freeman, who was said to have inherited tens of millions of dollars, was an eccentric who tried to spend himself crazy. However, construction costs for Casa Casuarina, which was erected during the early years of the Great Depression, barely dented his bank account, costing $1.4 million in modern dollars.Casa Casuarina originally contained 23 apartments that were ostensibly for rent but which Freeman often shared with his friends. A 24th apartment, located on the third floor, served as his personal quarters. He set aside another apartment for Charles Boulton, a 33-year-old landscape architect who Freeman had adopted as his son. Although Boulton was a married father—Boulton’s then-1-year-old daughter, Jane Margaret, turned the first spade of dirt at Casa Casuarina’s groundbreaking ceremony in June 1930—he is rumored to have been the intimate companion of Freeman, who never married.
Two competing theories purport to explain the origin of the name that Freeman gave the mansion, which refers to the Casuarina tree, also known as the Australian pine. The first claims that the name commemorates the only tree left standing on the Miami Beach lot after a 1926 hurricane devastated Florida and killed hundreds. If true, Freeman had this lone survivor removed to make way for the mansion. The second theory cites The Casuarina Tree, a collection of W. Somerset Maugham short stories about the struggles of Britons living in colonies in Malaysia and Borneo. It is possible that Freeman, who was born in Cleveland and spent several years in New Jersey before moving to Miami, empathized with Maugham’s characters—although the South Beach of 1930 was a long way from the Borneo of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When Versace acquired Casa Casuarina in 1992, he also purchased an adjoining hotel and demolished it to make room for a two-story wing and an outdoor courtyard with a swimming pool decorated in colorful mosaics. The only thing the courtyard lacks is a Casuarina tree; managing director Reto Gaudenzi was shopping for one in late June.
A Mayflower passenger descendant whose father, Joel, was the first treasurer of Standard Oil Trust, Freeman held democratic, populist views that some found odd in a man of such great wealth. In 1928, Freeman voted for Herbert Hoover but donated $1,000 to his Democratic opponent, Al Smith, because he felt that supporting America’s two-party system was as important as supporting a preferred candidate was.
On many nights, private parties take place in the courtyard. (Click image to enlarge)
Freeman imprinted his Ocean Drive palace with his interests, chief among them an admiration for Christopher Columbus. Set in the lower right of Casa Casuarina’s cream-colored facade is a red brick from the Alcázar de Colón, a mansion that was built for Diego Columbus, Christopher’s son, early in the 16th century in Santo Domingo, the city that would become the capital of the Dominican Republic. Casa Casuarina is modeled after the Alcázar de Colón, which is believed to be among the oldest Spanish buildings in the Western Hemisphere. Columbus imagery also appears within the Miami Beach mansion, on tiles marked with the explorer’s family crest that decorate flights of stairs and some of the Mizner-designed doors in the third-floor room now known as the Davidoff Lounge, named for its corporate sponsor.
A turret at the east end of the courtyard resembles the Tower of Homage, a structure in Santo Domingo where a royal administrator from Spain imprisoned Christopher Columbus in the year 1500 on charges of mismanaging a colony. The Casa Casuarina homage to the Tower of Homage is made from bricks salvaged from the rubble of the Royal Palm Hotel, which Henry Flagler, another Standard Oil millionaire, built in Miami in 1897. The Royal Palm was razed while Casa Casuarina was under construction.
Freeman’s other interests are apparent in the numerous plaques and medallions that decorate the property. The second floor features a particularly intriguing set of medallions inside the aforementioned brick turret. In the center is a plaque featuring a right-facing profile of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, accompanied by the legend “A certain rich man.” These same words begin the biblical parable of the dishonest steward, in which a manager, knowing that his master is about to fire him for cause, summons his master’s debtors and cancels part of their bills. Because Joel Freeman served Rockefeller in the same way that the biblical steward served his master, this might be an instance of the son mocking his father.
The third-floor Davidoff Lounge provides a respite from the revelry, but not from the lightning-like flashes of paparazzi cameras stationed outside on Ocean Drive. (Click image to enlarge)
To Rockefeller’s right is an image of Vladimir Lenin, labeled “Who will not work shall not eat,” and to Rockefeller’s left is Benito Mussolini, whose face-forward visage glowers without comment. Freeman never explicitly explained why he arranged the medallions in this order, but one could assume a political commentary lies in his flanking Rockefeller with Mussolini and Lenin and turning him toward the Russian dictator. The rest of the medallions lining the turret form an eclectic group that includes Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Tolstoy, and pioneering social worker Jane Addams.The estate’s official name always has been Casa Casuarina, but the combination of fate and celebrity has branded it as the Versace mansion. On the morning of July 15, 1997, the 50-year-old Italian designer, returning from a morning stroll to a nearby café, was about to open the front gate when Andrew Cunanan approached. He fired two bullets into Versace and walked away, leaving him fatally wounded on Casa Casuarina’s steps, his keys still dangling from the gate lock. Versace died soon after at a local hospital, but he was not Cunanan’s first victim, only his most prominent. The 28-year-old Cunanan recently had killed four other people, and when he took his own life a week after shooting Versace, he took with him any explanation for his murder spree.
Freeman included curious plaques of historic figures such as Mussolini. (Click image to enlarge)
Although Versace owned Casa Casuarina for only five years, he appeared to cherish his time there. In the early 1990s, Versace wanted a home in Miami Beach but disliked the Art Deco style that prevailed throughout the city then as it does now. Casa Casuarina, a home so flagrantly out of step with its Ocean Drive surroundings that it seems to revel in rebuking Art Deco, immediately won him over. He purchased it in April 1992 for $2.95 million.
Freeman himself had spent only seven years in the house, dying there under more peaceful circumstances in 1937. (Newspaper obituaries say that he died of an unnamed long illness.) Boulton, Freeman’s adopted heir, sold Casa Casuarina to Jacques “Jac” Amsterdam, who converted it into an apartment complex. By the time Versace viewed the building, Casa Casuarina’s impoverished owners had allowed it to deteriorate.
Top: Loftin contributed the Moroccan Room. Bottom: Versace created dramatic spaces. (Click images to enlarge)
Versace spent an additional $32 million refurbishing the property, and also purchased the neighboring Revere Hotel for $3.7 million, razing it and filling the space with a garden, a new wing of the house, and a pool decorated with colorful mosaic work. (Versace ultimately added more than 1 million mosaic tiles to the property.) The head of Medusa, Versace’s design trademark, appeared on wrought iron barriers, the dining room floor, bathroom drawer knobs in what is now the Baroque Suite, shower drains, and dozens of other places throughout the property in various forms.
Today, a row of black metal posts and black-clad security guards protect Casa Casuarina’s front steps from the hordes of curious tourists who approach to ask if it is the Versace mansion. Eight years after the crime, visitors still lay bouquets of flowers where Versace fell.
Peter Loftin’s first encounter with Casa Casuarina came in the mid-1990s, when he watched a documentary on Versace that included the mansion. Marveling over the beauty of the house, Loftin wondered if Versace ever would consider selling it to him. When the mansion went on the market in 2000, a friend suggested that they visit it. Loftin again was taken with Casa Casuarina, but the furnishings did not enchant him—he says they were “a little too much 18th century for his taste—and he declined to purchase them.
Loftin felt that Casa Casuarina had potential as a social club, but he called in hospitality analysts from Ernst & Young to confirm his instincts. “It had to be a social club,” he says. “I had seen how successful Donald Trump had been [with Mar-a-Lago]. I wanted a social club, but with a more hip, international clientele. All I had to do was polish it up a bit, and we’d have a venue here.”The polishing took many forms, but it essentially involved doing what was needed to transform Casa Casuarina into a backdrop for its members. “Sometimes we refer to this place as a theater, or stage,” says managing director Gaudenzi. “The dining room is a stage, and so is the roof, and so is the pool,” he says, explaining that few properties have such an abundance of dramatic spaces. Loftin, Gaudenzi, and interior designers Tom and Katia Bates spent the better part of a year selecting furnishings, fabrics, and decorative objects to set those stages. Occasionally, items simply presented themselves, such as the genuine lion-skin rug that Loftin received as a housewarming gift after he acquired Casa Casuarina. The rug eventually found its place in the sitting room of the Safari Suite, and its maned head, fixed in an eternal roar, now faces Ocean Drive. “We’re still trying to nail him to the floor,” says Gaudenzi of the rug, adding that it will remain in the Safari Suite, though some members might find the animal hide to be in poor taste. “It’s part of Casa Casuarina. Those things are part of the show here. You cannot please everybody. If they don’t like it, we’ll give them another room.”
More difficult than securing the lion was equipping the bedrooms of the 75-year-old mansion with phones, televisions, Internet service, minibars, and other conveniences that guests will expect. “We spent months deciding which model of television would go where,” says Gaudenzi. “It’s important, because [bad placement] can kill a room, and we’re not a business hotel.”
Loftin enjoyed decorating Casa Casuarina and says he is not afraid of leaving his mark on the place. Unlike Freeman, however, who built the original mansion, and Versace, who added a new wing and a pool, Loftin has made no sweeping structural changes. Granted, he has reassigned and reshaped certain rooms to serve Casa Casuarina’s members and guests—the Moroccan Room used to be Versace’s gym—but Loftin’s restraint enables the mansion’s idiosyncratic details to prevail.
Casa Casuarina looks fantastic in both senses of the word. Such a combination of styles and decorative items should lead to aesthetic chaos, yet the mansion tiptoes to the edge of absurd opulence without tumbling over. “I don’t want to change the general work, I want to add to it,” Loftin says. “It’s fun and challenging to find ways to make it more beautiful. If Versace were still alive, he might have made some of the same changes that I have made.”
As he speaks, workmen varnish wooden banisters, paint fresh coats of gilt onto the Medusa heads on the iron grilles that cover the first-floor windows, and finish other projects to ready Casa Casuarina for its October opening, when Loftin can officially welcome his guests. “This house cries out for people,” he says. “It’s unfair for one or two families to live here, because it was made to entertain. It entertains in a way that no other place can.”
Casa Casuarina has 110 members, 10 of which are honorary; no maximum has been set, but managing director Reto Gaudenzi says membership could be capped at or about 300. Prospective members must be recommended by two current members or directly invited to join, and those who are accepted after October 14 will pay $50,000 in entrance fees and $3,500 in annual dues. Members receive access to the club’s three lounges, pool, roof deck, observatory, dining room, and day spa services. They also receive a 20 percent discount on room rates and a 15 percent discount on the rental rate for the entire mansion for a party. (The discount does not apply to the services of the on-site caterer, Barton G.) The social club will be open Wednesday through Sunday at noon, but the 10 suites will be available to guests 365 days a year. Nightly rates range from $1,200 for the 412-square-foot Baroque Suite to $4,000 for the 1,006-square-foot Safari Suite.
Casa Casuarina, 305.672.6604, www.casacasuarina.com