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.”
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.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.
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.