By: Seth H. Bramson
Before the skyline was dotted with iconic Art Deco buildings and luxury high-rise condos towered over the sand, Miami Beach was famous for it's Roman pools and bathing casinos.
While it is possible that there may have been secret gambling rooms, the Miami Beach casinos were bathing, rather than gambling casinos. Miami Beach’s casinos were the city’s first cabana clubs, as visitors could also rent cabanas for a day, a week or the season, giving them and their families the equivalent of a private room.
Patrons went to the bathing casinos to enjoy a day in the surf or to swim in the pool. Upon entering, guests would proceed to the lobby desk and rent a locker, wool bathing suit and a towel.
There were a total of five bathing casinos on Miami Beach, and ironically none of them — except, possibly, the Roman Pools — had any form of casino gaming.
Roman Pools/Everglades Cabana Club
The most famous of the five bathing casinos, the Everglades Cabana Club, later named the Roman Pools, was built by Collins and Pancoast. Located on the block between 22nd and 23rd Streets and Collins Avenue, the club was situated just south of the Roney Plaza. It originally started as the Miami Beach Casino, but within a short time the name changed to Fisher’s St. Johns Casino with Carl Fisher as proprietor. By 1926, the name was changed again to Roman Pools. Then sometime in the late-1940s, it was renamed Everglades Cabana Club.
By the time the club was renamed Roman Pools, it had become a major entertainment venue — with show rooms, night clubs, fine dining, dancing, a coffee shop and store fronts. The club attracted well-heeled patrons from both Miami Beach and the Roney Plaza, where the first Burdine’s store outside of Miami proper was located during the winter tourist season. Also located in the building, Murray Franklin’s, a fine dining emporium and night club, hosted entertainment acts like comedian Don Rickles. The club offered swimming and diving lessons by a well-known aquatics instructor named Whitey. Among the many beneficiaries of Whitey’s expertise, included long-time Miami Beach resident and now city commissioner, Joy Malakoff, who recalls her days as a child at the club with great fondness.
A large and ornate building, the structure was a true Miami Beach landmark, due to the multi-story windmill that stood at the east end of the swimming pool. Surviving several hurricanes, the windmill lasted until the building’s demolition in the early-1960s, following a fire. Today the site is home to the W South Beach.
Ocean Beach Casino/Smith’s Casino
Ocean Beach Casino, later called Smith’s Casino, was owned by Avery Smith and James C. Warr. The club was located just north of Biscayne Street and the pier on the ocean. It would eventually become known as the best dining locale on the water, largely due to a dynamic husband and wife duo: Joe and Jennie Wise. Originally from New York, Joe cooked and Jennie waited tables, drawing quite the vibrant crowd.
As the story goes, in 1918, Joe took off his apron, walked west on Biscayne Street with Jennie at his side, and bought a small house just east of Washington Avenue on the corner of Collins Court and Biscayne Street. It was there, in 1918, that he opened infamous Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant, touting “Shore Dinners a Specialty.
Located between Second and Third Streets, Dan Hardie, whom later became the Dade County Sheriff, built Hardie’s Casino. Although the building, which was quite large for the time, appeared to be structurally sound, the September 1926 hurricane devastated the club. While not much is known about the establishment, clues can be gleaned from vintage photographs. Before the storm, photographs were displayed in the windows on the second floor, suggesting that the club was also used as some kind of lodging facility, but no record of room rentals has ever been found. However, it is known that Hardie’s Casino operated a restaurant.
Located north of Hardie’s, at Fifth Street and the Ocean, Cook’s Casino was similar to the others, but smaller. Early photographs of Cook’s show a more modest version. It appears that the club had some sort of a restaurant. Additionally, the club sold sundries, sun tan oils, sunglasses, bathing suits and local souvenir-type tchotchkes. Cook’s continued to operate until sometime in the late 1950s.
North Beach Casino
The furthest north of the Miami Beach bathing casinos, the North Beach Casino was located at 72nd Street and Collins Avenue. There are few images known to exist of the establishment and the exact dates of it’s operation are not known. The club operated a series of cabanas and a small snack bar. It appears that it was closed by the late 1950s.
For more information about the history of bathing casinos, read Miami Beach in Arcadia’s Images of America series and in Sunshine, Stone Crabs and Cheesecake: The Story of Miami Beach, published by The History Press, of Charleston and authored by Seth H. Bramson.
Seth H. Bramson, the official City Historian for the City of Miami Beach, has been a resident of Miami for 68 years, Mr. Bramson has published a number of books about the history of South Florida. Selected from his personal archives, the above vintage photo reminds us of the days gone by.
For more info about Miami Beach's centennial celebration, visit MiamiBeach100.com.
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