Miami's Architectural Guide

art deco

By: Jen Karetnick

The styles of architecture displayed by the buildings in Miami include the pristine examples in the eponymous Art Deco District, but aren’t at all limited to them.

Miami and Art Deco seem synonymous. Certainly, the city is known for this particular architectural style, especially in South Beach, where it dominates. But Miami offers a wealth of interesting architecture to explore, and the buildings employ more than the familiar pastels and geometric lines that classify Art Deco.

In fact, you can find sterling paradigms of everything from historic Spanish single-family homes to innovative office quarters and hotels that are uniquely Miami’s own. Styles range from Mediterranean Revival to Miami Modern, with a host of others between and since.

Art Deco District

Art Deco, and the preservation of those buildings featuring its popular motifs has been a mission of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), a non-profit group launched by Barbara Capitman and like-minded individuals. The MDPL has worked tirelessly since 1976 to save the integrity of what is now classified as the ten Miami Beach Architectural Historic Districts – and eleven designated buildings -- which together comprise the National Register Art Deco District.

Many of the buildings, especially along the beachfront, are indeed prime instances of what enthusiasts now call Tropical Deco, which reflects the regional influences (the sea, palm trees, cruise ships).

Tropical Deco, with architect Henry Hohauser, for one, leading the charge, is roughly divided into the utilitarian Stripped Classic or Depression Modern (the renovated U.S. Post Office in the Design District, for instance) and Streamline Modern.

The famous hotels along Ocean Drive, including the Colony, as well as nearby venues such as the Marlin, are Streamline, which displays widely recognizable design features: symmetrical reliefs inspired by seagoing life as well as the age of machines, curved staircases, rounded corners, glass block walls, terrazzo floors and neon lighting.

Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern

Art Deco isn’t all that South Beach has to offer. In between the Streamline constructions, you’ll find two additional styles: Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern (MiMo). The first recalls old Spanish Colonial villas, with stucco walls, red tile and prominent foyers being typical features. The Angler’s Boutique Resort, a hotel on Washington Avenue, is exemplary, as is the more ornate, former Versace mansion, no the Villa by Barton G. where the restaurant, Il Sole exists.

Also, visitors can view large groupings of luxurious Mediterranean Revival homes, as well as the lavish Biltmore Hotel, in Coral Gables. Dubbed the City Beautiful, Coral Gables was founded by visionary George Merrick, and is considered Miami’s first planned community.

MiMo, with glamorous, theatrical and vivid interior design motifs (think kidney-shaped pools, mosaic murals, round beds and curved sofas, fur and animal prints, and colors like burnt orange and cobalt), was glorified by renowned architect Morris Lapidus, and includes his famed Fontainebleau Hotel in mid-Miami Beach and Temple Menorah on South Beach.

In addition, the collection of post-war, mid-century motels, located in the Upper East Side along Biscayne Boulevard just north of the Design District to the edge of Miami Shores, is included in this designation. In fact, the region here is called the MiMo District, and efforts have been made to rescue these iconic lodging sites from decrepitude and the wrecking ball by granting them historical designations.

Also in the Upper East Side, the Morningside Historic District and the Bayside Historic District, located to the east of Biscayne Boulevard, is a community of Mediterranean Revival, Frame Vernacular, Mason Vernacular, Mission Revival, Florida Ranch and Art Deco Bungalow styles.

Classic Monuments

Miami-Dade has several buildings that feature vintage construction materials -- elements that are no longer in use because they are endangered or threatened – such as coral rock and Dade County Pine.

Miami Beach Coral House, built in 1916, is one of these former homes, now under the approval of the Miami Beach Historical Society. Visitors can explore it, joined to a larger structure, at 900 Collins Avenue in South Beach. And in Coral Gables, the storied, Italianate Venetian Pool, filled daily with 820,000 gallons of fresh spring water, is the result of an old coral rock quarry. Some of the coral that was mined, which was also used in neighboring construction and was planned, at first, to build a casino, was utilized instead to formulate the bridges and towers at the pool.

Others are surrounded by historic hardwood hammocks, rockland habitats or tropical fruit groves that are more than a century old, or were built by noted personalities, such as Charles and James Deering (the 444-acre Deering Estate at Cutler, where rare plants and wildlife are protected). The lavish Italian Renaissance-style Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, is famous for being the site of several films including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Thus they’re preserved properties, treasured for the period of history that they represent.

Indeed, many of them are museums or attractions, offering tours and serving as the venues for notable events and festivals. The Barnacle House, for instance, was built in 1891 by Commodore Ralph Middleton Munroe, a yachting enthusiast. Now a museum, the Barnacle is the oldest house in Miami-Dade that remains on its original foundation, and is actually a designated State Park where concerts are frequently held on weekends.

One of the most interesting Miami attractions, Coral Castle, is an oddity of an abode constructed by one love-struck man as a monument to a lost fiancé out of huge coral rocks. Edward Leedskalnin spent more than 28 years carving the eight foot-high walls and furniture from 1,100 tons of coral and, like the pyramids in Egypt, the Coral Castle remains a structural engineering puzzle to contemporary engineers.

The Mediterranean Revival-style Freedom Tower, built in 1925 as the home for The Miami News and later used to process Cuban immigrants, was designated a National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In 2008, after being donated to Miami-Dade College, it was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is currently considered a Cuban memorial as well as a venue for important art exhibits.

Modern Icons

The Miami Vice era first highlighted what is now known as the Miami Beach School of Architecture. Counter-intuitively, a lot of the construction that jibes to this description is located in downtown – the region where Burdine’s department store, now Macy’s, became Miami’s first skyscraper at five stories high.

A landscape architecture firm, Arquitectonica is responsible for many of the signature buildings of the downtown skyline, including the American Airlines Arena, and has had a hand in shaping Miami to such an extent that their Atlantic Condominium was featured in the opening credits of Miami Vice. Even the signage on Lincoln Road is theirs. Firms like Arquitectonica take their cues from the environment, resulting in cruise ship-shaped constructions, including the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Cesar Pelli of Pelli Clarke Pelli.

Miami already has or will soon have mixed-use high-rises, like the Four Seasons Hotel on Brickell Avenue. At 70 floors, it’s considered the tallest building in Miami. The Herzog & de Meuron-designed Miami Art Museum, renamed the Pérez Art Museum Miami, opened in Museum Park in December 2013. The museum sits alongside Biscayne Bay and features a variety of gallery spaces, an education complex, an auditorium, a waterfront restaurant and more.

Now considered a land of opportunity for internationally renowned “starchitects” such as Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid (the 60-floor tower at 1000 Biscayne Boulvard), Danish Bjarke Ingels of Bjarke Ingels Group (the Grove at Grand Bay in Coconut Grove) and Lord Norman Foster, Manchester, England, of Foster + Partners. In fact, you can invest in the products of Lord Foster and more, including Rem Koolhaus, in the so-called, 500-million dollar Faena District (the former Saxony Hotel), a three-block stretch of Miami Beach named after Argentine developer Alan Faena that highlights innovative interior and exterior design to exist as imposing, important art.

Public Spaces

Sensitive to outdoor spaces and neighborhood milieu, Herzog & de Meuron also designed the Lincoln Road Parking Garage, making sure to include plenty of greenery and open forms, with lots of shade.

Celebrity architect Frank Gehry is also considered among this crowd, given his exterior Miami Beach SoundScape Park for the New World Center where films are shown and events, such as the concerts of the New World Symphony, are shown as WallCasts for enthusiasts to watch and listen as they picnic on stone crabs and other Miami-born treats.

Gehry is also responsible for the renovation of the Modernist Bacardi Building, distinguished by its stunning blue tile mosaic. Taken over by the National YoungArts Foundation in 2012, the tower, which includes antique interior design elements, lofty ceilings and generous outdoor spaces for live performances, is considered a premiere restoration project for the city. Indeed, it’s perhaps the single most representative building in Miami – one that takes account of the past while remaining cognizant the future.

How to Explore

Get to know the National Register Art Deco District in depth by taking the Official Art Deco Walking Tour, which departs from the Art Deco Welcome Center at 10th Street and Ocean Drive. Other tours of MiMo and Spanish-inspired districts are offered by HistoryMiami.

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