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Exploring vintage North Beach

Located between the hustle and bustle of South Beach and the upscale Bal Harbour (63rd to 87th, to be exact), North Beach is a slice of paradise. This tranquil hub includes the neighborhoods of Isle of Normandy, Normandy Shores, Biscayne Point, and La Gorce, historic places that bring to life Miami Beach’s past. It is a neighborhood kept alive by its residents, on the whole, working class, humble, and proud of a culturally rich yet low-key home that features secret gardens, impressive architecture, a dog park, a boardwalk, uncrowded beaches, plenty of free parking, and the North Beach Bandshell.

“We love working in North Beach, because it is such a nice mix of chill neighborhoods and lively street life, some great mama-y-papa restaurants, interesting people, and of course, an amazing beach. It feels like a little piece of South America,” said Laura Quinlan, executive director of The Rhythm Foundation.

A dive into history

Although the area dates back to the late 1800s, things didn’t kick into high gear until July 1924, when Miami Beach’s city limits were extended to include North Beach. The area was already home to one of Miami Beach’s five Biscayne Houses of Refuge, constructed by the U.S. Life-Saving Service in an effort to help with shipwrecks along the coast. But it had also been home to places far more scandalous than heroic. According to a 2003 report from the City of Miami Beach Planning Department, “During the early 1920s, the Jungle Inn was one of the most notorious buildings in what is now northern Miami Beach. The two-story log structure was a reputed speakeasy and gambling joint. It was situated at the southeast corner of 69th Street and Abbot Avenue in the Atlantic Heights Subdivision. The Jungle Inn’s remote location in the wilderness outside the then city limits made it difficult for Dade County to enforce Prohibition.”

Early developers of the area include William Burbridge, Henri Levy, and the Tatum Brothers, along with Carl Fisher, who dredged and filled land to create La Gorce and Alison Island in the years 1923 and 1924. Alison Island was later donated to Fisher’s friend Jim Alison for the construction of Miami Beach’s first hospital and sanitarium. This later became St. Francis Hospital, which now sits on the land of Aqua Residences. Normandy Shores and the Isle of Normandy are also man-made islands.

Built in 1925 and opened in 1926, the famed Deauville Casino and Hotel originally stood at five stories tall with 142 rooms. It became famous not only because it provided luxury in an otherwise isolated area, but because it boasted the largest swimming pool in the area, at 165 feet long and 100 feet wide.

According to “From a Lipstick X Grew a Fabulous Hotel,” a Miami Herald article from 1955, “On opening night the Deauville’s gaudy, resplendent showcase of high society — even though darkness and wild swamplands encircled the patch of beauty. In an upstairs room, gaming tables clicked with dice and spinning roulette wheels as bejeweled ladies placed their bets. A string orchestra played far into the night for gay, festive socialites. Elegant limousines lined the unpaved road outside, waiting to cart their passengers back to the realm of Civilization far south of the wilderness swallowing up the Deauville.”

The Biscayne House of Refuge. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/42487)
The Biscayne House of Refuge. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Its grandeur ended abruptly after the 1926 Miami hurricane, when it was severely damaged. During World War II, the Coast Guard and the Army used the hotel as a headquarters. The original building of the hotel was demolished in 1956 to make way for a whole new Deauville in a post-war modern style design by Melvin Grossman in 1958. The hotel gained international fame when The Beatles visited for their second performance in the US for the Ed Sullivan Show on February 16, 1964.

Other important hotels included The Monticello, The Mount Vernon, The Bel Aire Hotel, and The Martinique, the first hotel in the city to be air conditioned. Also famous were the Casablanca and Sherry Frontenac, as well as the Carillon, known for its opulent parties and famous guests and now moving into the future with a renovation hoping to merge its past and present. The area boomed in the decades after World War II, especially in the 50s and 60s, attracting middle-class America with its tropical resort lifestyle and accessible living.

The Rhythm Foundation and The North Beach Bandshell

The North Beach Bandshell. (Courtesy of The Rhythm Foundation)
The North Beach Bandshell. (Courtesy of The Rhythm Foundation)

“The North Beach Bandshell has been part of the North Beach community since the 1960s, and was an integral part of daily life and entertainment in those days,” according to Gene de Souza, The Rhythm Foundation’s development director. “After a long period of neglect, we are so delighted that the City of Miami Beach has invested in refurbishing this unique venue, and allowing Rhythm Foundation to manage the facility. Since we took over in March of this year, we have revamped the live music for Food Truck & Music Fest, introduced the new monthly Dance Band Night (every second Thursday), and booked many rental events such as Latin festivals, beer tastings, classical music, and even a live broadcast of the Copa America soccer final. The response from the local community, regional visitors, and tourists has been overwhelmingly positive. Local businesses such as restaurants, retail shops, and hotels also benefit from the increased number of visitors that the events bring to the area. Everyone wants to enjoy more events at the North Beach Bandshell.”

Restored in 2010 and run by The Rhythm Foundation since 2014, this open-air amphitheater sits near the site of the aforementioned Biscayne House of Refuge served as the community’s hub for entertainment and international music. Built in 1961, the Bandshell received a designation on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 for its “characteristic style of Miami Modernism (MiMo), a post-war modern style of architecture.”

From the Byron-Carlyle Twin Theater to O Cinema Miami Beach

Jackie Gleason as one of his characters on television. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
Jackie Gleason as one of his characters on television. (Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

The Byron-Carlyle Twin Theater (two theaters under one roof) originally opened in December 1968 with the world premiere of Skidoo, which was attended by Jackie Gleason. A Miami Herald article from October 27, 1968, noted, “Both of the twin theater auditoriums offer rocking chair seats, while each orchestra section offers high-back loungers. Both loge and orchestra seats are deep cushioned. The Byron will seat 590; the Carlyle 954. The Byron is equipped with 70 mm projection and stereophonic sound, while the Carlyle will have 35 mm Cinemascope project and stereophonic sound.”

It was converted into a multiplex movie theater in the 70s, though it eventually closed in the early aughts. For awhile, it operated as a theater space used by The Stage Door Company.

When O Cinema took over in 2014, it converted the building into a single screen independent movie theater with 304 seats divided into 2 levels, creating a vibrant cinema space that, much like its iconic Wynwood location, showcases an eclectic variety of local, indie, and international films. It continues to be a shining arts pillar in the community.

More than Little Buenos Aires

There’s definitely a large concentration of Argentineans, Uruguayans, and Chileans living in the neighborhood, but there are also influences from every other Latin American country, especially Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans. When it comes to food, not only is the neighborhood the unofficial hub for affordable Latin fare, but the deep Italian influence on Argentinian culture has led to a broad range of Italian restaurants as well, and there’s Jewish delis reaching back to Miami Beach’s long history of Jewish culture. Spots include Buenos Aires Bakery, Café Prima Pasta, Manolo, Moises Bakery, and George’s Italian Restaurant & Lounge, an old standby for singer Billy Joel when he’s in town.

Don’t leave the neighborhood without trying a chivito, which translates to little goat in Spanish. However, there is no goat in this traditional sandwich from Uruguay. Instead, it consists of thinly sliced steak, mozzarella, tomatoes, mayo, black olives, bacon, fried or hard-boiled egg, and ham. Also popular in this area is the Uruguayan pizza, made with chickpea flour.

And, for beer lovers, there’s Lou’s Beer Garden. This hidden gem was one of the first places to introduce Miamians to craft beer. Their list never disappoints, and the poolside low-key vibe is a great way to waste away the afternoon.

Preserving MiMo 

This 24-block neighborhood sure does pack a lot of punch. Locally, apart from the MiMo district on the mainland, it is the largest concentration of MiMo-style buildings in the area. The historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places include North Shore, Normandy Isles, and North Beach Resort.

Originating in the Post World War II era, MiMo’s characteristic features include acute angles, delta wings, sweeping curved walls, use of two or more textures, Swiss cheese–style walls, and soaring pylons. The design is Miami’s take on the modernist architectural movement.

In January 2015, preservationists and many residents were outraged when they learned that the historic (but not protected), Biltmore Terrace Hotel designed by Morris Lapidus was demolished. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that the developers had claimed their plan was to renovate the building, but halfway through pulled a bait and switch and demolished it. It’s now destined to become Eighty Seven Park.

Locals fought back, and in the November 2015 elections won a fight to protect the neighborhood from another demolition. Residents voted to reject the proposed Ocean Terrace upzoning, which would have transformed a 2-block section between 73rd and 75th into a 250-foot condo tower, 150-foot hotel, and rows of shops. This attempt at rezoning might have failed, but that’s not to say there won’t be more to come.

Still, North Beach remains one of the few places in Miami Beach where rents are reasonable, and the area has maintained its tight-knit community feel. Local residents are fighting to keep it that way.

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.

  • Sarah Giller Nelson

    I really enjoyed this article. I have to add that famed MiMo architect (and long-time Miami Beach resident) Norman Giller designed both the Carillon and the North Shore Band Shell. There are some great vintage and new photographs of each structure, as well stories about their development in the book “Designing the Good Life: Norman M Giller and the Development of Miami Modernism.” They usually carry it at Books and Books. I had the pleasure of writing the book with him in 2007.

  • Sarah Giller Nelson

    I really enjoyed this article. I have to add that famed MiMo architect (and long-time Miami Beach resident) Norman Giller designed both the Carillon and the North Shore Band Shell. There are some great vintage and new photographs of each structure, as well stories about their development in the book “Designing the Good Life: Norman M Giller and the Development of Miami Modernism.” They usually carry it at Books and Books. I had the pleasure of writing the book with him in 2007.

  • Great article Mandy! I’ve never had time to explore much of North Miami Beach…this makes me more interested!

  • Great article Mandy! I’ve never had time to explore much of North Miami Beach…this makes me more interested!

  • Jeff Donnelly

    Great, inclusive, piece!

  • Jeff Donnelly

    Great, inclusive, piece!