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South Beach by design

The US city that has the greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world

Much of Miami’s South Beach, especially parts of Ocean Drive, is tawdry and crassly commercial. Restaurant tables fill the sidewalk for block after block, forcing hapless pedestrians along a narrow path where they run the gauntlet of smiling hostesses in clingy dresses waving menus at them.

In late afternoon, add noise to the mix. A guy saunters by with a snake wrapped around his neck while a young woman offers Cuban cigars to passersby. At night, music and light shows pulse from huge TV monitors, and the trunks of palm trees ringed in lights sprout green neon fronds. A convertible cruises by with two selfie cameras attached to the windscreen. Welcome to Hedonism Central: Florida’s biggest non-stop happy hour.

But in spite of what one Miami writer has called “a full blown cesspool of touristic masturbation,” South Beach boasts one of the most enchanting concentrations of distinctive architecture in the United States. The style that predominates is Art Deco, its story told in the new Art Deco Museum (1001 Ocean Drive; tel: 305-672-2014; mdpl.org); closed Mondays; 90-minute walking tours US$25), opened on Ocean Drive in October 2014 by the Miami Design Preservation League.

Art Deco grew out of the Paris Exposition of 1925 and reflected the age it was born in: a time of new technology, flappers, short skirts, hot jazz and shocking dances. With clean geometric lines, zigzags, chevrons, sunbursts and plant life motifs, Art Deco was a reaction to the elaborate ornamentation of the earlier Art Nouveau movement. The less extravagant style fitted leaner times and quickly spread around the world from New York to New Zealand. So when a 1926 hurricane razed much of Miami to the ground, it’s not surprising that Art Deco was in the minds of its re-builders.

What is surprising is how completely the style spread. Today, South Beach has the greatest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world.

This is partly because Miami Beach evolved in three distinct parts. The early developers of North and Central Beach catered to wealthy vacationers — and with few exceptions, their luxurious hotels openly excluded Jews for many years. The developers of South Beach, on the other hand, aimed at a more modest clientele and allowed Jews in the small hotels and single-family homes that grew up south of Lincoln Road. The area became a seaside escape from dreary northern winters for the Jewish middle class; a place to bathe in the ocean and socialize with friends. After the stock market crash of 1929 others looking for a brief respite from hard times began to pour into more affordable South Beach and launched the Art Deco building boom that lasted until World War II.

The buildings of South Beach

The uniqueness of South Beach comes not from outstanding individual buildings, but from the harmony of so many buildings of the same style built in a short period. A style based on central tenets — simplified “bas relief” ornamentation, a three storey building height and uniform lot setbacks, each building contributing to the overall effect. As Miami resident Leicester Hemingway (Ernest’s kid brother) wrote, it is “a style that smoothes everything out until you get the feeling that life was smooth. The buildings make you feel all clean and new and excited and happy to be there.”

After World War II, development shifted to Middle Beach and Miami became a mecca for organized crime and illegal gambling. At one point it was said that every hotel on the beach had its own bookie. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, South Beach remained a haven for retired middle class Jews, some referring to the area as “God’s waiting room.” But, by the 1970s, block after block of South Beach had fallen on hard times and most considered the pre-war Art Deco style old fashioned and not worth saving.

Enter Barbara Capitman, a middle-aged widow who had moved to the area from New York in 1973. Captivated by the Art Deco buildings of South Beach, she spearheaded the formation of the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976 to help revitalize the area. At first, the League’s efforts met with limited success — and were not helped when Fidel Castro authorized the Mariel Boatlift in 1980. South Florida became flooded with Cuban refugees, many of them criminals, who began to displace many longtime residents of South Beach. However, the League persevered and in 1982 Miami Beach enacted its first historic preservation controls. Public awareness of the area’s unique architectural heritage was heightened by the success of the TV show Miami Vice, which used the Art Deco buildings of South Beach as a backdrop and brought tourists eager to see where scenes had been shot.

But it was Barbara Capitman’s friend, interior designer Leonard Horowitz, who pushed South Beach into the spotlight in a way that years of political lobbying could never match. Horowitz designed a palette of tropical pastel colours to replace the dreary browns and beiges of the 1970s. The effect was astonishing. Building by building, newly painted white facades became accented with sea foam green, salmon pink, powder blue, turquoise and lavender. Horowitz came up with schemes for a whole block of buildings that made them look like confections. Katherine Maddox, writing in Vogue magazine, said the result was like “sinking into cotton candy.”

Celebrating its centennial year of 2015, it’s clear that the revival of South Beach has been wildly successful. More and more Art Deco buildings are being given a new lease on life and South Beach has become a byword for “cool” around the world. The new Art Deco Museum and welcome centre has daily guided and self-guided walking tours and has an excellent map identifying over 100 Art Deco and other significant buildings. Here are just a few of them:

Webster Hotel (1936)

1220 Collins Avenue
Designed by Henry Hohauser, the former hotel is now a fashion boutique. The ornate plaques over the main entrance of the symmetrical facade are delicately accented in two shades of pink while neon strips add a further accent at night.

United States Post Office (1937)

1300 Washington Avenue
The post office is generally regarded as a “streamlined modern” version of Art Deco and has a central rotunda with a decorative cupola on top. Inside, the original fixtures are still in place. A three-panel painting includes the discovery of Florida by the Spanish explorer Ponce de León.

Essex House Hotel (1938)

1001 Collins Avenue
“Right over there,” said manager David Lopez, pointing just off the lobby of the Essex House Hotel, “is where Al Capone used to play cards in a game room with some of his cronies.” The Essex was another of Hohauser’s designs and is a good example of nautical Deco with porthole style windows, racing stripes along the sides and a mast-like tower bearing the hotel’s name. The lobby has a mural of the Everglades that was restored by the same artist that painted the original 50 years earlier.

Breakwater Hotel (1939)

940 Ocean Drive
Across the street from the Clevelander, the hub of partying on the Beach, the Breakwater has the typical Art Deco features of symmetry and strong lines. At night, it becomes one of the most striking sights on the Beach with its towering central facade bearing its name lit up in blue and orange neon. Lots of action at street level.

Cardozo Hotel (1939)

1300 Ocean Drive
Also designed by Hohauser, the Cardozo with its curving facade is now a boutique hotel owned by Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan and her husband Emilio.

1450 Collins Avenue (1939)

Starting life as Hoffman’s Cafeteria, this classic Hohauser design has gone through a series of owners. A gay bar until 2002, it became Jerry’s Famous Deli until changing hands again in 2015. It’s now a Mexican restaurant/bar/club franchise. Through it all, it has retained its streamlined form of nautical Art Deco with a curving frontage and porthole-like shapes on its facade now accented in pale pink and turquoise.

McAlpin Hotel (1940)

1424 Ocean Drive
One of the finest Art Deco buildings on the Beach, the McAlpin Hotel is one of the most photographed. Designed by L. Murray Dixon, the symmetrical facade is divided into thirds with pink and turquoise accents. Five large “bris soleil” sunshades complete its perfection. Now operated as part of Hilton Grand Vacations Club, the McAlpin is a perfect complement to Hohauser’s earlier Crescent Hotel next door at 1420 Ocean Drive.

Carlyle Hotel (1941)

1250 Ocean Drive
Under restoration in early 2015, the Carlyle has the typical division into thirds, but more muted colour accents than some other buildings. Its facade has been the backdrop to movies such as 1983’s Scarface and it gave up its name for the setting of The Birdcage in 1996.


There are many more buildings to look for. The Beach is a constantly changing dynamic area and the Miami Design Preservation League is now fully supported by the City of Miami Beach. The Ocean Drive entertainment area could quieten down a little if a recent proposal to change the last call in bars and patios from 5am to 2am goes through. There’s some incongruity, to put it mildly, between the gracious form of the Art Deco buildings above the ground floor and some of the activity taking place at street level, but if that’s what it takes to preserve the buildings then let the happy hour roll on. And make mine a gin and tonic, please.

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

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