By: Shayne Benowitz
While Miami Beach’s history is relatively young, it’s rich with colorful stories of a resort town born out of a mangrove swamp that was originally envisioned to be a coconut, mango, and avocado farm. A few key players—think, John Collins and Carl Fisher, for whom Collins Avenue and Fisher Island are named, respectively—made their mark on this barrier island off the coast of Miami around the time the city was incorporated in 1915. Miami Beach has continued to take shape and transform throughout the decades, and today it’s still an ever-evolving city with new developments and trends prevailing all the time.
An interesting way to explore Miami Beach’s history is through its architecture, which can still be encountered today thanks to the efforts of groups like the Miami Design Preservation League who organize daily architectural walking tours. They’re also responsible for designating much of the beach’s terrain into historic districts. Perhaps most visible is the National Register Art Deco District located in the heart of South Beach from 6th Street to 23rd Street. This is where one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world can be found, making for one of the most unique city skylines in the country.
What Is Art Deco Architecture?
Art Deco is not only an architectural style, but an overall design aesthetic first popularized in 1920s Paris, which then spread throughout the world during the 1930s and up until World War II. Two of the greatest examples of Art Deco architecture are found in New York City with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.
Most of the Art Deco buildings in Miami were built during the 1930s and ‘40s and are considered to be part of the second wave of Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne. With our tropical, seaside influences Miami’s Art Deco buildings are sometimes distinguished as Tropical Deco, characterized with pastel colors, floral and aquatic embellishments, and nautical designs reminiscent of ocean liners. What makes Miami interesting is that it’s one of the few cities designed to be walkable after the advent of the automobile, so there’s a lot of interesting architecture to see on a short stroll.
If you find yourself ambling along Ocean Drive or Collins Avenue, here are some of the hallmarks of Art Deco architecture to look for in the buildings’ exteriors: overall symmetry, ziggurat (stepped) rooflines, eyebrow window overhangs, relief facades, porthole windows, and neon lighting. Make your way inside a building’s lobby and look for terrazzo flooring, glass block details, chandeliers, and idyllic murals. Curved edges and corners are found in both the interior and exterior of Art Deco buildings.
The Miami Boutique Hotel
Ocean Drive is lined with Art Deco boutique hotels overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Lummus Park. Originally constructed in the 1930s after the stock market collapse, you’ll notice that these hotels take up relatively small plots of land—they’re not the sweeping resorts that Carl Fisher previously erected overlooking Biscayne Bay or that Morris Lapidus would go on to design further up the beach—and many are only three to four stories tall. This was done intentionally because if the buildings had any more floors, they’d require elevators and be much more expensive to construct.
Take the Breakwater Hotel, for instance, on 9th and Ocean. Its white, yellow, and blue façade is both colorful and falls into step with nautical motifs. Its allover design is symmetrical with a dramatic spire rising from the center of the rectangular-shaped, three-story building, and its roofline follows a stepped, ziggurat pattern. Its streamlined, angular, and symmetrical design is also evocative of a giant ship ready to set sail into the ocean that it overlooks.
Walk inside the Victor Hotel on 11th and Ocean or the Essex House on 10th and Collins, and you’ll find murals evoking scenes of the Everglades, terrazzo flooring, chandeliers, and glass blocks.
On Collins Avenue, starting at 17th Street, a string of taller boutique hotels built in the Art Deco style in the 1940s can be found including the National,the Delano, the newly opened SLS, the Raleigh, and the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach. You may notice that many of South Beach’s hotels bear two names on the façade—for instance, the SLS and the Ritz Plaza or the Ritz-Carlton and DiLido Beach. As another measure to preserve the original architecture of these buildings, the original names on the façade must also remain.
While Art Deco architecture has been preserved with the hotel’s exterior façade, many of today’s hotels have also chosen to preserve the interior style. However, a modern hallmark in South Beach hotel design is a dramatic overhaul resulting in contemporary glitz and glamour, often envisioned by star architects, such as Philippe Starck. This is the case in the Delano and the SLS, both of which happen to be designed by Starck.
As you walk north up the beach, as Ocean Drive turns into Collins Avenue, the history of Miami Beach unfolds before your eyes, as illustrated in the architecture and the hotels. Look around. Just think, none of this was here even 100 years ago. Duck into hotel lobbies, meander outside along their pool decks, and get caught up in the dream worlds that were constructed over the decades. Each was innovated with a fantastical point of view that characterizes the essence of Miami Beach through art, design, and architecture.
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