Perhaps Miami’s most distinctive feature after, of course, the ocean and Dexter Morgan, the historic Miami Art Deco District doesn’t fail to impress. Often nicknamed the “Art Deco Playground”, South Beach truly is a living postcard of Miami – Ocean Drive’s skyline alone must have featured on television and magazines over a million times!
But as it turns out, there is much, much more than meets the eye in this eye-candy, rainbow-coloured neighbourhood, hence why I opted for a guided tour with the Miami Design Preservation League — a non-profit organization devoted to preserving and promoting the district’s cultural and architectural integrity.
This post first appeared on Expedia Canada Viewfinder Blog, for which I am a contributor – but I figured I could post it here as well, just in case you haven’t seen it!
Miami Art Deco – A Little History
Miami’s Beach Art Décor District was the first 20th-century neighbourhood to be recognized so early on by the National register of Historic Places, which normally only considers buildings who are over 50 years old. But South Beach’s exceptional ensemble, which consists of over 800 properties built between 1915 and 1940 and painted in every possible pastel hues, held such significance in Miami’s development that it couldn’t be ignored despite its relative young age. Exceptional circumstances justify exceptional measures!
What is often referred to as Miami’s Art Deco District doesn’t exclusively consist of this specific type of architecture. While very present, Art Deco (1930s) is just one of the three styles that visitors can admire in South Beach, the two others being Mediterranean Revival (early 1920s, easily recognisable with its clay barrel tile roofs, purely decorative columns and arched windows, for example) and Miami Modern (1940s and post-war, usually feature mosaic murals, asymmetric angles and open balconies), each with its own distinct set of particularities.
The reason why Miami’s South Beach is so wealthy is because it used to be (and still is, in certain regards) quite popular with prosperous vacationers with a taste for high-end, well, everything. Often called the American Riviera, houses were built in accordance with European trends of the time, be it lavish Mediterranean villas or Art Deco splendours inspired by the sought-after Paris’ International Decorative Arts Fair in 1925. These people wanted the very best, la crème de la crème, and because they had the means to get everything they wanted, they did.
“I don’t care if it’s Brooklyn or Baroque, just get me plenty of glamour and make sure it screams luxury.” declared Harry Mofson, the very outspoken owner of the now-iconic Eden Roc hotel. A quote that perfectly reflects the investors’ state of mind at the time!
Miami Art Deco – Not Just About Sunshine
But despite being painted in brightest of colours and being blessed by exceptional sunshine, South Beach has had its lot of tragedies, starting with the once blood-stained steps where Giovanni Versace was murdered by a spree killer in 1997. Versace was a man of habits; every morning, he would stroll down ocean Drive to get his paper and to people-watch. He used to say that what the South Beach locals wore inspired him to design clothes that would later on be featured on the catwalk by the world’s leading top models. Unfortunately for him, his regular outings and the fact that he was so vocal about them him cost him his life and made him an easy target for his assassin, which coldly shot him dead with no apparent motive. The villa was recently sold for a whopping $41 million to a wealthy hotel entrepreneur, who turned it into Miami’s most upscale and private accommodations, and Kim Kardashian’s favourite hotel in the city.
Most buildings in South Beach were designed by prominent architects Henry Hohauser, Morris Lapidus and L. Murray Dixon – most hotels are, in fact, named after their eldest child. These hotels are filled with subtle details that only an expert could point out, like the lines in the terrazzo floor pointing to the bar during Prohibition, or the general aesthetics of a specific architectural genre, like the undulating rail guards, an obvious echo of the nearby ocean.
But despite being one of the most unique places in the United States, the Art Deco District fell into disrepair after the 1950s. The Miami Design Preservation League was then formed through the efforts of Barbara Baer Capitman and designer Leonard Horowitz as part of their project for the United States bicentennial. They identified a concentration of 1930s buildings in South Miami Beach that they felt could be a historic district of 20th century architecture, a novelty at the time since the district was technically too young to be registered as historic.
Today, the Miami Art Deco District is one of the most popular attractions in the city and in the country, fascinating millions of visitors every year. Whether you are in town for a day or a week, visiting this highly photogenic neighbourhood is a must!