The Art Deco Historic District, or Old Miami Beach Historic District as it’s also known, is one of the most iconic images you think of when someone mentions the city of Miami.
Over the water of Biscayne Bay, the ‘island city’ of Miami Beach, and South Beach in particular, is synonymous (in a cliché kind of way) with bikini-clad models, palm trees and the neon lights of glitzy Ocean Drive. But it wouldn’t be Miami Beach without the Art Deco architecture painted in ever-so-pretty pastel hues, would it?
During my trip to Florida, I spent a brilliant afternoon in South Beach (or ‘SoBe’ as they call it here) with Art Deco Tours. This professional tour company runs a range of daily walking tours in Miami and they offer a great little cultural taster to various parts of the city. Whether you’re a first-time visitor here, or you live in Miami and you simply want to know a bit more about your own neighbourhood, I highly recommend you check them out.
Before our walking tour kicked off, we met tour guide James Cubby at the Essex House, also known as the Clevelander, on Collins Avenue. James moved to Miami in 1985 and worked as a nightlife reporter for a weekly newspaper here, later writing the novel South Beach Star. So he knows all about how Miami has changed over the years, plus the need-to-know gossip about the socialites and A-list celebrities who’ve lived here.
Over on the terrace of this legendary hotel, James took us through a fascinating crash-course into the history of South Beach and how the Art Deco District was born.
Before I visited Florida, I knew very little about how this candy-coloured neighbourhood came about. By the end of the tour, I was completely fascinated by the place.
Let me fill you in…
The history of Miami’s Art Deco Historic District
It’s hard to imagine, but before Miami Beach even became habitable, it was a swampland filled with nothing but alligators and snakes. It wasn’t until pioneer John Collins decided to drain the swamps in the 1890s and use the area as farmland, to produce avocados, that anyone considered living here.
Eventually, wealthy families and investors such as the Vanderbilts, started to move in and by the early 20th Century, great big mansions had started to pop up.
‘Lincoln Road was like the 5th Avenue of the South,’ said James, ‘You’ve seen the Great Gatsby? It was that type of party crowd who would spend the summer here.’
And although it was during prohibition era, ‘alcohol flowed freely,’ said James, ‘this was a port for illegal booze and the big wigs, the mob, who controlled this area.’
During the hurricane of 1926, many of the houses (which were built from wood) were destroyed. So it was then that developers decided to create great big concrete mansions and hotels, giving them luxurious and prestigious names such as The Raleigh, The Clevelander, The Colony, The Delano and The Park Central Hotel.
They all had one thing in common – they were resplendent in the Art Deco, or ‘Moderne’ flourishes you’d see in Paris at the time.
‘By the end of 1939, they’d built over 1000 art deco buildings in this district,’ said James. ‘The wealthy came here in droves – it was the American Riviera. In 1940 it was the most popular winter resort. It was booming.’
If you’ve ever seen Miami Vice, you’ll know that Miami was portrayed in a very chichi kind of way with big cars, designer clothes, and nothing but tanned, gorgeous people.
Of course, this wasn’t reality. The real Miami had been a dangerous place where drugs and crime were rife. At one point, it was even known as the ‘murder capital’ of the States.
By then, many developers saw the Art Deco buildings as dowdy (they were painted in black and cream back then) and many people wanted to knock them down to replace them with newer structures.
But thanks to a passionate campaigner called Barbara Capitman and designers Leonard Horowitx and Lillian Barber, the light was shone on the historical importance of the Art Deco architecture. In 1979 the Art Deco District became the first 20th Century neighbourhood to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then of course, the 80s detective show also shone the light on the area of South Beach, as they used the buildings as glamorous film sets, painting them in all sorts of attractive colours.
Interest in the area grew…
It appeared on the front of magazines…
‘And the artist Andy Warhol came to Miami and demanded a tour of the art deco district. Because so many people were beginning to think that art deco was cool,’ James said.
From there, the ‘glamour’ factor of Miami also grew and grew. And as James reminded us, SoBe became the stomping ground of some of the world’s top A-listers and socialites. Prince and Mickey Rourke each had their own club and bar here and as a nightlife reporter, James often rubbed shoulders with the likes of Madonna, Gianni Versace and Kate Moss.
And glitz and glamour aside, thanks to Barbara Capitman and the Miami Design Preservation League, more than 800 original Art Deco buildings in the Art Deco Historic District are now officially protected.
What do you see and learn with Art Deco Tours?
Your experience with Art Deco Tours depends on which tour guide you are assigned but once James had taken us through the history of the area, he also filled us in on the characteristics of Art Deco architecture. We learned that symmetry, the ‘rule of three’ and artistic decoration were all common elements of these 1930s buildings.
Other common traits are the beautiful swirly coral stone which makes up many of the lobbies and steps of SoBe’s historic hotels as well as the ‘eyebrows’ you see above the windows and the use of portholes and glass blocks to let the light in.
You’ll notice many hotels have diamond or arrow tiling across the terrazzo floors which used to direct punters to the ‘secret’ casinos which the mobsters once ran.
And many buildings were designed with stylistic nods to boats or ‘spaceships’, transport and other inventions of the time.
The Art Deco Historic District stretches between 5th Street and 23rd Street, in SoBe and the key roads are Oceans Drive, Collins Drive and Washington Avenue.
It would be impossible to stop at every building, but we visited many of the area’s most famous hotels and diners as James pointed out the common Art Deco characteristics of each one.
He also shared stories of celebrities who had been there, scenes in Miami Vice which had been filmed there and all sorts of other fascinating historical facts which deepened our understanding of Miami’s Art Deco Historic District.
This included a stop at the impressive FIU Wolfsonian Musem, designed by Henry Hohauser and Lawrence Murray Dixon, which has a fascinating history all of its own….
…and the very cool 11th Street Diner which was built in 1948 by the Paramount Dining Car Company of Haledon, New Jersey.
And where many a celebrity have tucked into a hearty burger….
Once we’d developed an eye for the original Art Deco architecture, we also recognised where modern day developers had mimicked the original style. You’ll also find other areas of Miami (including Midtown and in the Miami Design District) where a style known as Miami Modernist, or ‘MiMo’ architecture, for short, can be found.
As we approached Ocean Drive, we made a stop at the famous Versace Mansion, which is sparking a lot of interest at the moment following the release of the new crime series The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Our final stop was the Hotel Victor, an elegant Art Deco Hotel at 1144 Ocean Drive.
Here, we marvelled at Asian-inspired Art Deco and learned that Art Deco can also be found across many parts of Far East and the Middle East, including Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Mumbai.
And as the tour came to an end, we admired a mural above us, created by Earl LePan, a local artist who also created a famous mural at the Essex House Hotel.
You’ll notice that in each of his murals, there’s an alligator in the corner, which became his trademark. There are several stories surrounding why he used to do this. But it’s just one of the many quirky tales we never would have known if we hadn’t explored the neighbourhood with Art Deco Tours.
There’s so much going on in Miami Beach. This is the area that’s home to nearly 200 hotels, 12 public parks and heaps of cultural attractions – from the Miami City Ballet to the New World Symphony and of course, Miami Fashion Week and Art Basel Week.
But if you’re looking to explore beyond the great shopping and eating scene and of course, that long ribbon of beach, do take time to take a walking tour of the Art Deco Historic District. You won’t regret it.