February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
The past has a way of catching up to us in odd and unexpected ways. A friend of mine was once walking the streets of Venice and encountered the smell of sausages cooking somewhere. The aroma immediately aroused in her rich Venetian memories—not of Venice, Italy, but of Venice, California, the seaside resort where she had spent many childhood summers half a century before, basking in the sun and eating hot sausages bought from street vendors.
The photographs on these pages document a different kind of historical trigger mechanism—and in this case, the memories evoked are as much national as personal. Even for those of us who did not grow up in the Depression years, the buildings shown here tap a Sargasso Sea of memory, of Cole Porter songs and Ernst Lubitsch movie comedies, of Benny Goodman and the Big Bands, of streamliners and ocean liners—of an age that attempted to use style to escape the substance of a world apparently gone mad.
The style represented here was called Art Deco, of course, a burst of architectural modernism that flourished best in the decade of the thirties and nowhere more flamboyantly than in Miami Beach, Florida, where these buildings still endure. They were photographed by David Kaminsky, who is preparing a book on the subject of Miami Art Deco. With good reason, for in May, 1979, a square-mile section of the city was entered into the lists of the National Register of Historic places—the first twentieth-century district to be so honored.
The tiny strip of island on which Miami Beach was erected remained a barely developed stretch of sand and mangrove swamp until the arrival in 1912 of Carl Fisher, a founder of the Prest-O-Lite Company, creator of the Indianapolis Speedway, and chief promoter of the Lincoln Highway (see “The Man Who Invented Miami Beach,” by Joe McCarthy, AMERICAN HERITAGE , December, 1975). By the middle of the 1920’s, Fisher’s energies—coupled with the incredible Florida land boom of the period—had been largely responsible for transforming the jungle-ridden sandspit into a winter playground, complete with sumptuous homes, hotels, apartment complexes, golf courses, and polo fields.
Then came the hurricane of September, 1926, whose winds and waters destroyed almost everything in sight. This did not daunt Fisher. “Miami Beach was built from a mangrove swamp to an artist’s picture of reality,” he announced. “What was once done can be done again.”
And so it was—although this time without Fisher, for the most part. The hurricane and ruinous real estate investmerits in Montauk at the eastern tip of Long Island sucked away his fortune; when he died in 1939, he left only forty thousand dollars. By the time of his death, however, Miami Beach had been reinvented, once again—perhaps even more so— as “an artist’s picture of reality,” a pastel confection of Art Deco rampant upon a field of sand.
For the next two decades the district enjoyed a steady prosperity as a refuge, for those who could afford it, from the brutal winters of the North. But prosperity begat expansion, and by the end of the 1970’s the Art Deco area found itself in the backwash of development, as modern high-rise hotels and condominiums began to punctuate the skyline of the beach. Its share of the tourist trade declined, and it became an enclave of the elderly retired, 60 per cent of its residents living on limited incomes of two hundred and fifty dollars a month or less; its exuberant buildings began to crack and peel and fade.
Still, it was a community, one with an architectural coherence that does not often survive the transient demands of urban development. That quality inspired a handful of Miami citizens to get together in 1976 and form the Miami Design Development League, whose purpose was to preserve, restore, and revitalize the district. With an excellent promotion and legislative campaign—spearheaded by Barbara Baer Capitman and Karalyn W. Robinson—the first part of that goal was reached on May 14, 1979, when the district was included in the National Register—a procedure that does not guarantee preservation but certainly does make destruction more difficult. It is the league’s hope that the designation also will generate federal, local, and private money to support the physical restoration of the district and the creation of various cultural projects that will reflect the traditions of the time in which it was born—all of this without disturbing the sense of community that its permanent residents have nurtured. “We believed that we had here,” Mrs. Capitman has written, “one of the greatest opportunities for achieving neighborhood preservation and revitalization without total displacement of the residents. The Miami Design Preservation League has been determined from the outset that its preservation of the District and its unique, large elderly-population must serve as a model.…”
None of this is going to be accomplished without opposition, of course, most of it from developers who would rather tear down and build up than preserve and restore, but some of it from those who find it difficult to conceive of history in such recent terms, as well as those who dismiss the architecture of the time as transient, faddish, even tacky. But if the Art Deco district of Miami Beach does not serve the purposes of historical antiquity, or if its architectural significance is minor, is there then nothing at all to be said for what it does for the uses of memory?