That South Beach life, then and now

Come explore an incredible treasure trove of Miami history with us on Wednesday, July 29 when we tour the Wolfson Archives in downtown. Free drinks at DRB, followed by a unique adventure through images and video of Miami’s crazy past. Grab your tickets here – $15, half off for members!

Miami Beach is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. An incredible amount of progress has occurred since then, with the little beachside city growing from a lowly swamp island to a world-class destination adored by the rich and the fabulous. But it hasn’t all been sunshine and glamour. The city lives off of its largest thoroughfares — Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Alton Road, and each with its own history, ambiance, and purpose. But perhaps the most famous of all is Lincoln Road. With an impending massive renovation in the works, we decided to take a closer look at the evolution of Lincoln Road, and what its future might hold.

Dating back to 1912, Lincoln Road is an outdoor pedestrian mall that runs from Bay Road to Collins Avenue from north to south and between 16th and 17th streets from east to west. It was the dream of Carl Fisher, one of Miami Beach’s foremost developers, and meant to be the 5th Avenue of the South. And in its heyday, it included prominent retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Elizabeth Arden, and even luxury car dealerships like Cadillac. Especially popular in the 30s and 40s, visitors to Lincoln Road dressed in their finest threads. Throughout the 40s, the entire island experienced a boom, with hotels popping up all over, including historic icons like The National, The Delano, and The Raleigh. Interest in South Beach was further amplified by a mass influx of GIs to the area, as South Florida flatlands made it a popular area for base training camps. Eventually, many of these military personnel would go on to call Miami home.

In the 1950s, Morris Lapidus, famed architect of both the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, was brought in to bring renewed life to the Lincoln Road mall. His whimsical designs included architectural motifs like geometric paving patterns, open-air shade structures, animated fountains, sloping mounds, alcoves, follies, lush greenery, zebra striped pavements, shell outlines, and canopies. “I envisioned a park-like mall with pools and fountains and exotic concrete shelters,” wrote Lapidus. In 1962, the Road underwent another update as the blocks between Alton Road and Washington Avenue were repaved to be pedestrian-only roads.

After the 60s, demographics began to shift from a Jewish and Yankee population to one with a heavy Latin American influence. And the area went through a serious slump in the 70s and 80s like the rest of Miami. South Beach became a hotbed for many of the problems associated with Miami’s famous drug war throughout the 80s. This decline was felt throughout the beach, especially on Washington Avenue, which was once a busy hub for residential commerce, and on Española Way, once a buzzing alcove that became crippled by fear of gang violence. The highly popular cover article in Time magazine, “Paradise Lost,” highlighted all this.

But Miami Beach and Lincoln Road remained resilient throughout the troubled decades.

According to Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, “At the same time, forces were in place that would transform Lincoln Road into one of the most interesting streets anywhere. New restaurants, like the Wet Paint Café [where Douglas Rodriguez got his start], were opening, and Ken Lyon and his brother offered unique prepared foods in a newly minted market. Many other small business people and restaurateurs believed in Lincoln Road and were investing their time, creativity and money into creating a vibrancy that wasn’t there before.”

Books & Books opened its second location on Lincoln Road in 1989. “At the time, the Road was just beginning a rise from a very long bleak period,” says Kaplan. “Storefronts were abandoned, building owners were calling for the opening of the pedestrian mall to car traffic, and there was no real consensus as to how to move forward. There were so few legitimate businesses opening that when we announced we’d be coming to the Road, the Miami Herald ran it as a major news story.”

Another artistic institution, Miami City Ballet, also moved its headquarters to Lincoln Road and began an interesting program where dancers would practice in the large windows of the former Bonwit Teller, letting anyone pull up a chair to watch.

The excitement over its transformation caused property costs and rents to escalate, making it difficult for small businesses to remain on Lincoln Road, a problem that remains to this day. 

“We wanted to keep the street unique, keep it hospitable to one of a kind stores and businesses,” Kaplan says. “We understood that our customers were not only tourists, but were also those who lived all over South Florida who were intrigued by what was happening on one of the greatest walking streets in America. There had to be a way to keep Lincoln Road distinctive, unique.  I saw streets like the Fifth Street Promenade in Santa Monica as a warning sign.”

Soaring prices actually closed down the original iconic ArtCenter locale in May 2015. The building sold for a staggering $88 million and will be converted into more dining and entertainment, with ArtCenter temporary moving to 924 Lincoln Road as board members look to build a new space. The irony is that 30 years earlier, ArtCenter offering cheaper rent to build a community for artists that proved central to South Beach’s revival.

Lincoln Road was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2011, but this move didn’t protect the designs of Lapidus, and that is the situation we find ourselves in now as the next Lincoln Road revolution is looming.

Some business owners, like Sean Brasel of Meat Market, are excited about the upcoming renovations and upgrades. “It will bring higher end customers to Lincoln Road,” Brasel says. “It’s part of an evolution. Miami’s history is characterized by a constant turnover of people and places. It was hard to see Van Dyke go, but it never progressed. What sets us apart is that we operate as a test kitchen and we are continually playing with new ideas.”

But should progress come at the expense of history? Real estate prices keep rising, pricing out the smaller businesses that made Lincoln Road unique and helped it thrive. After 26 years, Kaplan laments, “I’ve always had to have a conversation with my customers that value is not always measured by price, that there is value in having a locally owned bookstore providing over 700 author events a year, giving back to its community by helping to bring books and authors to underserved areas and co-founding a Book Fair that is the envy of the country.”

If the nature and character of the original Lincoln Road is slowly removed, it could end up just another mall, like any other in the country, except without a roof. “It makes me nostalgic for the days of 75 year old retirees spending the day sitting under those great Morris Lapidus structures, shading themselves from the sun, and mingling with young creatives just moving into the area, seeing a bright future, says Kaplan.”