Sunlight floods the white-walls-and-glass space; as you walk in the front entrance, your eyes are drawn to the windows and light at the other end of the room and the promise of a beach beyond. Large, bright abstract art pieces line one wall and other than that, the décor is fairly minimalist. A staircase near the middle of the room leads to a partially open second floor, from which more light floods. It’s not overly bright, but it is sunny – and it’s specifically of a place. Walk into the lobby of the Yankee Clipper and you’re well aware you’re not in one of the top hotels in Topeka or Indianapolis. Granted, you’re also not in the Yankee Clipper.
Oh, you’re in one of the buildings making up the four-building complex that generations of tourists and locals knew as the Yankee Clipper. But names have changed. You are, as any number of signs dotting the place will inform you, now standing in the main lobby of the B Ocean Resort.
The name change does not, however, indicate any greater desire to change what the Yankee Clipper was. Since acquiring the hotel in 2015, parent company B Hotels and Resorts has given it a major makeover – but as much as anything else, that’s been about restoring past grandeur. “Essentially [it’s] bringing it back to its former glory,” says Michael Dutton, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.
Rooms, he says, have been brought up to a four-star standard but also given a beachy, Floridian feel – the parent company doesn’t want hotel rooms that could be mistaken for a chain out by the airport. And save for some paint and touching up, the famous façade has been left alone.
“The upgrading of the property has been more internal,” Dutton says.
The result is a hotel that’s modern, but modern in several ways. There have been updates and refurbishments, but the 2017 modernity has not been permitted to overwhelm the midcentury-modern style that’s been present since the place’s 1956 grand opening. The battle between modern comfort and Mad Men style is, thankfully, not a zero-sum game; there’s room here for functional and fabulous.
“We had depictions of how it was going to come out – and it came out better than how we thought it was going to come out,” Dutton says. “Now it’s all come together – it’s been absolutely amazing.”
It’s a new era for a hotel that for half a century has been one of the city’s most recognized and recognizable hotels.
Not many Fort Lauderdale hotels from the mid-20th century and earlier have been able to outmaneuver the wrecking ball. There’s the Escape Hotel, built by Bob Gill, the same industry legend who built the Yankee Clipper, and now getting new life as part of the ambitious Gale Boutique Hotel and Residences. Nearby there’s the Sea Club Resort – originally called the Jolly Roger and also built by Gill. Going back earlier than the postwar period, there’s Las Olas’ historic Riverside Hotel and earlier still, the historic New River Inn. (You can visit the latter, but not as a paying guest; Fort Lauderdale’s first hotel is now the city’s history museum.) There are smaller midcentury places – the Tranquilo, the Victoria Park Hotel – dotted about. The party’s still going at the Bahia Cabana bar and restaurant.
But for pure Lauderdale heyday beach glamour, it’s tough to beat the hotel with the nautical-inspired point aimed at the public beach.
In 2017, some words seem to exist solely for use as repetitive bludgeoning devices by the public relations industry. A restaurant can’t just have a popular, chef’s-specialty dish, it has to be a “signature dish.” Everything that has existed for more than five minutes has to be an “institution.” And of course, any edifice possessed of the slightest whiff of style or history must surely be “iconic.” But the B Ocean – just for now, among friends and locals, we’ll call it the Yankee Clipper – that place is iconic.
An Odd Piece of Land
The piece of property was in a “v” shape. That’s really all it was. Gill Construction Co. bought the property nestled at the south end of the city’s three-mile public beach, and then the Gills had to figure out what to do with a piece of land that came to a point. The lemonade-out-of-lemons answer from architect Tony Sherman: build a hotel that comes to a point. A hotel on the beach that looks like a ship. Then you just have to give it a nautical name – “Yankee Clipper” has a nice ring to it – and you’re all set.
The hotel opened in 1956, four years before the film Where the Boys Are solidified Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as the Spring Break capital and six years before the New York Yankees made the city their spring training home. Fort Lauderdale was just coming into its own as a place for the postwar middle class to spend some leisure dollars and the Yankee Clipper, where you could get a room by the sea for $8 a night, was at the forefront.
The hotel’s builders had not originally come to Fort Lauderdale for such glamorous work. Gill Construction was Bob Gill and his son, George. They hadn’t started in hotels. Homebuilders from Chicago, they had arrived in Fort Lauderdale not long after the end of the war. They started building houses in the city – and that was a good business to get into at the time. A national housing shortage mixed with home-buying incentives for veterans meant that a golden age for homebuilders was about to start nationwide. Add to that the cheap land that had remained in Fort Lauderdale for several decades after the real estate bust of the 1920s, and the conditions were just right for smart builders of quality homes. The Gills started in southwest Fort Lauderdale before moving to the northwest and then the northeast – largely rural, undeveloped land around what was then a country road and is now Sunrise Boulevard. Eventually they moved to waterfront property on the banks of the New River and in the quickly developing canalside neighborhoods.
According to a later newspaper report, a city building report from the time calculated that in 1950, one in three homes built in Fort Lauderdale was built by Gill Construction. Many of their houses sold in the $6,900-to-$7,500 range, but a prime waterfront home could fetch as much as the heady sum of $30,000.
In 1949, something new caught Bob Gill’s eye – the hotel business. The Escape Hotel, just in from the beach and south of the Bonnet House, made its debut on New Year’s Eve, 1949. It quickly became popular with tourists and locals alike as it was the first hotel by the beach to have a swimming pool. Next came the oceanfront Jolly Roger, which had something else that was new – air conditioning in all the rooms. Then came the Yankee Clipper.
The Clipper had all the sexy, stylish fun of the new Jet Age. Take, for example, the hotel’s Wreck Bar, built to look like a sunken galleon and with a large pool behind the bar where patrons could be entertained by the nightly mermaid show. Tropical cocktails in something that looks like a ship, and women dressed as mermaids swimming beyond the bar. Geez Earl, you don’t get this in Minneapolis.
In the years that followed, Gill would become one of the great driving forces behind Fort Lauderdale’s emergence as a famous tourist destination. He helped convince his friend, Yankees owner Dan Topping Sr., to move baseball’s most famous team to the city for spring training. Yankees stayed at the Yankee Clipper, as did Marilyn Monroe. The story goes that Joe DiMaggio, who had been briefly married to Monroe years earlier, invited Monroe to Fort Lauderdale during spring training. She stayed at the Yankee Clipper, and it was the last time the Yankees star ever saw her before she died.
Glamour ran up and down A1A, and Gill helped drive it along. When it came to celebrities, he spread the wealth between his hotels; when Jayne Mansfield and her husband, former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, came to town, they stayed up the road at the Jolly Roger.
But if Gill understood the appeal of soft ocean breezes, he also understood which way the winds were blowing. In 1964, he made some predictions to a Fort Lauderdale News reporter.
“The number of visitors who come here could easily double in the next few years, particularly if we go to work hard on our summer business,” he said. “Air transportation and the completion of the new cross-country express highways are going to bring more people to South Florida than we’ll know what to do with.
“My guess is that the Fort Lauderdale oceanfront will undergo a drastic change, with more high-rise hotels replacing some of the older low-slung buildings now standing.” To reiterate: Bob Gill said that in 1964.
Where the Bs Are
But before the entire remaking of the Fort Lauderdale tourist market, there were several decades of smooth seas for the Yankee Clipper. In 1966 the hotel joined the Sheraton Hotel Group when Gill became a franchisee with the company; at around that time, the next big Gill hotel was also opening – the Sheraton Yankee Trader. Meanwhile the Yankee Clipper continued to expand, growing over time from the original ship-shaped building to the four-building complex that exists today.
By the time Fort Lauderdale spring break reached its drunken nadir and the city decided to clamp down on open container and other laws in an effort to change things, Gill didn’t necessarily mind. He helped lead the effort to transform the Fort Lauderdale strip into a more family-friendly beach destination. Gill’s daughter Linda also assumed more day-to-day responsibility. And the Yankee Clipper maintained its iconic position. In 1999, Billy Crystal and Robert Di Niro shot scenes for comedy Analyze This in the Wreck Bar.
In 2005, the Gills sold the Yankee Clipper and the Yankee Trader to Starwood Capital Group, a Connecticut-based company that would own them for the next decade. According to reports at the time, the Yankee Clipper was in need of major upgrades, and it was hoped that a major group such as Starwood would be able to make that happen. (In 2009, the Yankee Trader would reopen as a Westin after an extensive refurbishment.)
In 2009, Bob Gill died. “Hotel king was the father of spring break” read the Miami Herald’s front-page headline.The Yankee Clipper, meanwhile, entered an uncertain period of frequent changes. It stayed with Sheraton but dropped “Yankee Clipper” from its name, reopening as the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach in 2010 after a remodel. It split from Sheraton in 2014 and then, later in the year, was bought for $107 million by The Carlyle Group. In 2015, B Hotels and Resorts came onboard, and the remodel that the hotel had been needing for a decade or more was announced.
“It sat in a state of disrepair for a number of years; the former owners hadn’t invested money in it,” Dutton says.
Now, the paint has just dried on the latest refurbishment. It’s been modernized, but it’s still meant to look like a specific place. Like the same stylish beach locale that Joe DiMaggio might have recognized.
Across the main lobby area from the Wreck Bar there’s a new restaurant, The Naked Crab. Rooms feature modern flourishes – 55-inch TVs, Keurig coffeemakers. But there’s also the ocean art. The light, tropical colors. The stuffed-animal sea turtles waiting on every bed. (They’re for sale; the hotel partners with a sea turtle charity.) “We try to bring some element of the destination into the hotel,” Dutton says.
The hotel’s nearly 500 rooms also have different personalities. Different shapes. The suites to the front of the Clipper building – the ones at the prow of the ship that offer panoramic views of the ocean and downtown – they go to the very end of the building, which means they also come to a point. “Doing a historic building, it’s a little different than a cookie cutter,” Dutton says. “There’s a certain amount of quirkiness.”
Dutton, who has worked in hotels around the world and came to Fort Lauderdale from a historic hotel in Baltimore, admits that certain things about the Fort Lauderdale landmark caught him off guard. When you get to a new city, you’re not always expecting mermaids. But hey, the Wreck Bar works.
“It’s a historic establishment,” he says. “You’ll have 50 to 100 people standing outside on a Friday or Saturday night waiting to get into the mermaid show. It’s a draw. It’s got an infamy about it. You’ve got the Elbo Room and the Wreck Bar as the two famous bars in Fort Lauderdale.” (This spring, a new mermaid show that’s “more of a grownup show” makes its Wreck Bar debut. Dutton promises it will be classy.)
Fort Lauderdale reinvents, and Bob Gill’s prescient, more-than-50-year-old predictions about local tourism have come true. But on a corner of Fort Lauderdale beach where the boys were, where Joe last saw Marilyn – a Fort Lauderdale icon endures.