Art Deco Wonderland

Art Deco Wonderland photo

Miami's Art Deco District is the only historic district in the United States in which all structures date from the early 20th century. More than 800 buildings in this mile-square area have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Art Deco is the term given to the modern architecture that emerged in the late '20s and'30s. Its forms are eclectic, abstracted from nature, especially birds, butterflies, and flowers, from ancient Aztec, Mayan, Babylonian, Chaldean, Egyptian, and Hebrew designs, and from the streamlined, aerodynamic, and geometric shapes that flourished in the post-Depression building boom of the late 1930s and early 1940s. You'll find sherbet-colored buildings with neon signs, rounded corners, vertical columns, fluted eaves, and Mediterranean arches all along this inner ear-shaped district that lies on the east side of Miami's South Beach, bordered by the ocean, Lenox Court, and 6th and 23rd streets.

Miami Beach, a string of 17 islands in Biscayne Bay, is often considered America's Riviera, luring refugees to its warm sunshine, sandy beaches, and graceful palms. Since 1912, when millionaire promoter Carl Graham Fisher began pouring a hefty portion of his fortune into developing this necklace of sandy islands, Miami Beach has experienced successive waves of boom and bust. In 1926, a devastating hurricane struck, causing widespread devastation. As a result of the rebuilding that occurred, a fanciful style of architecture appeared, today known generally as Art Deco.

South Beach, known fondly as Sobe, is a vibrant neighborhood full of pastel-colored Miami Beach hotels and trendy outdoor cafés at the southern end of Miami Beach up to 23rd Street. Once a downtrodden area, it's been transformed into the SoHo of the South, an artsy place of entertainment and culture. Here, you can sip an espresso at a café as you watch the parade of artists, models, backpackers, and young couples stroll by. So many TV commercials, shows, and movies have been filmed here that you may recognize a number of buildings or even get to watch a scene being filmed.

Go to Lummus Park on the beach to hear reggae and calypso music concerts. Or shop small boutiques with new-wave clothing, frozen yogurt stores, art galleries, and antiques shops that have appeared along Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue. Whether you visit during the day or stop by for an evening meal or walk, this area is hopping with people hoping to see and be seen.

The transformation of this neighborhood began with the restoration of a trio of low rise hotels — the Hotel Cardozo, built in 1939, Hotel Carlyle, built in 1941, and the Hotel Leslie, built in 1937, all brazenly bathed in Art Deco pinks, white and grays. As you stroll the streets of the district, look for three distinct architectural styles — Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival, and MiMo.

Miami Beach's building boom came during the second phase of Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne, which began with the stock market crash and ended with the outbreak of World War II. It relied more on machine-inspired forms. Stripped Classic or Depression Moderne was a sub-style often used for governmental buildings — the U.S. Post Office is the best example in Miami Beach. Architects used local imagery to create what's now known as Tropical Deco, with buildings covered with relief ornamentation featuring whimsical flora, fauna and ocean-liner motifs to reinforce the image of Miami Beach as a seaside resort.

Mediterranean Revival buildings evoke an Old World image, featuring decorative columns, arched windows, clay barrel tile roofs, rough stucco walls, wrought iron and spindle gates guarding picturesque courtyards. These buildings are a whimsical interpretation of the old world, combining elements from differing Mediterranean styles resulting in a "fantasy" architecture adopted by early 1920s Miami Beach developers, as well as elsewhere in Florida and California. The Spanish Village along Española Way is an excellent example of this style. Look for bell towers, archways, awnings, porches, balconies, carved stonework, rough stucco walls, clay tiles roofs, wrought iron fixtures.

The MiMo Style of design became popular the 1950s when the International Style of the Bauhaus heavily influenced architects. Those in Miami Beach carried on the whimsical Tropical Deco tradition using new materials and forms. Eyebrows gave way to metal louvers and sun shades, tiled mosaic walls became a popular feature as did open balconies and catwalks. A Miami Beach variant, the Garden Style, features apartments that are accessed through open-air walkways built around a central garden. Characteristics of the MiMo Style include asymmetry and rakish angles; cheese hole cutouts, kidney and amoeba shapes, futuristic jet and space age forms, mosaic murals, and the use of anodized aluminum in gold and copper.

Stroll through the Art Deco District at your own pace and take it all in — the sights, the sounds, the rhythms, and the aromas of South Beach. But if you choose to do it at night, you may need to wear sunglasses, for the glare of the neon lights can be stronger than the Florida sun is during the day.