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Dream Houses Of Youth Grow Into The Real Thing

One of Emilio Bonilla's pet projects was the renovation of the Eden Roc Hotel, a grande dame badly in need of a facelift.


June 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

As a child in his native Aibonito, a small mountain town in Puerto Rico, Emilio Bonilla was always indoors drawing houses, even as his parents complained he should be out playing.

His plans were ambitious for his age: he drew buildings with courtyards and made miniature houses with ceramic tiles. When it was time for college, he left the town with the poetic name (bonito means beautiful in Spanish) and moved to San Juan.

Eventually, he joined the firm of Sierra, Cardona, Ferrer and became part of the team that built the Puerto Rico Pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo. He spent two years commuting between Spain and Puerto Rico. ''It was great to be working in Seville with an international team,'' Bonilla says of the project. ''The Puerto Rican group showed everyone how to dance salsa,'' he recalls with glee.

Eleven years ago, he received a job offer from Coral Gables-based Spillis Candela DMJM, one of the largest design firms in the country and, without a moment's hesitation, made the move to Miami.

One assignment he remembers fondly was the remodeling of the Eden Roc, built by the legendary Morris Lapidus. The hotel, a second home to celebrities during Miami Beach's heyday in the '50s, had fallen on hard times by the late '90s.

''I remembered the Eden Roc from a TV show called Surfside 6,'' he says. This assignment had a touch of synchronicity: not only was Morris Lapidus one of Bonilla's favorite architects, but he had been intrigued by the hotel as a youth. Lapidus, then in his 90s, met with him.

'I criticized the things I thought didn't work. I asked him, for instance, why, as you went in, the hotel reception overlooked the beach, and not the main door, and he said, `I don't know what I was thinking,' '' he recalls, laughing.

The Eden Roc renovation sought to restore Lapidus' original design, while cleaning out details that had been added over the years. Out went the turquoise wallpaper and the '70s glass ceiling. The white glossy paint over the lobby's oval columns was removed to reveal the rosewood originals and replicas of the original light fixtures appeared in the mezzanine. The completed restoration earned the approval of Lapidus as well as the Miami Design Preservation League.

''Emilio is one of the most talented and capable architects / interior designers that I know,'' says David Oswald, vice president of architecture at Exclusive Resorts, who worked with Bonilla on that project. ``He is passionate about his work and truly thinks out of the box.''

And yet, after more than a decade in Miami, Bonilla had still not found the ideal home for himself. Then he came across a condo at the Villa Regina on Brickell Avenue. The apartment needed a lot of work and is still a work-in-progress. One of his plans is to build a music room in what was once the dining room, with stained wood built-ins to be filled with his huge collections of books, old LPs and CDs. ''I want this apartment to be my refuge,'' he says.


Name: J. Emilio Bonilla

Company: Spillis Candela DMJM, 800 Douglas Entrance North Tower, Coral Gables; 305-447-3563 or

Personal: Born in Puerto Rico

Education: Environmental Design, School of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico; Architecture, School of Architecture, University of Puerto Rico; Interior Design, San Juan School of Interior Design

Design philosophy: A combination of late '50s and early '60s architecture with the basics of Japanese design.

Inspired by: Nature, music, fashion, a certain pattern or material. In the early years, Marcel Breuer and Morris Lapidus.

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