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South Beach Art Deco Tours

The Story Behind the Style
September 14, 2007 By Doug in Miami: Local News  | 17 Comments

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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. 

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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

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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…

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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

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Third on the list was the Cardozo Hotel (1300 Ocean Drive), built in 1939 and designed by architect Henry Hohauser.  Here we learn that while many of the local hotels were named after establishments in New York and daughters of the designers, the Cardozo Hotel got its name from Benjamin Cardozo, one of the first Jewish jurors appointed to the US Supreme Court.  The Cardozo was the site of the first Deco weekend, and housed the original offices of Barbara Capitman.  The architecture here is very rounded, like the fender of an old Studebaker, and features Keystone trim, which, while dyed and made to look like marble, is actually a porous limestone.

The Winterhaven Hotel

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The fourth jewel in the crown of Ocean Drive, my ipod informed me, was the Winterhaven Hotel (1400 Ocean Drive), designed in 1939 by architect Albert Anis (1889-1964), one of a group of American architects who was pivotal in the formation of the South Beach cityscape of today.  While others were ornate in their approach, austerity was Anis’ middle name, evident in the Winterhaven, along with his other creations, the Leslie, the Abbey, and the Temple Emanuel.

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

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The fifth stop on the tour was waiting just around the corner at Collins and 14th St.: the Commodore Hotel (Southwest corner).  Built in 1936 and designed by Henry Hohauser, it was made from inexpensive materials, featuring concrete block facades.  This Art Deco creation is rich in ornamentals specific to the period: eyebrows, curved corners, and four round emblems, called “bosses” descending along the side, which provided an “odd charm” to the place, but also fodder for the anti-preservationists, who claimed that “eyesores” like this weren’t worth preserving.

Miami Beach Post Office

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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

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Number 7 on the list: the Old City Hall (1130 Washington Ave.).  After the 1926 hurricane, real estate developer Carl Fisher (for whom Fisher Island was named) reconstructed the City Hall as a way of showing that Miami Beach would come back.  It was constructed in a Mediterranean Neo-Classical design, with four urns placed in the topmost balcony, in defiance of future hurricanes.  They’re still there, apparently unmoved by any successive storms, which, unfortunately, is more than I can say for the building beneath.  It appears to be undergoing some intense renovations, with no end in sight.  Likewise, the optimistic Mr. Fisher lost his fortunes after the stock market crash in 1929, and finished off his days living in a small cottage in Miami Beach, where he supported himself by doing odd jobs for friends.  Quite an unassuming end for the man who’d been pivotal in the creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and promoter of the 1920s Florida Land Boom, at which time his net worth had been near $100 million!  By the 70’s this City Hall was replaced by a larger building, located at 1700 Convention Center Drive.

Washington Storage Building - Wolfsonian Museum

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Next up, at number 8, is the Washington Storage Building, at 1001 Washington.  The ipod recording apparently predates this building’s transformation in 1997 into the Wolfsonian Museum, a collection of late 19th to mid-20th century decorative and propaganda arts, run by Florida International University.  Prior to its use in the early 90’s as a private collection for the founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., it served as a warehouse for the citizens of Miami Beach.  Wealthy northerners could safely store their valuables in this secure Mediterranean Revival structure, during their extended visits to this then-untamed jungle.

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At number 9, we’re led to the corner of 9th and Washington and told to gaze to toward the southwest.  Rising high in the distance with a long-forsaken clock dial on its tower is the Blackstone Hotel, one block away on 8th St., once a popular lodging spot for Jewish and African American visitors.  It was here that George Gershwin was said to have composed part of the musical Porgy & Bess.  When the early developers envisioned Miami as a playground for the wealthy, the narrative laments, it was one in which only the non-Jewish rich were allowed to participate.  Most properties north of 12th Street were designated as “gentiles only”, while in South beach—especially the area below 5th St—welcomed tourists, residents and property owners who were Jewish.  These people played a significant role in the development of South Beach as we know it today, which is, the narrator explains, “a neighborhood that knows no misfits.”

Sherbrooke Hotel

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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.

Tiffany Hotel

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The Tiffany Hotel, one block south at 801 Collins, came in at number 11 on the list. A child of 1939, it flaunted eyebrows, rounded corners and streamlined design.  Designed by architect Al Murray Dixon, the Tiffany is less whimsical and more Buck Rogers.  With its dramatic spire on top, it looked like a prop from an old sci-fi serial, a space vessel, ready to take flight.  These spired buildings, once common on Collins, are presently all but extinct.

Park Central Hotel

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The 12th stop on the journey took me back to Ocean Drive, where I found myself standing across the street at the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Drive).  Known as the blue jewel of Ocean Drive, the Park Central, built in 1937, is said by many to have been Hohauser’s greatest contribution.  It features 3 octagonal portholes above the door, bosses, horizontal striping (instead of eyebrows) and vibrant coloring: periwinkle blue, with sea green trim, mimicking the natural world surrounding it.  It was here where I learned of Leonard Horowitz and his color palette: during his tenure on the MDPL, Mr. Horowitz selected 36 pastel colors, which were required by city ordinance to appear on all the local buildings.

Majestic Hotel

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One block north, near the corner of 7th and Ocean, sat the Majestic Hotel (700 Ocean), which, with ropes and pulleys draped over the front, appeared to be in the midst of a face-lift.  Designed in 1940, this Albert Anis creation abandoned horizontal linkage and eyebrows in favor of a mimicry of the pre-deco Vienna Succession style, with rectolinear windows and arched cornices, seemingly straight out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Despite this digression, it maintains a style which looks decidedly Deco.

Waldorf Towers Hotel

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The Waldorf Towers Hotel marks the culmination of the tour, at number 14, recognizable by its signature watchtower, presiding over its location at 860 Ocean Drive.  This feature was actually condemned at one point and taken down, only to be later replaced.  Its colorful facade, a mix of pink and yellow and cream, drew its inspiration from the palette of Leonard Horowitz, who envisioned South Beach as an adult playground, which, “unlike the manufactured environments of places like Disneyworld and Epcot, is a real neighorhood, a setting which, while possessing the convenience of the 80’s, would retain the rich atmosphere of the 30’s.”  Unfortunately, Leonard Horowitz didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his efforts: he died in 1989.

The tour ended by recounting Capitman’s passing in 1990, and a Miami Herald editorial of the time, which, remembering her, proclaimed:

“She had wisdom and tenacity; she imagined and dreamed; she clung and triumphed.  The sadness of her passing is offset by the life and Art Deco beauty that now exists because of and in tribute to her vision.”

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.

Related Categories: Miami: Local News,

Douglas Eames is a freelance writer, homespun philosopher and budget bon vivant who divides his time between Southern California and South Beach.

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17 Comments on

"South Beach Art Deco Tours"

David C. Adams, AIA says:

I have a client who has referenced “Ponte Viedra Club” 1960"s Post Art Deco, Miami? Spelling may be wrong. I can’t find anything on it. Do you have knowledge of it or know where I might look?? I am an architect. Thanks

Posted on 10/17/2007 at 12:15 PM

Gus says:

Hi, David. Do you have an address for the building, or an approximate location?

There is a Ponte Vedra Inn & Club located at 200 Ponte Vedra Boulevard in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082. Their phone number is (904) 285-1111…Could this be the place your client is referencing?

Posted on 10/17/2007 at 12:32 PM

Shepard Vineburg, A.S.I.D. says:

Hello,

I just returned from a quick trip to South Beach, where I was attending the Miami Modernism & Original M.B. Antiques Shows this past weekend.  I was totally smitten by all the wonderful vintage Art Deco architecture of the buildings & hotels! I wondered if you might let me know any way that I might contact such building owners/managers to introduce myself & show them my design portfolio for any future upcoming renovations or refurbishing projects?  I’d LOVE to make South Beach even BETTER than it already is today; and I feel that I have something valuable to offer the community. I specialize in Art Deco interiors, furnishings and architecture and have worked with the best in the industry. Among many other past projects & places, my work can be seen throughout the lobby of The Four Seasons Hotel, New York City (located on E.57th Street ~ architecture by I.M. Pei).  I hope that I’ll hear back from you.  Meanwhile, I thank you in advance for your time.

With kind regards,

Shepard Vineburg, A.S.I.D.
Professional Member:
American Society of Interior Designers
21356 1/2 Rambla Vista
Malibu, CA 90265
(310) 456-2881 (o)
(310) 936-2211 (c)
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Posted on 02/05/2008 at 2:37 PM

Doug says:

Hi Shepard,

I’d suggest contacting the Miami Design Preservation league at 305-672-2014.  You can also email them at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  Good luck!

Posted on 02/05/2008 at 3:28 PM

Esther Rubin says:

I am trying to find info about Ester Avery, who was the architect who designed my home in 1928. I can’t find anything about her. In Miami Beach city Hall they told me that she was an important architect. Any idea how I should go about researching her?
Thanks,

Esther Rubin

Posted on 05/05/2009 at 2:16 PM

Doug says:

Hi Esther, I don’t see her mentioned on Google, so your safest bet would be to visit the Art Deco Center and check with them. Good luck!

Posted on 05/05/2009 at 2:24 PM

Darice Langham says:

I am in the process of opening an entertainment venue in Pensacola Florida. We have a great Art Deco building (one that has a personality of its own). We recently submitted our design concept to the Architectual Review Board and were extremely disappointed when it was shot down very quickly. They simply do not understand the premise of art deco, it seems.  We need help…from an expert. We have already put several hundred thousand dollars into this project, so we do have some budget constraints, but this building deserves SO MUCH MORE than the ARB is willing to agree to…so sad. Does anyone know of any expert on Art Deco who may be willing to assist for reasonable compensation? Our city has a facade grant program that we were excited to take advantage of, but it’s 1 shot for the life of the building! If we can’t make it spectacular, we hate to waste it on something ordinary.  Please let us know if you have any thoughts.  Thank you so much!
Respectufully,
Darice

Posted on 05/26/2009 at 8:19 PM

Doug says:

Hi Darice, I sympathize with your plight.  Have you tried contacting the Art Deco Center in South Beach? Their number is (305) 531-3484.  Their offices are temporarily relocated due to some renovations taking place at their permanent location in the Lifeguard headquarters in Lummus Park.  Phones are often manned by volunteers, so make sure you talk to a higher up.  If that doesn’t work, try contacting the Miami Beach City Hall at (305) 604-2489.

I wonder if Pensacola has a historic commission?

Posted on 05/26/2009 at 8:31 PM

Darice says:

Thank you, for the quick reply. Pensacola does have a historic society…the downfall is that the chairman is the same chairman that nixed our plans with the ARB. He has been sitting in the same chairs for decades (if you know what I mean). This unfortunately makes it difficult for others to feel they can voice an opposing opinion and it prevents our city from progressing as it should. I will see what sort of assistance your resources can provide. The info is greatly appreciated. Cross your fingers for us!

Posted on 05/26/2009 at 8:46 PM

valeria says:

hi! any tour to NYC from miami? we´re 2 peolple and 1 chld.  thank you

Posted on 04/23/2010 at 10:33 AM

Don Hebert says:

Some time back Esther Rubin posted a question about architect Ester Avery who designed her home.  I am in the midst of research on a historic theatre project.  That theatre was designed by Lester Avery of Miami/ Miami Beach.  Avery did a number of homes in the Clearwater Florida area as well.  Information to date on him is sketchy, but according to one source he was a protege of F.L. Wright.  Hope it helps.

Posted on 12/28/2010 at 9:11 PM

Irene Loves Miami says:

I enjoyed reading about the Art Deco Tour. I took the Mimo tour in North Beach today and it was great! (comes out once a month but is not advertised at the Miami Design Pres League’s Website I don’t think). Anyhow, I am looking to find a tour of Miami Beach given by them or similar people (from an historical point of view I mean) but in Spanish for some visitors that are coming soon. I cannot find any of the cultural tours in Spanish… do you think if there is anything like that offered and where? I hop you can you help us! Thank you so much in advance!

Posted on 02/05/2011 at 5:41 PM

Doug says:

Hi, did you check with the Art Deco Preservation League? The self-guided tour comes with a headset, and they may have a version in Spanish.  Couldn’t hurt to call them.  Other than that, I’m not sure who to suggest.  Maybe a chamber of commerce…

Posted on 02/05/2011 at 6:30 PM

Irene Loves Miami says:

Doug, you are the best, thank you for the very fast answer. And you are right! maybe a self guided one can work as well, I didn’t think of that possibility and that it could be in other languages. I haven’t call them yet but I will, who knows, they may offer it and not have posted it, right? MUCHAS GRACIAS!

Posted on 02/05/2011 at 6:35 PM

Doug says:

Oh, sure! Hope it helps! They should offer something in Spanish, since it’s so commonly spoken in Miami!

Posted on 02/05/2011 at 6:37 PM

Simon says:

G’Day from Sydney Australia! Found your interesting site on Google. Wish I was closer to do the tour! I was searching for information on the leafy mural in the father’s apartment in the movie, “The Birdcage”. Any ideas? Cheers Simon

Posted on 02/17/2012 at 3:55 PM

Belinda McCaryhy says:

I am also very curious who did the leaf rainforest mural in the birdcage movie, I would love to commission someone to replicate it but have been unable to find any information on artist or if there is a name of the work. Any help is appreciated.

Posted on 02/20/2015 at 1:00 AM

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