South Beach Art Deco Tours
The Story Behind the Style
They pose along the streets of South Beach, colorful and curvaceous machinations of pastel stucco and neon, reminders of a by-gone era of escapism and hedonistic delights. Resembling cruise liners and Flash Gordon rocket ships, the Art Deco buildings here project a sense of playfulness and frivolity. Though the art form was born at the 1925 World’s Fair in Paris, a fusion of Art Nouveau and early twentieth century industrial modernism, it is in Miami Beach where it seems most at home: portholes, rounded walls, and steely accents conjure images of carefree vacations on the high seas, while the colors appear chosen from a palette of turquoise water and island sunsets. It is fitting, then, that South Beach should be home to the largest collection of Deco architecture in the world, and perhaps equally fitting that it should be preserved in its original state, a testament to the whimsical inspiration that simple pleasures can bring.
It was with this thought in mind that Barbara Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) in 1976, working with designers Leonard Horowitz and Lillian Barber to establish this section as a historic district.
Though she passed away in 1990 at the age of 69, her legacy continues today, and can be enjoyed on one of the walking tours the League currently offers (see: pictures).
These expeditions may be taken guided or solo. The guided versions are offered Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends at 10:30 am, and 6:30 pm on Thursdays. The prices are $20 for adults, $15 for seniors and students, and free for members of the Preservation League. If you prefer to explore these sites at your own pace, you can do so anytime throughout the day (until 4 pm) by renting one of their ipods for $15 per set. I opted for the ipod tour and spent about two hours learning the fascinating stories behind the neighborhood I now called home (see: map).
Taking the tour
After picking up my ipod from the Art Deco Tour headquarters at 1001 Ocean Drive, I headed north along the sunny sidewalks as I sought out the first stop of the journey. Jazzy thirties music accompanied the narrative, which began by explaining how Deco came to be on South Beach.
Apparently, the hurricane of 1926 leveled the entire town, and soon afterwards, a mad rush ensued to rebuild this burgeoning piece of real estate. Like many of the citizens themselves, the facades were constructed more elaborately than what lay beneath. These opulent edifices were built on the fly, often from concrete blocks, belying the flashiness of their exteriors. Years later, those opposed to the idea of designating South Beach as a historic district would cite the cheapness of the construction of these relics as an excuse for dismissing their historic value.
As the depression ensued, these buildings continued to pop up, largely funded by the Yankee dollar and organized crime. Indeed, South Beach was a refuge for opposing syndicates, a free zone for the turf wars that would blemish other cities, like Chicago.
The Amsterdam Palace
The first stop along the journey was the “Amsterdam Palace”, located just north of 11th St, at 1114 Ocean Drive. I kept looking for a Dutch castle, not realizing at first that the property in question was Versace’s own Casa Casuarina. For some reason, the narrative declined to mention Versace by name, referring to him only as a certain “Italian fashion designer.” Likewise, any reference to his untimely demise on the front steps at the hand of serial killer Andrew Cunanan was also absent. Instead, I learned that the present site had formerly been a dilapidated apartment building. The Preservation League, initially enthused by Versace’s purchase and renovation of the building in 1992, was quickly disappointed when the fashion designer announced that he intended to demolish the neighboring Revere Hotel in order to construct a swimming pool and a garage. Aside from its infamous associations with Versace’s murder, this building also stands out as evidence that South Beach’s landscape isn’t limited to Deco creations: Mediterranean Revival thrives here as well, a reminder of an earlier period no less abundant in epicurean appeal.
The MDPL sued Versace, eventually agreeing to settle the matter out of court, with the stipulated compromise that the city would enact more stringent laws protecting other Art Deco structures in the surrounding area. Thus, one building was sacrificed so that 200 or so others might be protected. In my twisted mind, I wondered if Cunanan had secretly been an MDPL member…
The Carlyle and The Leslie Hotels
The second stop of the tour took us to a spot overlooking the Leslie and Carlyle Hotels, at 1244 and 1250 Ocean Drive, respectively. Though close in proximity, these hotels were designed by different architects. Both exemplify typical Art Deco design, featuring horizontal bonding, windows in bands, eyebrows (concrete overhangs) above the windows, and strong verticals in front. Whereas the Leslie was more functional and basic, the Carlyle was more rounded and “exuberant”, with streamlining used to convey a sense of speed, “sweeping” eyebrows, and the rule of 3: three strong vertical elements in front, which wrap around the building like ribbons. Though the recording doesn’t inform you of this fact—I suspect it may have been recorded in the early 90’s—you might be interested in knowing that the 1996 Robin Williams/Nathan Lane movie “The Birdcage” was filmed at the Carlyle.
The Cardozo Hotel
The Winterhaven Hotel
By this time, the recording continued, labor unions had emerged, securing higher wages for the working classes, who were able to escape the grey work-a-day world of the Northeast to take Florida vacations. This development allowed these hotels to flourish, also allowing small business owners to migrate south and start their own accommodations in South Miami Beach.
The Commodore Hotel
Miami Beach Post Office
My virtual guide then instructed me to proceed along Fourteenth Street, crossing Washington. From there, I was told to take a left and stop at 13th. Before me now was a building with which I’d already garnered a certain familiarity: the Post Office (Washington and 13th St.). This building was manufactured in a “stripped classic” design, in a style known as Depression Moderne. By 1977, it had seen better days, and the MDPL petitioned the federal government to refurbish it. That they did, and what we have today is perhaps one of the most striking of its kind.
Inside, muralist Charles Hardman, with funding from the WPA, created an elaborate painting of Ponce de Leon’s invasion of Florida. Overhead, the ceiling mural features a radiant sun, ablaze in a forest green sky.
Old City Hall
Washington Storage Building - Wolfsonian Museum
Crossing 9th Street, I then proceeded to the southwest corner of Collins Avenue, where I was presented with a study in contrasts: the Coral Rock House (900 Collins Avenue) and the Sherbrooke Hotel (facing it at 901 Collins). Sadly, I observed that the Coral Rock House, originally built in 1915 and once the home of Avery Smith, operator of the first ferry service between Miami and Miami Beach, was all but destroyed. The back and sides had been completely demolished, leaving only the front wall facing Collins Avenue. The workers explained to me that while the coral facade in front would be preserved, the rest of the property was being cleared to make way for a condo and shopping complex.
The site of this historic building in tatters was a painful reminder that the Preservation League’s powers were not all-encompassing. The narrator, oblivious to these recent developments in his distant 90’s world, cheerfully explained that the Coral Rock House’s construction was typical of buildings from the 19th century, while the Sherbrooke across the street, built in 1947, was the poster child of Nautical Deco. Indeed, with its portholes and silver railings, it looked like it was about to set sail.
Park Central Hotel
Waldorf Towers Hotel
The tour ended by recounting Capitman’s passing in 1990, and a Miami Herald editorial of the time, which, remembering her, proclaimed:
As a clarinet played a lively version of Moon Over Miami, I continued along Ocean Drive to return my ipod at the Art Deco headquarters, sensing a newfound connection with my new hometown, surprised to learn that my own impressions of its appeal had also been the vision of its creators.
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