MiMo Magic: Miami’s Historic Biscayne Boulevard is Back Again

By: Jodi Mailander Farrell

MiMo, short for Miami Modern, is a design aesthetic unique to the Magic City.

Revved up by the Space Race and American optimism, auto-driving vacationers cruised into Miami along Biscayne Boulevard in the 1950s, greeted by hipster, roadside motels sporting futuristic boomerangs and Daddy-O cool vibes.

More than 60 years later, spirits are high once again along the boulevard. Forgotten architectural gems are being restored one-by-one to their former glory, forging a new identity and name: the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District.

The 27-block district, between 50th and 77th streets on Biscayne Boulevard, is now home to a growing, spirited conga line of trendy hotels, restaurants and shops, their entrepreneurial owners enthralled by the area’s low-scale, retro style just north of Downtown Miami.

“I was drawn to it,” said Avra Jain, lead developer of Vagabond, a 1953 motel she lovingly restored into a hip hangout, sparking the dive-to-thrive trend along this stretch of Miami’s main street. “It’s these special spaces that create the texture and soul of a community … Authenticity matters.”

MiMo, short for Miami Modern, is a design aesthetic unique to Miami that simultaneously captured the heady, prosperous decades after World War II and the subtropical, Latin-infused modernism of the Magic City from 1945 until the late 1960s. Influenced by American fascination with futurism, jets and space exploration, motels and buildings of the time were decked out in acute angles, boomerangs and trapezoids.

Think “The Jetsons” with palm trees.

Preserved by the City of Miami with historic designation in 2006, the neighborhood today boasts the region’s largest collection of MiMo (pronounced “My-Mo”) buildings. Once again, the boulevard is an entryway to a new frontier.

Today’s rejuvenated strip is populated with charming consignment finds, such as Fly Boutique, a vintage designer clothing and furniture store at 7235 Biscayne Blvd., and Consignment Bar, featuring modern luxury-brand clothing at 5580 NE 4th Ct. Design-oriented offerings range from the sleek, modern furnishings at KMP Furniture, 6444 Biscayne Blvd., and Wade Allyn Home, 6667 Biscayne Blvd., to mod cultural objects at DesignShop, a tiny, well-edited studio tucked into the back of 55th Street Station at 5582 NE 4th Ct.

Gyms, yoga studios and live-music venues, such as Devita’s, an Argentinean-Italian tapas and wine bar at 7251 Biscayne Blvd., are infusing new energy into old sites. Mangoes, lychees, kale and other seasonal fruits and vegetables, along with prepared foods like empanadas and Indian samosas, are sold every Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the Upper East Side Farmers Market in Legion Memorial Park, on Biscayne Boulevard at 66th Street.

Presiding over it all: a 1958 Coppertone Girl erected on the side of a building at 7300 Biscayne Blvd. The 33-by-29-foot sign, depicting a puppy pulling at the swim trunks of a tan, pig-tailed girl, was salvaged from a warehouse in 2009 and returned to its original neighborhood after the Dade Heritage Trust donated the iconic billboard to the MiMo Biscayne Association.

“That’s what historic districts do – they protect the character of a place so you know where you are when you’re there,” said Nancy Liebman, now president of the MiMo Biscayne Association and a self-described “historic district junkie” who was a key player in the preservation of South Beach’s Art Deco District.

The 55th Street Station, at the southern edge of the MiMo District at 55th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, is the neighborhood’s original pioneer, opened in 1999 by restaurateur Mark Soyka. Often hailed as a visionary for planting his famed, 24-hour News Café on South Beach’s Ocean Drive in 1988, Soyka has kept the complex of salons, shops and design studios humming with life. The station is anchored by Soyka, his eponymous restaurant that serves American bistro fare and live jazz in a cavernous converted railroad station. Across the street, Andiamo offers delicious thin-crust, brick-oven pizza in an Art Deco former tire shop at 5600 Biscayne Blvd.

Just north up the boulevard is the entrance to Morningside, one of Miami’s oldest residential neighborhoods, spanning east of Biscayne Boulevard from Northeast 50th Terrace to Northeast 60th Street. The historic subdivision’s tree-lined streets are home to preserved mansions and villas, with architectural styles ranging from 1920s Mediterranean Revival to the Art Deco influences of the 1930s and early 1940s. The neighborhood is well-suited for bike rides, particularly through waterfront Morningside Park, which offers tennis courts, kayaking and paddle boarding. Some of the extraordinary homes open their doors to visitors for the Historic Morningside Home Tour, typically held in March.

At the northern end of the MiMo District, Jain’s Vagabond Hotel, considered the crown jewel of the Upper East Side, is gleaming again at 7301 Biscayne Blvd. The landmark building was recognized for its significance in February 2015 and named to the National Register of Historic Places.

The former motel’s kitschy, neon motel sign still touts the wonders of air conditioning. The building retains its atomic-age geometric designs, eccentric cantilevered rooflines and the car-friendly porte-cochere designed by architect B. Robert Swartburg, who also built the sleek, Art Deco Delano hotel on Miami Beach. Its terrazzo and hardwood floors have been restored. A reproduction of an original mermaid mosaic swims at the bottom of the hotel pool.

But the hotel’s affordable 45 rooms, decorated in 1950s-inspired furniture, are up to 21st-Century speed, with flat-screen TVs, WiFi and geometric murals by resident artist Kenneth Nyakabwa. The hotel’s retro-chic lobby is now a popular restaurant helmed by talented, young chef Alex Chang. Live music, DJ parties and movie screenings have turned the hotel pool into a hangout for local and visitors.

Expect more from Jain, who has purchased a half-dozen other MiMo motels and structures along the boulevard. Next up for revamp is the Royal Motel, 7411 Biscayne Blvd., next door to the Vagabond. The 1951 motel will become a cooking school led by chef Norman Van Aken, a pioneer in Floribbean cuisine, and business partner Candace Walsh.

Across the street, John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs, Inc., is bringing an Art Deco property back to life at 7350 Biscayne Blvd. The three-story former motel will become headquarters and test kitchen for his hospitality company, which claims such Miami culinary success stories as Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and Khong River House in Miami Beach and Swine in Coral Gables.

“Though international growth is a part of our company’s roadmap, Miami is at the heart of our business, and we continue to strive to be an active force in changing the face of transitional neighborhoods of our city,” Kunkel says.

MiMo District is already forging a reputation for its foodie scene. Celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein, whose creations celebrate Miami’s uniqueness and her Jewish-Latina heritage, opened Michy’s restaurant at 6927 Biscayne Blvd. to rave reviews in 2006. She recently re-opened the site with a new concept and name, Cena (which means “supper” in Spanish), featuring seasonal small plates.

The casting call of stellar restaurants that call the district home include: The Federal, 5132 Biscayne Blvd.; Blue Collar, 6730 Biscayne Blvd.; Balans, 6780 Biscayne Blvd.; Via Verdi Cucina, 6900 Biscayne Blvd.; Dogma Grill, 7030 Biscayne Blvd.; Ms. Cheezious, 7418 Biscayne Blvd., and Loba, 7420 Biscayne Blvd., among others.

Alain Guillen and partner Jennifer Frehling, who also own the design store FrangiPani in nearby Wynwood, opened the specialty food store Flavorish at 7238 Biscayne Blvd. in 2014, featuring artisanal market staples, cookbooks and wine.

“It’s an exciting time to be here,” Guillen says. “It feels like change is happening right outside our door.”

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