Exploring the architecture and history of South Beach in Miami Beach, Florida
Miami Beach is a resort city on an island between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It is its own city, distinct from Miami, connected to Miami and the mainland via bridges. The South Beach neighbourhood at the south end of Miami Beach is trendy, lively, and a popular tourist and entertainment district. It is also known for its Art Deco architecture.
I took an Art Deco walking tour through the Miami Design Preservation League. In addition to seeing and learning about its Art Deco buildings, I learnt a bit about the area’s history and other architectural styles.
We started our tour at the Art Deco Welcome Center at the corner of Ocean Drive and 10th Street. A museum inside the Center contains information on the three major historic design styles found in Miami Beach: Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco, and Miami Modern (MiMo).
South Beach, nicknamed SoBe, was originally farmland. In 1870 the Lum brothers from New Jersey purchased land to grow coconuts. They were not successful. Rabbits ate the coconut plants. In the early 1900s another New Jersey farmer, John Collins, acquired land to grow avocados. He was successful. He began to build a canal and a bridge to the mainland to transport his avocados to market. He ran out of money before the bridge was completed. Carl Fisher, a wealthy entrepreneur, partnered with him to complete the bridge and build a luxury hotel. He also developed an expensive shopping district which became known as the “Fifth Avenue of the South.” The South Beach area was developed as a resort district for the 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy. By the early 1920s, the area contained several hotels and luxury mansions.
The predominant architectural style was Mediterranean Revival, a style based on palaces and villas in southern Europe meant to evoke a nostalgic emotional response to appeal to tourists. The style featured symmetrical facades, red-tiled roofs, arched windows, and balconettes. In 1926, a hurricane devastated South Beach and the Mediterranean Revival buildings were destroyed.
Buildings constructed after the 1926 hurricane were built in the style of the day, Art Deco. The 1925 World Exposition in Paris had celebrated all that was modern in the decorative arts. It was here that the Art Deco style was introduced to the world, but it wouldn’t be named that until the 1960s. Art Deco is short for Arts Décoratifs from the name of the Paris exposition: Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Mordernes.
The Congress Hotel demonstrates many of the key components of Art Deco architecture. The facade features three parts, with the centre portion sweeping upwards. Bas-relief panels bordering the front entryway contain the “frozen fountain” design which was the emblem of the 1925 World Exposition. The steps up to the top of the centre panel resemble the pyramid. Art Deco designs often incorporate Egyptian motifs. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1923, two years prior to the Exposition, fascinated the world. The concrete “eyebrows” over the windows helped provide shade and cooling in buildings without air-conditioning. Decorative lines at the top of the building contain the chevron shapes popular in Art Deco.
Many of the Art Deco buildings in South Beach were built in the 1930s. Wealthy investors had lost money in the 1929 stock market crash. Fisher partnered with organized crime to build hotels targetting the 75% of the population who still had jobs, the people for whom labour organizations were beginning to win paid vacation time. Many of the hotels built at that time were only three stories high, to save the cost of putting in an elevator. Our tour guide told us the taller buildings from that era were higher-end hotels.
During World War II, South Beach was used as a training ground. Hotels became barracks for soldiers. Building done after World War II, from around 1950 to 1965, was in the Miami Modern (MiMo) style. There was an emphasis on greater connection with the outdoors. During the Art Deco period, it was assumed people would enjoy the outdoors outside at the beach. The MiMo style featured full-length windows and balconies. Other features of MiMo style include asymmetry, courtyards, flat roofs with projected eaves, masonry window frames, steel pipes and iron work.
Many veterans returned to the area after World War II, but most settled north of South Beach in newer buildings with air-conditioning. By the late 1960s South Beach had fallen into disrepair. Many buildings became rooming houses for the elderly and those on fixed incomes. In the 1980s the Mariel boatlift exodus from Cuba brought refugees to the area. The 1980s also saw the area become a base for drug dealers.
In 1976 Barbara Capitan helped form the Miami Design Preservation League to preserve, protect and promote the architectural heritage of Miami Beach. The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District (informally known as “Art Deco District” or “Old Miami Beach”) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 because 850 of the approximate 1200 buildings were in the Art Deco style.
Today rules govern the restoration of old buildings and the construction of new buildings. Exteriors of old buildings must be preserved. They are to look like a snapshot as of opening day with two exceptions. Hurricane-resistant windows are now required. And the colour can be different. There is a recommended colour palette but no requirement to follow it. When they were constructed most of the Art Deco buildings were white. Leonard Horowitz, a designer who worked with Barbara Capitan on the Preservation League, is credited with the pastel colours we now associate with South Beach. Today, many newly constructed and renovated buildings are being painted white. White is popular again.
Preservation rules do not include building interiors. However, many hotels opt to keep the Art Deco theme in their interior designs. New buildings must be designed to fit in, but also to be distinct enough so as not to fool people into thinking they are vintage.
Our tour guide pointed to several buildings from different eras which make up the Congress Complex as an example of what is happening in South Beach today. Other than sharing a common colour scheme the buildings look separate. They are in fact part of one complex which includes hotel, retail and restaurant space. Many boutique hotels are being bought up by large companies. From the front, they look independently owned but are connected by service corridors at the back.
Today South Beach is a lively and luxurious resort destination.
The Miami Design Preservation League offers daily guided walking tours. There are many other buildings in the area to explore and discover on one’s own.
Never miss a story. Sign up for Destinations Detours and Dreams free monthly e-newsletter and receive behind-the-scenes information and sneak peaks ahead.