Opened in 1953, the Vagabond Motel was designed by the New York and Miami–based architect, B. Robert Swartburg, as a highlight of Biscayne Boulevard, the midcentury middle-class response to the luxury of high-rise hotels in Miami Beach.
The Vagabond Motel is organized around a central drop off and small parking area to the west along the thoroughfare, Biscayne Boulevard, and a rectangular swimming pool nestled closer to the surrounding rooms to the east. The drop-off and parking area are buffered from the pool by a newly added raised open-air bar that stretches north/south and replaced the historic shuffleboard court. The bar is buffered from the parking area by plant material and open to the pool and rooms beyond. Before the bar was added, a low undulating wall covered with foliage separated the cars from the guest rooms.
Motel guests now enter the building through the reception area marked by an asymmetrical wall clad in irregularly sized rectangular brown stone tiles. Similar brown stone cladding was used, for example, in Swartburg’s 1948 apartment building at 6881 Bay Drive. The signature architectural details of the Vagabond Motel, however, include brightly colored pylons in the form of angled trusses that support the historic sign, the awning over what is now the entrance, and the elegant plane of the porte-cochere that finishes in a gentle upward turn over the historic entrance to the motel office, now converted into a restaurant.
Rooms in the two-story motel are reached by catwalks that wrap around the interior courtyard. Stairs start on the ground floor and extend upwards, accentuating a central flat archway that features rectangular cut-outs on either side of a raised-frame opening and the name of the motel across the top. Light V-shaped steel members support the catwalks and reference the light V-shaped trusses at the entrance. Today, the catwalks have heavy rectilinear balustrades that replace, and bring up to code, the original light wire handrails along the catwalks.
At the time of the Vagabond’s completion, Swartburg had recently designed the celebrated Delano Hotel (1947). Very little is known about Swartburg, except that he began his career at age 9 as an office boy in an architecture firm and was later educated at Columbia University, the American Academy in Rome, and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After his education, he worked in New York City until 1925, when he went to Miami for three years. During the Great Depression he designed modest, single-family houses in addition to large-scale New Deal housing projects such as Garden Bay Manor in Queens. In 1944, Swartburg returned to Miami until his death in 1975 at the age of 80. In Miami, he was among a significant group of architects who designed the main buildings that defined Miami’s midcentury, modern city. His most prominent projects were the Apartment Building at 818 Pennsylvania Avenue (1946), Delano Hotel (1947), The Marseilles Hotel (1948), the apartments at 6881 Bay Drive (1948) and 960 Bay Drive (1951), the first Miami Beach Convention Center (1957), and the repurposing Russell Pancoast’s John Collins Memorial Library into the Bass Museum of Art (1962).
Nepomechie, Marilys. Building Paradise: An Architectural Guide to the Magic City.Miami, FL: AIA Miami, 2010.