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MIAMI BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Walking into the opulent, Mediterranean-style mansion once owned by innovative fashion designer Gianni Versace is a step back into the early 1990s when energy and money began pouring into the renaissance of Miami's South Beach.
Past the ivy-covered gates on Ocean Drive, the 1930s mansion is an expression of the designer's personal style and lust for excess that made it and South Beach a magnet for the creative, artistic and jet set.
"It helped create that early essence," said Michael Capponi, a nightclub promoter who threw parties at Versace's villa in its glory days. "It was the defining house of the era."
As lawyers and realtors scramble to prepare the estate for a September 17 auction, they opened its doors to a group of reporters and photographers, offering a rare glimpse inside the 10-bedroom, 23,000-square-foot (2,135-square-metre) mansion.
After Versace was gunned down at the mansion's entrance gate in 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan, telecom magnate Peter Loftin bought the property and turned it into a boutique hotel. Loftin is now facing bankruptcy and has been trying to sell the house for more than a year.
Known as Casa Casuarina, it was initially listed for $125 million. The asking price was recently cut to $75 million, with bids to start at $25 million, according to Fisher Auction Co.
Versace bought the mansion in 1992 for $2.9 million and spent $33 million to create a marble-and-fresco-covered palace, complete with 54-foot (16.5-metre) pool of black marble mozaic tiles inlaid with 24-carat gold. The snake-haired Medusa head, Versace's logo, is on display throughout the house.
His over-the-top decor - as displayed in his former bedroom where a sprawling, double king-sized bed is flanked by paintings of Grecian, nymph-like characters playing lyres under palm trees - came to be emblematic of South Beach's new over-the-top lifestyle.
Before Versace bought the three-story mansion, South Beach, the lower section of Miami Beach, was "pretty much a slum," said Tony Magaldi, a co-owner of the News Cafe on Ocean Drive, where Versace was a regular when he was in town.
Ocean Drive's bright pink and pastel-blue Art Deco hotels, which now exude glamour and luxury, sat in disrepair when Versace arrived.
"He found Miami Beach when he was delayed on the way to the airport on the way to Havana and fell in love with it, no matter how neglected," said Tara Solomon, a South Beach public relations maven and event organizer who wrote a newspaper column "Queen of the Night" in the 1990s.
First developed as a residential resort in the 1920s and 1930s during the height of the Art Deco period of architecture, Miami Beach lost its allure in the '60s and '70s and fell into decay.
Drug dealers and hookers peddled on street corners. South Beach's apartments - today some of the most expensive in Miami - were among the city's cheapest, attracting low-income retirees who sat chain-smoking in deck chairs and cash-strapped Cuban refugees who had landed in Florida in the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
At the time, Lincoln Road, now a wide, pedestrian-only boulevard of tony restaurants and high-end shops, sat deserted.
"Not much had gone on since the 1960s and all of the sudden we had this influx," said Capponi. "When Versace was here it was the most eclectic, eccentric group of people who had ever set foot on Miami Beach."
Many of Versace's parties spilled over into development of a rotating roster of trendy nightclubs. Dozens, with names like Hell, opened and closed, some lasting a few weeks and some a few years. Nightclub heavyweights like Crobar, which has clubs in New York City, Chicago and Buenos Aires, set up outposts.
Stars Sylvester Stallone, Madonna and the designer's sister Donatella Versace became Miami Beach regulars. Famed modeling agencies Ford Models and Elite opened offices on Ocean Drive, and beautiful, long-legged models became a common sight.
Madonna was such a frequent guest that Versace built her a suite where an oval fresco of a pale nude woman with an arm stretching toward a winged Cupid looks down on an inlaid mahogany bed.
While Versace's presence helped launch South Beach's prominence as a cosmopolitan getaway, its popularity as a tourist destination has since exploded, to an extent Versace might not have relished.
Magaldi spoke wistfully about the Ocean Drive of yesteryear when Versace was a regular and tourists were rare.
"I miss it," he said. "It's not the place it was because it came from ashes and now it's built up."
Additional reporting by David Adams; Editing by Kevin Gray, Richard Chang and Jackie Frank