Miami Hot And Cool

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While all this was going on, South Beach itself spread invitingly for blocks and blocks, a presence shaped by a theme of tropical ease and fun. Miami Beach architecture and sociology grew up together out of the era of beachfront informality that Carl Fisher introduced in the 1920s. At a time when a growing middle class had more money to spend, Fisher popularized the idea of vacationing. He publicized his infant resort by photographing young women in skimpier swimsuits than had ever been seen and made sure their pictures appeared in newspapers nationwide.

Fisher’s dream grew and then burst along with the Beach’s prosperity because of the combined blows of a devastating hurricane and the 1926 collapse of Florida’s land boom. Miami was hit hard long before most of the country knew anything of financial collapse, and it roared back first too. By 1932 six architects had set their stamp on the beach, creating simple two- and three-story hotels and apartment buildings for people of fairly modest means who could somehow still afford holidays.

Art Deco Weekend offered seven walking tours, and on the one I selected, the guide, Michael Hughes, took us past the hotels that line Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue. He pointed to the Cardozo Hotel, one of the earliest places to undergo restoration and to sport the brilliant colors that characterized the early period of renovation in the 1970s. Now, in a stylistic reversal, many hotels are turning to soothing shades of cream and sand and terra cotta, the Cardozo among them.

The walk with Hughes opened up my eyes to what makes Miami the tropical Deco capital of the world. He pointed to the vertical elements—ziggurats, spires, and towers reminiscent of 1920s radios and skyscrapers. Motifs evoking thirties ocean liners include horizontal bands that mark off each story, stucco “eyebrows” that shade balconies and windows, and the aerodynamically rounded facades that celebrate speed. After an hour I was alert to all the refinements of the style, able to spot flamingos etched on windows and the ubiquitous Mayan “feather and fountain” design above a doorway. I admired the swirling patterns on terrazzo floors of hotel lobbies and identified man-made materials—scagliola and, most wonderfully, Vitrolite—a plasticlike version of marble that in shiny black, red, and green formed racing stripes along walls and edged hotel reception desks.

Since tourists tend to stick to the district’s three main streets—Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue—Hughes made a point of urging us to explore nearby residential avenues like Euclid and Pennsylvania. Here, only four blocks from the ocean, is a slightly sleepier South Beach, a place where people actually live. The lowslung apartments bear the same exquisitely detailed ceramic plaques, portholed windows, and bands of color as the hotels. For-sale signs on every block hint that this too is a world in transition. What were once modest rentals for an aging population are now high-priced condominiums.

From the earliest days, Barbara Capitman could see the very problems that the success that hadn’t happened yet would bring. “It became apparent that restoration could be just as destructive of the human elements of a neighborhood as massive urban renewal projects,” she wrote in an essay with her son Andrew, and ”... preservation of the District and its unique, large elderlypopulation must serve as a model for how gentrification can be controlled.”

She wrote that in 1979, when the fashion-frenzied, hot and cool South Beach we see today lay far in the future. Capitman died in 1990, but to her band of two dozen or so supporters who fight every day against the untrammeled growth eating at the district’s edges, her memory is fresh.

—Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP