Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 26, 2021
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Florida Deco

South Beach has it all -- beautiful people, perfect sand, and believe it or not, some of the world's most magnificent architecture

If you're like most people, you probably don't associate the word "art" with Miami Beach. It's not hard to see why -- after all, that part of the world is best known for its simmering beaches and brilliant sunshine. It's also known for, well, the opposite of art, quite frankly. Blank-faced monotonous strip malls, tacky plastic souvenirs (my fave -- a transparent lucite shell-filled toilet seat!), indifferent fast food, nightmarishly ugly concrete condo complexes for the blue-haired set. And so on -- anyway, you get the picture.

But the fact is that, thanks to a few farsighted people -- and to an extraordinarily fruitful boom during one of the 20th century's most exciting design periods -- there's actually a staggering kind of art in Miami Beach. It's been somewhat erroneously called "art deco" in this region, but by any other name, South Beach's unique architectural landscape is sweet to the eye.

If you remember the '80s, then you probably caught a glimpse of the area's pastel fantasies on Miami Vice, the highly stylized TV show that put a kind of dubious glamour back into police departments' sleaziest department. While the show may seem laughably dated today, the fact is that it was partially thanks to its widespread popularity that South Beach enjoyed the revitalization which continues to this day.

Miami Beach today is still very much a child of its original, drastically different parents. The part of the strip many of us recognize best, the "concrete highrises" you've seen in a myriad of movies, are north: That's where you'll find the condo retirement complexes and somewhat mind-numbing malls. South Beach, on the other hand, is the product of the Lummus brothers, two unusual entrepreneurs who applied a breathtaking long-range vision to this wonderful expanse of sun and beach by creating Lummus Park, a beautiful three-quarter-mile-long stretch of dunes and trees next to the ocean. By deeding it to the city for all time in 1915, they eliminated the possibility of residential or commercial structures obscuring both the sight of the water and the lovely liquid sunlight. (In fact, the deed was so ironclad that when one of the Lummus brothers had a change of heart later and tried to apply for a building permit, he was turned down!) This in turn has made the area a popular hangout for both locals and visitors, unlike the more "exclusive" properties of the north beach where the only good views are those enjoyed by residents in their great grey towers.

Until the end of the last century, Miami Beach was essentially a small sandbar off the coast, covered in impenetrable tropical forest and treacherous swamps, bristling with thousands of rats and even more mosquitoes. Several attempts were made in the early 1900s to raze and cultivate the land, but the rodent problem proved too pervasive. In the end, it would take the Lummus brothers and one other tycoon, Carl Fisher, to make the "beach" fit for human habitation. While the brothers focussed on the southern part of the sandbar, Fisher, who'd become a millionaire by the age of 23, had grandiose plans for the north. He allied himself with the Lummus brothers to develop the land; together they cut down the stubborn underbrush, cleared the jungle, killed rattlesnakes and imported cats by the bagful to deal with the rats. (It worked -- and their feline descendants still roam the backways of South Beach.) Fisher, who had made his fortune in cars, built the Indianapolis Speedway and was responsible for the first US transcontinental highway, had a much less rustic vision than the Lummuses for what he hoped would become the "American Riviera." Their differences in approach and attitude created the two distinct parts of Miami Beach you see today.

While Fisher chose to develop "big," the Lummuses opted for a more intimate "cottage" kind of approach, paving the way for the exquisite small hotels and apartments of the '30s which are now referred to as masterpieces of "art deco" architecture.


There's virtually nowhere in the world except South Beach where you'll find a very special kind of architecture known as "tropical deco" but which is actually a variation on streamline moderne, an offshoot of the same movement that spawned art deco and Bauhaus. Art deco proper refers to the French term "arts décoratifs" and stems back to the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes which was held in Paris in 1925, although the term itself would only be coined in the '60s. The term applies to all decorative aspects of life -- furniture, appliances, typography, graphics, jewellery and fashion, and while principles apply to architecture, it's not an architectural school as such. Streamline moderne, on the other hand, is the love child of fanciful art deco and the cleaner, more practical industrial design. Its continued popularity may well be due to the fact that the artists who originally created the style are still the ones who receive the most attention in today's popular culture: advertising illustrators, graphic designers, poster artists, window display artists and set designers. "Streamlining" per se, with its fluid lines suggesting the aerodynamic motion of airplanes, cars and ships, was considered to be futuristic at the time, a fact which is reflected in the Flash Gordon-like finials which grace the roofs of many South Beach buildings and which have a kind of Jetsons science-fiction quality. According to Laura Cerwinske, author of "Tropical Deco: The Architecture and Design of Old Miami Beach," "streamlining represented economy, efficiency, aerodynamic speed... [symbolizing] progress in the shape of a better future to a Depression-weary society which was ready to 'get things moving again.'"

South Beach's signature art deco architecture took shape as early as 1930 and continued as late as 1950, although the majority of classic Tropical deco structures were built between 1934 and 1941. The use of tropical motifs and colours was no accident -- it was a reflection of the surrounding landscape, which also explains why they seem to "fit right in" while the -- forgive us -- hideous highrises of the northern beach look like they were beamed in from another setting altogether. Tropical deco was both exotic and practical, dreamlike and streamlined, thanks to a unique marriage of pragmatic textures and lines with romantic hues and accents. These structures, the hotels in particular, were erected during the height of the Depression; in sharp contrast to the utilitarian construction that was going on elsewhere in America, these hotels were designed to lift the era's burden of gloom. This was accomplished partly through the use of nautical embellishments, such as porthole windows and deck-like balconies, which suggested romantic escapes on the high seas.

Foremost among the handful of leading architects responsible for the style were L. Murray Dixon and Henry Hohauser. They were both outrageously prolific; Dixon alone was responsible for 42 hotels, 87 apartment buildings, 220 homes, 33 stores, two full housing developments, 16 various buildings and 31 renovations -- 431 projects in all, and all within a few years. Even more staggering is the fact that he, like other architects of the era, would design not only the building itself but also every important decorative feature, including the bas reliefs, floors, light fixtures, ornamental doors and even the furniture. Hohauser, for his part, produced a little less but his work is generally considered superior in that most of his buildings are actually masterpieces of design. These two remarkable men, along with their colleagues, were in a unique position. All of them were kept extremely busy, so there was little room for standard professional rivalry. Because of this, they "cooperated," according to Dixon's son, "just like members of a band," creating bits of visual "melodies" which they passed around to each other and played with. The end result was a surprising unity of styles and motifs despite the fact that each architect offered a unique interpretation; it's this unity which gives South Beach tropical deco such a cohesive look. These visual riffs included cantilevered concrete sunshades, or streamlined "eyebrows," which are such an important part of the style's signature look, as well as mirror-image abstract designs on facades, flawless symmetry, portholes, wave patterns and fountain imagery, to name a few.

Deco hotels and apartments went up in Miami Beach at the rate of about 100 per year until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The advent of World War II saw an end to the explosion of deco architecture on Miami Beach, and the hotels were commandeered by the army to house soldiers who were part of the Air Corps training camp that the island had become.

The materials used to create the deco hotels were somewhat different than the norm at the time -- and not just because they weren't terribly costly. At the time that architects like Dixon and Hohauser were thinking up new ideas for hotels and apartments, construction materials were still fairly inexpensive. It is a testament to their skill that their creations never came across looking shoddy, but are instead classic, elegant and oddly timeless.

The use of terrazzo for the floors is a good example of practical Depression thinking. Marble was the material of choice at the time, but these builders used chips of granite or stone that were often tinted into a palette of pastel colours and then set into mortar. Once polished, the mosaic-like floors shone elegantly, and the fact that many of these surfaces look like they've just been put in is an elegy to their longevity. Walls and columns were usually covered with keystone, a highly porous stone from the Florida Keys that can also be tinted into various colours. Another favourite material was glass block, which was ideal for an area where the air is hot more often than it's warm. It was a practical choice because it was easy to maintain and effectively diffused the light from the year-round sun to keep interiors naturally cool.

Adding to this natural cooling system was the sheer simplicity of design and other building materials. Concrete blocks which were later stuccoed over and painted and the use of reinforced concrete for floors and columns still keep most deco buildings comfortably cool even on the hottest summer day.

By the 1950s, the golden era of tropical deco was over. The war had taken its toll on both incomes and lifestyles, and the beautiful buildings, already compromised by years of use as army barracks, fell into a kind of genteel disrepair. Most residents were increasingly old and poor, occasionally living many to a room and eking out an existence on social security cheques. Even the lovely properties on Ocean Drive, with their breathtaking views of the Atlantic, grew shabby and neglected, and the beach itself was increasingly eroded and dirty. By the early '80s, the area was a haven for drugs, squatters and crime.

This encouraged ruthless entrepreneurs to buy up cheap land in the hopes of redeveloping the area along the same lines as the northern part of Miami Beach, where condos still ruled and respectable retirees spent their winters. It was an understandable impulse, perhaps even a desirable one in may ways; after all, South Beach represented prime real estate for tourism and locals alike. Many priceless tropical deco properties were destroyed in the name of progress, and the developers' arguments were compelling: they would make South Beach beautiful again.

As it happens, these developers weren't alone in wanting to make the beach beautiful. A burgeoning preservation movement had the same goal -- but its definition of beauty was a little different. These preservationists, led by a remarkable eccentric, Barbara Capitman, wanted to save and restore tropical deco. And they would be in for one hell of a fight.

Before the smoke finally cleared, some of tropical deco's most outstanding examples would lay in rubble. In many cases, these buildings were destroyed for nothing; despite the developers' big original plans, graceless parking lots and garages now occupy the spots where some of Dixon's and Hohauser's best work once stood. Still, Capitman and her dedicated followers were able to stop the massacre before it was too late. Now, the more than 800 remaining tropical deco buildings in and around South Beach are protected by law. Many have been restored; most of the rest are undergoing slow renovation. Thanks to shows like Miami Vice, movies like The Birdcage, books and documentaries, interest in this historic district continues to grow. The properties are expensive now, and the kinds of people who are interested in the genre don't always have the money to buy or to move quickly. But it's now moot -- no one can destroy these beautiful structures and all of them will eventually be restored. Fortunately, some entrepreneurs have fallen in love with the style and are doing their part to continue the tradition, notably Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, who has taken six properties in hand and restored them into some of South Beach's funkiest hotels (see box). And while the restoration of all these properties is respectful, one of Capitman's strengths was to encourage creativity; the colourful facades are actually a new tradition since most of the buildings were originally plain white with occasional dark trims. The artist responsible for this explosion of colour, Leonard Horowitz, died in the late '80s, and has since been honoured with his own street. His legacy remains -- and it's the look that's made South Beach recognizable the world over.

There are many other reasons to go to Miami. South Beach swarms with beautiful people, many of whom don't give much thought to the beauty of the buildings around them. Yet whether or not they realize it, it's these buildings -- and, of course, one of Florida's best beaches -- which has drawn them there. As the area undergoes an unprecedented revival, as the nightclubs bustle through the night and the convertibles cruise Ocean Drive, it's vital to remember that all these people are there because a few believed that the area was worth preserving. They're the ones who made South Beach the colourful playground it is today. So if you go, have a great time, stroll the beach, enjoy the cafes and topnotch restaurants, but take the time to look up and around. You'll be entranced with what you see....


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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