Architectural Wonderland: Art Deco in South Beach Miami
South Beach, despite its reputation as a party zone, is a premier destination for architecture buffs.
The neighborhood’s architectural evolution began in 1926, after a hurricane decimated most of its existing Mediterranean-style hotels. Over the next decade, it was rebuilt in the popular Art Deco mode, resulting in an unrivaled concentration of aesthetically consistent modern buildings.
By the 1970s, these hotels and apartment houses were beginning to deteriorate. A handful had already been torn down, and more were slated for destruction, when the Miami Design Preservation League intervened, saving over 800 original structures, all within a single square mile. Walking the streets of South Beach is like going back in time to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s America. I always expect to see Jay Gatsby hopping out of his Rolls in a pink suit.
The area is now a designated Historic District, and one of the best places in the world to experience Art Deco design. Some of the buildings are streamlined, with sleek curves swooping around corners, while others sport nautical portholes and the flowing lines of the era’s great ocean liners. Still others shoot skyward, topped off by rocket-shaped finials, like Mayan temples bound for Mars. Add to this a bright palette of Caribbean pastels, and the entire neighborhood takes on a whimsical, confectionery tone. The finest examples are on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, and I highly recommend stopping at the Art Deco Welcome Center (1001 Ocean) for a self-guided audio tour.
Every January, South Beach celebrates its architectural heritage during the Art Deco Weekend. Ocean Drive is closed to traffic, and filled with food vendors, antique dealers, and lots of revelers in period clothes. There are lectures, films, fashion shows, and vintage cars.
After taking in the architecture, I’m usually ready to roll out my blanket on one of the renowned white-sand beaches. Here, even the lifeguard stands are retro. Many were created in the 1990s by Brooklyn artist Kenny Scharf, who was inspired by mid-century modern design and futuristic ‘60s cartoons like The Jetsons.
If you’re traveling with youngsters, or are sensitive to the unwrapped human form, take warning: the buildings of Ocean Drive might be decked out in 1930s fashions, but the bathers certainly aren’t. Thongs are de rigueur, and topless sunbathing is fairly common. Too risqué? Try South Pointe Beach at the southernmost end of the strip, a good place to picnic and watch surfers.
For shopping, I hit the pedestrian-only Lincoln Road Mall. There are miles of Deco storefronts, brimming with trendy clothes, books, home furnishings and snacks. Chain stores like American Eagle and Diesel predominate, but there are still quirky originals like 9th Chakra (1621 Alton Rd). This exotic den specializes in New Age products and sells everything from singing bowls and crystal jewelry to imported incense. They even offer tarot card readings and aura photos. Deco fans can find posters and souvenirs in the gift shop at the Art Deco Welcome Center.
Hitting the Town
Nightlife is why most people visit South Beach, and the big clubs are open till 5 a.m. If you go, dress to kill (Fashion TV comes with basic cable in Miami), and be prepared for a lengthy wait at the velvet rope. For a more retro experience, opt for an evening of jazz at The Cabaret on Collins Avenue. This swank piano bar, located inside the newly-renovated, and thoroughly Deco, National Hotel, features nightly swing, blues and Latin music. What better way to re-create the age of Art Deco than by tipping a cocktail to the tune of “These Foolish Things” or “As Time Goes By”? The servers and bartenders double as performers, and can handle any request you throw at them.
After that, it’s over to Mac’s Club Deuce, one of the oldest bars in Miami, for a nightcap. The drinks are cheap, and the clientele are always a blast. I seldom leave Mac’s without acquiring a bunch of new friends.
Restaurants can be expensive in South Beach, but there are a number of affordable delis and pizzerias to choose from, as well as the all-aluminum, quintessentially Deco 11th Street Diner, where the huge mahi-mahi sandwich goes for a reasonable $10.99. This 1948 diner is my favorite place to eat in South Beach, possibly because it came from the town of Wilkes Barre, in my home state of Pennsylvania. Unlike most diners, the 11th Street has a full bar, with spiked milkshakes (try the Nutty Monkey) and numerous specialty cocktails, including the Wilkes Berry (vodka, Chambord, cassis, muddled strawberries, mint, and soda).
A Museum? In South Beach?
Always up for more Deco, I never miss the Wolfsonian Museum at 1001 Washington Avenue, which contains an excellent modern design collection. The emphasis is on British Arts and Crafts, European Art Nouveau, New Deal America and, of course, Art Deco. Every branch of the decorative arts, from bookbinding to glasswork, is represented, and there are even pieces from the monumental 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the design fair that gave Art Deco its name.
Miami Beach is over 10 miles long, so be sure to stay somewhere in South Beach proper, preferably at a vintage Deco hotel. Designer digs like the Delano charge anywhere from $300 to $1200 per night. Perfectly good lodgings can be had for under $200, but be careful if you dip below $100. These hotels are old, and not always in top shape.
I recommend the small Art Deco Odyssey (formerly the Delores, 1420 Collins). Its central location is ideal, and the price, around $125, a bargain.
For budget travelers, there’s the SoBe Hostel and Bar (235 Washington, just north of South Pointe Park), where a spot in a 12-bed female or mixed dorm is less than $50.
If you want to splurge, go for the National Hotel (1677 Collins). The Cabaret Bar is onsite, along with Tamara Bistro, which features a jazz brunch every Sunday from noon to 3:00 p.m. Standard rooms run around $300 and poolside cabana rooms $400. The pool is 203 feet long, and was once the longest in Florida. A three-story Penthouse suite is located under the hotel’s iconic cupola, and typically costs over $700.
IF YOU GO
All Photos by Dan Morey:
1. Art Deco Hotels (Delano, National, Sagamore), Collins Avenue
2. Art Deco Apartment Building, Collins Avenue
3. Art Deco Hotels, Ocean Drive
4. Beach, with space-age lifeguard stand
5. 11th Street Diner
6. Wolfsonian Museum