By: Jen Karetnick
In 2015, Miami Beach, is celebrating a milestone birthday. Considering the effects over the years on this Art Deco treasure of a beach city, from economic depressions and natural disasters, the Centennial, spearheaded by Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, is not only cause for reflection, but also a cause for rejoicing.
Miami Beach is not a continuous land mass. Rather, it’s a series of islands located between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay, joined together by bridges that locals call “causeways.” Some of these islands are natural, some man-made and some, made up of salt-sucking mangroves, uninhabitable (but still beautiful to look at and perhaps dock a boat at and kayak to). All are low-lying, coastal and tropical, with elements such as gorgeous white-sand beaches, fruit and palm trees and access to crystalline waters.
These natural foundations eventually made the series of islands, incorporated as a Town on March 26, 1915 as Miami Beach, and later expanded to a City in 1917, a paradise for entrepreneurs and developers.
The original intention of the first settlers, a father-son team named Henry and Charles Lum, who bought the land in 1870 for 25 cents per acre, was to help shipwreck victims. Their building, the Biscayne House of Refuge, located around 72nd Street, was Miami Beach’s first, though it no longer stands. A decade later, two industrialists from New Jersey tried and failed to launch a coconut plantation. However, a partner in the venture, John S. Collins, succeeded in diversifying the crops, mainly into mangos and avocados, by the early 1900s.
It was Collins and his family who soon saw possibilities beyond agriculture. Separately and together with other financiers, mainly members of the Pancoast family; the Lummus brothers, bankers from Miami; and a tycoon from Indianapolis, Carl Graham Fisher, they cleared the land, connected it to the mainland, and built numerous, historic resorts. Several of these still survive, including Brown’s Hotel, where the uber-popular Prime 112 restaurant, run by Myles Chefetz, is located, as well as the Roney Plaza Hotel and the recently redone Nautilus South Beach Hotel.
In the 1920s, Fisher and his friends dredged the Bay and land-filled what would become the exclusive, mansion-studded Star, Palm, and Hibiscus Islands. They also created the Sunset Islands, much of Normandy Isle and most of the Venetian Islands. Today, you can take a “Hydra Terra” ride with Duck Tours South Beach to see, at least from a distance, these fabulous homes, where celebrity musicians, including longtime Miami supporters Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Enrique Iglesias and retired tennis pro Anna Kournikova, and Lenny Kravitz live.
You’ll also find many sites named for these developers, including Collins Avenue, home to renowned resorts renovated in both the 90s and recently, such as the Delano, National Hotel Miami Beach, Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach (a Morris Lapidus original) and SLS South Beach, as well as Lummus Park, located beachside on Ocean Drive.
The Disasters and the Diversity
Miami Beach’s prosperity, fueled by Carl Fisher’s relentless promotion to his Northeastern and Midwestern magnate colleagues, came to a temporary end after the destructive 1926 hurricane. It rebounded – in fact, it roared – throughout the Forties and Fifties, with carpetbaggers and mobsters such as Al Capone as well as celebrities like Jackie Gleason (for which The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater was originally named). Iconic high-end fixtures such as The Forge Restaurant & Wine Bar, where Capone and his notorious cohorts drank from founder Al Malnick’s high-end wine cellar, played against low-end dives like The Deuce Bar, the oldest operating bar on South Beach, opened in 1926. Miami resident Melissa Burley, former Mac’s Club Deuce bartender and author of the photography book Mac’s Club Deuce Bar, says despite the fact that Mac, who bought the bar in 1964 and added his name to it, just turned 100 himself, he goes into work every day. The reason for its popularity, she notes, was and is its “cheap, strong drinks and no-nonsense bartenders.” (That doesn’t keep the nonsense from happening broth inside and outside the bar, of course.)
But the economic climate changed with in the 1960s. The rise of Castro, the failure of the Bay of Pigs intervention and the Mariel boatlift brought a wave of Cuban refugees for which a city that was essentially a playground was unprepared to handle. Leftover anti-Semitism from the war forced the Jewish populace to wait out their remaining years in once-glorious, then-rundown hotels. Haitians began to flee their island and drift, quite literally, into Miami Beach as well.
Fortunately, what had become a citywide depression by the 1970s was paradise for the disenfranchised. In addition to more and more incoming immigrants from the Caribbean and South America, the LGBT, writer and artist communities found plenty of opportunity to live and work on the cheap, as did photographers looking for cheap modeling locales and television series producers and filmmakers. Before the Millennium, shows such as Miami Vice, where scenes were filmed everywhere from Lummus Park to Mac’s Club Deuce, and movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Scarface, The Birdcage and There’s Something about Mary.
Thus Miami Beach regained its reputation as a locale throughout the decades for being the premier hotspot for bathing beauties: Everybody from Miami Beach’s original pin-up model Bunny Yeager, who graces the cover of Miami writer Joann Biondi’s Miami Beach Memories: A Nostalgic Chronicle of Days Gone By (she interviewed 101 residents who recalled the era from the 1920s to the 1960s) to today’s Sports Illustrated cover girls. It also earned worldwide status, thanks to events such as White Party Week and Winter Party Festival, as one of the most gay-friendly populaces.
The influx of money and celebrities brought by the modeling, television and film industries revitalized Miami Beach residents. Instead of allowing valuable architecture to be razed, passionate residents led by Barbara Capitman revitalized it. In 1979, the Art Deco District, which boasts the largest collection of Art Deco buildings on the planet, was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places. And while the Category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 derailed the process of restoration for about a year, Miami Beach can now claim that every historic resort has been reclaimed from the wrecking ball at least once.
Today, the best way to learn about Miami Beach is through the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL). This is the entity whose members, like Capitman, were and still are responsible for saving the Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival and Miami Modern (a.k.a. Streamline Moderne) buildings that landed Miami Beach once again on the tourism map in the 1990s. Throughout the year, the MDPL, which also runs the Art Deco Welcome Center, will be hosting an in-depth exhibit at its newly redesigned museum at 1001 Ocean Drive. In addition to running the famous 90-minute Art Deco Walking Tours of the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District, the MDPL will also offer a series of films, lectures and workshops on the city’s history, architecture and architects – including the renowned Morris Lapidus and the equally as talented but lesser-known Henry Hohauser – throughout the year.
Officially, Miami Beach, that architectural Grande Dame, will turn 100 on March 26, 2015. Throughout that week, from the 22-26, Mayor Levine says, “We are planning a major 100-hour extravaganza that appropriately celebrates our diverse and lively history.”
He retained Bruce Orosz, longtime Miami Beach resident and CEO of event management firm ACT Productions, Inc., to both launch the celebration and plan the pinnacle events. Orosz says, We have been provided a blank canvas by Mayor Levine and are busy developing events the city can be proud of. We look forward to making the announcement soon as to the performing artists we have secured to play on the two concerts’ nights, March 25 - 26, 2015.”
However, promotions are being planned throughout the year at cultural, fashion, sports and entertainment hot spots of Miami Beach – ranging from Art Basel Miami Beach to the Miami International Auto Show – beginning immediately after Halloween, 2014.
For instance, the city’s cherished epicurean event, the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival will offer 100 days of continuous giveaways from through January 28, 2015. In addition, the Lee Brian Schrager-directed Festival is also sponsoring a citizen participation cake design contest through December; the winner’s cake is exhibited at the February event in front of world-renowned chefs and hometown crowds alike.
The party won’t stop until October 31, 2015. But then again, these days, in “America’s Riviera” – the name the City of Miami Beach is now known as – the party never really does. For more information, visit MiamiBeach100.