Miami Beach’s Art Deco Hotels

betsy

The Betsy

essex house hotel

The glowing Essex House Hotel

delano

The all white Delano

art deco

The colors of the Art Deco District

national hotel

The National Hotel

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By: Shayne Benowitz

Originally envisioned as a coconut, avocado and mango farm, Miami Beach has grown from a desolate stretch of sand into an international vacation destination. Miami Beach pioneers 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.

Over the decades, Miami Beach has evolved from an early 1920s swimming spot (mainlanders had to cross the bay by boat) to a pre- and post-World War II vacation spot. In the 1970s and early 80s, South Beach downshifted to a retirement village where elderly Northeasterners sat on porches and socialized. Thanks to the determination of a few visionaries in the late 70s who saw the architectural importance of this fading neighborhood, Miami Beach’s world famous Art Deco architecture was preserved and hotel restorations began in earnest in the 1980s and 90s. The 1990s brought fashion models and film producers who visually spread the word of South Beach’s unique Art Deco quarter – along with its stunning ocean and beaches – to the world. Today, South Beach boasts beautifully restored Art Deco hotels, bustling sidewalk cafes, legendary nightlife and celebrity chef restaurants.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best way to explore Miami Beach’s history is through its architecture. The Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) is the organization responsible for designating much of the beach’s terrain into historic districts. The Art Deco Welcome Center, located at MDPL’s headquarters at 10th Street and Ocean Drive, is the best place to start your exploration of the National Register Art Deco District, which is located in the heart of South Beach from 6th Street to 23rd Street. Stroll the streets of South Beach as you marvel at one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world—and one of the most distinctive 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 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. Each January, Miami Beach celebrates its architectural heritage during Art Deco Weekend, a three-day festival celebrating Art Deco architecture, automobiles, music, fashion and art.

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, friezes, porthole windows and neon lighting. Make your way inside a building’s lobby and look for glass block details, chandeliers, curved plaster ceilings, terrazzo floors and idyllic murals.

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.

Two of the most prolific Art Deco era architects on Miami Beach are Henry Hohauser and L. Murray Dixon. Both men designed hotels, apartment buildings and private homes in the area. For a glimpse of Hohauser’s work, stop by the Celino Hotel at 6th and Ocean. The Celino has a slightly grander feel than other Ocean Drive hotels thanks to its double height lobby and seven floors of rooms. Note the three porthole windows of the façade, the symmetry of its exterior and the curved design of its terrazzo floors. At Hohauser’s smaller Essex House on 10th and Collins, look up to admire its neon lit spire and curved “eyebrow” windows. Once inside, marvel at the hotel’s well preserved Everglades mural and striking ziggurat fireplace. The fireplace and lobby wainscoting are both made of Vitrolite (a man-made composite similar to, but cheaper than, marble). L. Murray Dixon’s work includes The Tides and Victor Hotel – both on Ocean Drive – as well as the Marlin Hotel, Raleigh Hotel, Ritz Plaza Hotel/SLS South Beach and The Betsy Ross.

You may notice that many of South Beach’s hotels bear two names on the façade—for instance, the Ritz-Carlton and DiLido Beach or the Celino South Beach and the Park Central. As another measure to preserve the original architecture of these buildings, the original names on the façade must also remain. 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 with the Delano and the SLS South Beach, both of which happen to be designed by Starck. While many hotels take pains to respect the Art Deco aesthetic, new amenities like rooftop pools and bars, spas and expanded patio restaurants were not part of South Beach’s original hotel landscape.

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 SLS, the Raleigh, and the Shelborne South Beach.

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.

More About Miami Hotels

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