Weekend In Miami: The Art Deco District

My wife and I have have spent plenty of time in Miami over the past two years — but always as a day-trip. Recently, we decided to pack our bags and head to the Magic City for a weekend.

Leaving early one Saturday morning, our first stop was the Art Deco district in South Beach. Although there are actually several historic districts in South Beach, the most popular one is the Art Deco District running along Ocean Avenue from (roughly) 5th Street north to (roughly) 20th Street. Certainly, there are other “art deco” buildings outside this boundary, but generally-speaking, when you think of Art Deco, this is the area you think of.

So what exactly is “Art Deco”? It’s a style of architecture that developed during the early 1900s that usually combines straight lines, symmetry, and geometric shapes. In its hey-day, it was viewed as decorative, elegant, and modern. Today, it’s super-fanciful, and almost over-the-top ornate. A prime example of Art Deco is the Clevelander, one of South beach’s most famous landmarks and a fairly hip nightspot — if you don’t mind a bunch of college-aged kids.

When we arrived in South Beach, we headed to the Miami Design Preservation League. Though I don’t usually enjoy organized tours much, I signed up for one of theirs. I was curious to learn something about the history of this whimsical area, generally, and something about Art Deco, specifically. At $20 per person, the price of tour is money well-spent, as the volunteers are both knowledgeable and passionate about the subject.

Come with me, as I give you an abbreviated, virtual tour:

We arrived at the MDPL just in time for the 10:30 tour.

Adjacent to Lummus Park Beach…

…our guide explained that South Beach’s Art Deco District is the oldest 20th Century architectural historic district in the nation. Before we even left the MDPL’s property, we turned and saw the Edison Hotel. Note the clean, symmetrical lines.

From there, we walked by the Beach Patrol.

Still in use today, the Beach patrol Building was built in 1938. Evidently, it was designed to make people who couldn’t afford to go on an ocean liner feel like they were somewhere tropical and faraway. Obviously, you can’t miss the Patrol’s nautical theme. Portholes figure prominently in lots of Art Deco.

Rounding the corner, we headed back to the Clevelander. Built in 1938, the Rattner family sold the building in the 1980s for $800,000. In 2001, it was sold again for $16 million. Of course, the pool had been added and the building upgraded, but still…

Walking north, we passed the Congress Hotel. See the “eyebrows” above the windows? These are important components of Art Deco. At the time, they were incorporated to keep out the rain — and the sun. Of course, there was no A/C in the area at that time. In this picture, you can see how symmetrical the building is. Have you also begun to get the sense of the importance of the “rule of threes” in the architectural style?

Up the street from the Congress is the Hotel Victor, one of the World’s Sexiest Resorts.

Built in 1937, the Victor has no eyebrows, but you can see that symmetry and straight lines are still important in the design. Originally, the Victor was NOT connected to the left-hand building. Interestingly, there’s a pool above the entryway between the two buildings. If you look very, very closely, you can see the topless woman sunning herself, just to left of the largest palm tree. Not that I was looking…

Today, there’s a semi-circle ballroom/lounge attached to the right-hand-side of the Victor.

A little north of the Victor is the Tides. Built in 1936, this is, reportedly J Lo’s favorite place to brunch. She wasn’t there this morning, though. Around the entryway, you can make out the oolitic limestone that designers favored during this period. Of course, oolitic limestone is not used today, as it’s harvested from the ocean and damages the environment. See the portholes?

Very square and symmetrical, the Leslie is next. Note the Zigaruts, which are the vertical “racing stripes” that shoot skyward. These are used to hide unsightly roof lines. Lots of Art Deco buildings incorporate these.

Next up: the Carlyle. Though still Art Deco-y, you can see how by 1941, architects were steering away from straight lines and were incorporating curved lines into their buildings. See the sweeping eyebrows? Note that the “rule of threes” is still adhered to, though.

Recognize the Carlyle? It was featured in The Birdcage.

What about this building? It was featured in There’s Something About Mary. Can you tell how Art Deco is getting softer and curvier? This is the Cordoza Hotel, owned by Gloria Estefan. (BTW, the blond in the lower right corner of the image is our guide.)

Another angle.

And moving on…

…we pass the Cavalier…

… and come to the Winter Haven, at one time owned by Al Capone.

Note the classic elements of Art Deco design in the building: the threes, the straight lines, the Zigaruts (modified, apparently, to look like waves).

We decided to go inside and have a look around.

Completely restored, the Winter Haven looks very much like it did when it was built in 1938.

Back outside, we noticed that even the beach’s bathrooms look Art Deco.

Of course, there were more buildings to see on the tour, and I’ll show them to you, but this — by and large — marks the end of the strip of “classic” Art Deco buildings.

As I mentioned, this tour is highly recommended, as you learn all sorts of interesting tid-bits. For example:

  • The phrase “Art Deco” was used first in 1966.
  • Up until the 1980s, Art Deco buildings were not painted bright pastels. When Michael Mann was shooting Miami Vice, he thought the scenery would have more pop if the buildings were brightly colored. Consequently, he told property owners that if they painted their exteriors, the buildings would be on TV. They obliged, and the rest is history. Today, South Beach is the second-most-visited part of Florida — right behind Disney. Who knows what the area would look like if Mann hadn’t spoken up?