Deconstructing art deco

Throughout Miami Beach’s 100-year history, the historic Art Deco District has remained the most icon visual element of the classic Miami Beach look. These squarely shaped, retro buildings, shaded pastel pink and minty green, may define Miami Beach to the rest of the world, but to long-time Beach residents, the historic Art Deco district resurrected the island in the midst of a sordid past.

It once housed bootleggers and mobsters, later devolving into a sleepy retirement village before becoming a battleground for high-level drug smugglers. But throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Art Deco District enjoyed a revitalization that would cement Miami Beach’s reputation as a world-class travel destination. And even as the city’s star keeps rising, alongside rising sea levels, real estate prices, and opportunities for monstrous modern development, these geometric architectural beauties interspersed among the glass towers inspire nostalgia for a bygone era. It’s an era that birthed the country’s largest cohesive district of Art Deco buildings, and made Miami Beach an icon of 1930s glamor.

75¢ an acre

The history of Miami Beach begins as Henry Flagler was setting his sights on a swampy wasteland positioned in the southernmost point of the United States, and Quaker brothers John and Henry Lum were struggling to keep their coconut farm afloat. The mosquito-infested sand strip they had purchased in 1870 for 75¢ an acre had inspired their new venture. They would plant and harvest coconuts to sell to their partners in the northern United States. However, when the Lum brothers’ plan proved unprofitable due to a lack of viable transportation, they unloaded their burden onto New Jersey farmer John Collins, freshly arrived with plans of his own.

Collins’ was able to successfully convert the coconut farm into a productive avocado grove and implemented a ferry service to shuttle Miami tourists to the island for his one-of-a-kind bathing pools, but a familiar problem eventually stymied Collins’ success. Miami Beach was simply too difficult to reach. It was too murky to entice tourists, and transportation was too costly for exporting goods up north. Collins decided he would need a bridge – which at the time would be the longest in the world – to connect to the mainland and anchor his mission of developing what was then a brush-filled island. But by 1912, his funding fell short, and to help him finish the job, he called on the ostentatious, excessively wealthy inventor Carl Fisher, who had a reputation for brandishing money with the same enthusiasm with which he guzzled down liquor. Fisher struck a deal with Collins, promising him $50,000 in exchange for over 200 acres of Miami Beach real estate. In 1913, Collins Bridge, the precursor to Venetian Causeway, was completed. Fisher’s plans for Miami Beach were officially underway.

Determined to build a “billion-dollar sandbar” that would attract wealthy elites and Hollywood players, Fisher began bulldozing the mangrove forests that lined the island’s edge, replacing it with millions of pounds of sand to create Miami Beach’s now iconic shoreline. Entrepreneurs like Collins and the Lummus brothers begin building hotels and encouraging their friends and colleagues to set up shop in the newly incorporated town of Miami Beach. But the three tycoons hadn’t quite gotten used to Miami’s unpredictable monsoon weather, and their darling Miami Beach was all but destroyed after a devastating hurricane struck in 1926.

Despite disastrous weather and the ensuing Great Depression, developers pressed on, and soon Miami Beach experienced its grandest building boom, one that would come to define Miami Beach throughout the ages. “In the 1930s, there was a major artistic movement going on in Europe that had been dubbed Arte Moderne,” says Melissa Lishel, a representative of the Miami Design Preservation League. “There was the Exposition of Modern and Decorative Arts in Paris, and architects from all over the world were inspired by this revolutionary modern design. So that’s exactly what Fisher knew he would need if he was going to attract the world’s sophisticat.”

Bootleggers paradise

Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, Art Deco architecture dominated new construction, with architects like Henry Hohauser and L. Murray Dixon leading the charge, each constructing some 40-odd hotels and residences across the island. “Their structures were marked by streamlined curves, window “eyebrows” and a law of three,” says Kishel. “No building was taller than three stories, and each was built in three sections, ABA, where only the center of the building was different, and each side imitated the other.” Dixon and Hohauser made use of this style especially in such a tropical climate – the “eyebrow” windows kept out the sun so air conditioning wouldn’t be necessary, and there were plenty of natural elements, like limestone and coral, that could be used in place of more expensive materials. According to Kishel, keeping construction cheap was important — not just to attract middle class tourists and real estate buyers, but a more dubious class, as well.

“In the early 1930s, bootleggers were flocking to Miami because it was a prime spot for smuggling in alcohol from the Bahamas. Drinking and gambling, though illegal on Miami Beach, was widespread and rampant,” she notes. “They constructed these hotels not just as a front for their money laundering, but also to have a place to serve their public. The great thing is, they used tiles to create designs in the floor as ‘secret signs’ that would let guests know what goes on there. Circles meant drinking was happening there, rectangles were for dancing, and triangles were for gambling.”

Miami’s Art Deco, while modeled on the European style of the moment, had its own flourishes to appeal to the sun-drenched image its founders wanted to present to tourists. Charmingly nautical, some buildings were designed with rounded edges to resemble ships, and most of the over-the-top exaggerations, with intricate, wrought-iron carvings that appeared in seaside towns like Nice and Monte Carlo, were scrapped in favor of a kitschier, more laid-back feel.

Saved from demolition

By the late 1950s, Miami Beach’s Art Deco had fallen out of favor with the world’s elite, most of whom were flocking north to the newly built Eden Roc and Fontainebleau, where Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack frequently performed. “By the 50s and 60s, people wanted high rises, they wanted something more lavish than the three-story buildings lining Ocean Drive,” says Kishel. By 1970, Miami Beach had become an aged retiree’s paradise and the butt of every joke — nicknamed “God’s Waiting Room,” the Miami Herald reported that the average age on South Beach in 1970 was 62. With buildings decaying, and crime running rampant on the island in the middle of the 1980s drug crisis, Miami Beach’s heyday appeared to be over.

Miami Beach’s allure may have been lost on many, but not all. Artists like Andy Sweet, a young photographer who met a grisly death at just 29 years old, captured the essence of 1970s Miami with his iconic photographs, only recently unearthed from an old storage unit. And then there was Barbara Capitman, who in 1973 had relocated to Miami Beach when her husband became a professor at Florida International University. “Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, Capitman had a passion for Art Deco, and she knew she had to do something to save these buildings,” says Kishel. Soon after moving, she befriended Leonard Horowitz, a doorman and aspiring artist who moved to South Beach after his family cut him off financially for coming out as gay. Together, they waged a campaign to save Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings from demolition. They raised funds, crusading for a revitalization of the then-decrepit boardwalk and the protection of Miami Beach’s art deco buildings. Horowitz even developed Miami Beach’s iconic color palette. The Miami Design Preservation League was founded in 1977.

Those efforts transformed Ocean Drive into the pastel-hued paradise it is today. “Part of the revitalization of Miami Beach included re-painting the buildings and changing the colors to make them pop more and seem more attractive to tourists,” says Kishel. The neon-lit, bright colored buildings finally attracted the Hollywood stars Carl Fisher had so desperately wanted. “The modeling scene exploded on Miami Beach in the 1980s, with models flocking here for the warm weather and easy work,” says Kishel. “Nicky Taylor and Christy Turlington both got their start here in Miami.” And no one could forget the iconic television show that put Miami on the map, its protagonists behind the wheel of a Ferrari, decked in linen suits and gold chains.

Today, the Miami Design Preservation League continues to honor South Beach’s iconic architecture through its daily Art Deco walking tours, historic preservation efforts, and annual Art Deco Weekend Festival. “We’re happy to say we’re celebrating our 39th year,” says Richard Towers, Special Events and Tours Director of the Miami Design Preservation League. “From photo exhibits to a classic car show, street festival and a fashion show, the Weekend truly captures the spirit of a timeless era of Miami Beach.”

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.