South Beach Art Deco Tour

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South Beach Art Deco Tour

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour; displays at Art Deco Welcome Center Museum
Displays at Art Deco Welcome Center Museum

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Bon Air Hotel in Revival Mediterranean style with Art Deco touches
Bon Air Hotel, built in 1934, has elements of Mediterranean Revival (red-tiled roof, arched windows, balconettes), but also displays hints of Art Deco (tripartite facade, smooth stucco).

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Congress Hotel
Congress Hotel

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.

South Beach Art Decor Tour: Cavalier Hotel
Another example of 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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Breakwater Hotel

South Beach Art Deco Tour: parking garage
Art Deco style parking garage

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.

South Beach Ar Deco Tour: Miami Modern style
MiMo features

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Tides lobby
Lobby of the Tides Hotel

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: newer building designed to fit in
This 2006 building resembles a cruise ship

South Beach Art Deco Tour: mural in Essex Hotel
Mural in Essex Hotel painted by Earl Le Pan in 1938. The story is that he added the alligator in the top left corner when he restored the painting in 1983.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Congress Complex
Congress Complex

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.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: the beach
The beach

Today South Beach is a lively and luxurious resort destination.

South Beach Art Deco Tour: walkway at Lummus Park
Beachfront Lummus Park

South Beach Art Deco Tour: former Versace mansion
The former home of designer Gianni Versace, where he was gunned down in 1997, is the third most photographed residence in the U.S. (after the White House and Graceland)

South Beach Art Deco Tour: Beach Volleyball

South Beach Art Deco Tour:
More Art Deco buildings

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.

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South Beach Art Deco Tour: the resort city of Miami Beach, Florida has an impressive collection of art deco architecture

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  1. We were in Miami in 2014 to catch a transatlantic cruise and had a great time wandering around South Beach and seeing some of the wonderful buildings and landmarks. I love the flamboyance of the Art Deco tradition and imagine that many architects must have had fun breaking “the rules” of the more traditional architecture of the time. And your information about the original buildings being white was very Interesting. I definitely prefer the tropical pastels of the buildings! Anita

  2. I LOVE Art Deco and South Beach! Thank you for this tour and history of the movement. I see why Versace’s home is so popular. I’m living in the DR and fly exchange planes in Miami. You’ve reminded me of why I need to stay over next time. Such a fun town!

    1. Cindy, this was my first trip to Miami and Miami Beach. I hadn’t realized what a fun place it is. I hope to get back and see more.

  3. Your post made me smile, Donna. It reminded me of the amazing time we had in South Beach. It is SUCH a lovely area. I only wish I’d had even more time to enjoy the colours and the vibe.

  4. I only had a small sampling of the Art Deco tour with a food tour, but this definitely was more comprehensive and educational, thanks for sharing these inside stories.

  5. Wow – I did an Art Deco tour of South Beach a year ago and you sure learned more than I did! (Maybe because our guide was trying to get us to buy his ebook..) I loved the bits about King Tut and why the buildings were often only 3 stories high. South Beach is so much more than Miami Vice which is what I associated it with for years (and never even saw the TV show).

    1. Kay, our guide had so much information. It was fascinating and at times overwhelming. He had a background in architectural history.

  6. Hi Donna, I knew I had problems with rabbits in my garden, but who knew we had them to thank for all of South Beach? ! I’m not a huge fan of Art Deco. It reminds me of some schools in LA that must have been built about the same time. Much prefer the Mediterranean Revival architecture. Too bad it was destroyed.

    1. Susan, I like much of the Art Deco style but I also like the Mediterranean Revival. I agree it is too bad it was destroyed.

  7. I visited South Beach a few times back when I was working in the Everglades as a seasonal employee. That was long ago, and I didn’t see nearly as much as I could have. So while many of the photos in this post look familiar, it’s safe to say I didn’t learn nearly enough about South Beach in my younger tourist days. I remember a lot of scantily clad beautiful people smelling of coconut oil for the most part.

    1. Jeri, you can still find the scantily clad beautiful people smelling of coconut oil. Also lots of lively restaurants and giant cocktails.

  8. Love the Art Deco of South Beach! We have wandered through many times without any real idea of what we were looking at. Great idea for a tour. Definitely goes on the to do list for next time we are in Miami.

    1. Veronica, I’d love to go back and do more exploring of the area on my own now that I know a tiny bit more about Art Deco.

  9. I visited Miami Beach about 15 years ago. I loved the Art Deco of South Beach. You have very beautiful pictures of the buildings.

  10. Donna, I love the idea of an Art Deco tour. I’d say Miami Beach (which I haven’t visited for decades) would rank among the best places for such a tour. Classic designs, colour, history. What more could one ask? Well done!

    1. Ursula, Miami Beach is certainly one of the top places to visit for Art Deco architecture. Our guide told us that there was also a city in New Zealand (Napier) with a lot of Art Deco buildings. It too had an earthquake (in the 1930s) which destroyed much of the buildings. Rebuilding was done in the style of the day;

  11. Fascinating to see how the architecture and feel of Miami has evolved throughout history. I would be in heaven exploring all of these different styles and seeing how they fit into the current landscape! I’ve been wanting to see Miami for a long time, and now this makes me wish I could get there sooner!

    1. Brooke, the art deco architecture of South Beach gives it a distinctive flare. I think you’d enjoy both Miami and Miami Beach. It hadn’t really been on my list and I was delighted with what a great place it was to visit, how relaxed it was and how easy to get around.