Discover Miami's Retro Hotels and MIMO Architecture

casuarina

Casa Casuarina

fontainebleau night

The Fontainebleau at night

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The Vagabond is one example of MiMo architecture

vagabond pool

Vagabond Hotel

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By: Shayne Benowitz

Whether it’s the pastel curves and perfect symmetry of Art Deco or the terracotta tile roofs and stucco façades of Mediterranean Revival, Miami Beach’s architecture is part of its character.

MiMo, or Miami Modern, is another distinctive architectural style seen in both Miami Beach and the mainland. With a playful space age aesthetic and a touch of 50s kitsch, this is Miami’s tropical resort riff on the Mid-Century Modernist architecture that was sweeping the rest of the world after World War II. Iconic resort hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc are examples of MiMo. Thanks to groups like the Miami Design Preservation League, MiMo architecture has been lovingly preserved for all to encounter and enjoy today.

Miami’s Architectural Evolution

In order to appreciate where MiMo came from, it helps to understand the evolution of Miami Beach’s architecture through the decades. A city incorporated in 1915, Miami Beach is one of the youngest in the country, and in a way, it’s still growing up today. Like any new settlement, the first style of architecture is known as Vernacular, meaning built with materials that are found naturally in the environment. For Miami Beach, this included limestone and pinewood. Simple bungalows were constructed of pine and coral rock. Porches and cross ventilation in all rooms helped keep things cool in pre-air conditioning days.

Later on, early developers like Carl Fisher and Newt Roney had big plans for grand resorts along Biscayne Bay and the beach, but the hurricane of 1926 followed by the stock market collapse in 1929 changed the shape of Miami Beach’s development. Mediterranean Revival was a popular style on the beach in the 1920s and 30s with romantic designs reminiscent of buildings found in Spain and Italy. Stucco façades, tile roofs, balconies and arched windows gave Miami Beach an air of European Riviera glamour. One of the most prominent examples of Mediterranean Revivial architecture on the beach is Casa Casuarina on 8th and Ocean, also known as the former Versace Mansion, which today is a fine dining restaurant and hotel.

Art Deco is perhaps the architectural style that Miami is most famous for, with its streamlined symmetry, stepped ziggurat rooflines, and colorful relief façades. Miami Beach actually has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the country. Erected in the 1930s and 40s, these buildings can be found along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue between 6th and 23rd Streets.

MIMO Architecture and Hotels

This brings us up to date to the MiMo architectural movement of the 1950s and 60s, which brought a greater interplay between the indoor and outdoor features of a building. With MiMo came courtyards and catwalks, balconies and breeze blocks, cantilevered rooflines with playful acute angles, delta wing accents reminiscent of aviation and the space age, sweeping curved walls, bean pole columns, and cheese hole accents. MiMo architecture was playful, eccentric, and even extravagant while also adhering to a geometrical aesthetic inspired by the Modern art movement of the time.

This style was implemented in both grand beachside resorts and also in modest garden apartments in Miami Beach. Today, there are four districts in which to explore this architectural style: the Morris Lapidus Mid-20th Century Historic District, the North Beach Resort Historic District, the Normandy Shore & Normandy Isles National Register District and the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Historic District. Based in Miami Beach, the Miami Design Preservation League offers MiMo Walking Tours. Back on the mainland, the MiMo Biscayne Boulevard Association provides history and maps of the area.

Morris Lapidus designed some of the most impressive examples of MiMo in Miami Beach. In his one-mile long historic district, 12 of the 14 properties are built in the MiMo style, and Lapidus designed five of the most impressive. Two of his most iconic are the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, which are next door to each other.

The Fontainebleau was built with a sweeping curved façade that opens up onto a grand poolside area accessible by a grand staircase. The dramatic staircase is a key feature at the Fontainebleau. Inside the lobby is the famous “stairway to nowhere.” Purely for show, women would make their entrance by sashaying down these stairs. Today, it still makes for a great photo op. The black and white bowtie marble floor at the Fontainebleau is another iconic MiMo detail, playing with both geometry and extravagance.

While MiMo is associated with elegance and glamour, the breezy, yet modest garden apartments found in Miami Beach are also a result of this movement. These are often two-story high apartment complexes with buildings mirroring each other connected by a courtyard and outdoor catwalks. The tranquil, shady respite of the courtyard proved to be a desirable design for Miami’s subtropical temperatures and lifestyle. In essence, Miami Modern represents a whimsical, tropical response to the sparse geometrics of International style.

Whether built for the extravagant upper crust or the middle-class American tourist, Miami Modern makes for some of the most delightful architecture in the city. Some landmark MiMo buildings on the mainland include the Bacardi Building, with its eye-catching blue and white tiled exterior, and the impeccably restored Vagabond Motel. Both properties are both located along the Biscayne Boulevard corridor, which was the main artery into Miami before I-95 was built.

The Motel Age gave birth to several classic 50s motels on Biscayne Boulevard including the Vagabond, the New Yorker, the Shalimar and the Sinbad. Be sure to look for the Coppertone Girl, an iconic Miami street sign at 73rd Street and Biscayne. MiMo makes it wonderfully apparent how the motel era and 50s car culture took advantage of Miami’s perfect sun-and-fun backdrop. The city is lucky to have so many surviving examples of this unique architectural style.

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