December 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 8
Every January, South Beach, the tropical-Deco capital, holds a week-long party
Wherever I went on a visit to Miami’s South Beach, people wanted to tell me what it used to be like. From the 1960s into the 1980s, I heard, the one-and-a-half-square-mile strip of island on the Atlantic Ocean was little more than a warehouse for the near-poverty- level elderly, a forgotten, crime-ridden neighborhood of menace and drugs. But at the same time, thanks to the televised glamour of “Miami Vice,” and the efforts of a vocal group of preservationists, the place was becoming the greatest outdoor Art Deco museum anywhere in the world.
Today, when South Beach is hotter than ever in the minds of a particular type of trend spotter, it is once again threatened, this time by the predictable accessories of success: mall-like chain stores and massive apartment complexes. Moreover, the epicenter of “hot” or “cool” (the terms appear to be interchangeable) has moved a half-mile north of low-rise South Beach to the newly refurbished taller hotels that line Collins Avenue to form a wall, architecturally charming but implacable nonetheless, between the street and the beach.
Looking back at the history of the place, which I did last January, during the Miami Design Preservation League’s twenty-first annual Art Deco Weekend, I kept trying to envision South Beach as it was when Barbara Capitman, recently widowed and with a background in interior design, came upon it in the mid-1970s. From the bleak evidence of rundown buildings that barely whispered of the tropical-colored glory of a thirties beach resort in full flourish, Capitman spotted something nobody else had and she rallied a small band of supporters to form the Miami Design Preservation League.
Capitman wanted to revivify a culture that was sleeping but not gone in the hundreds of structures that, remarkably, had survived the neglect of decades. She was way ahead of her time. Although haute Deco had by then made a comeback, few gave thought to the style in its humblest, most vernacular form. When, after the kinds of battles common to all nascent preservation movements, Capitman managed to have a section of South Beach declared a National Historic District in 1979, it was the first listing ever of a twentieth-century neighborhood. The Art Deco society that she founded around the same time was the first such organization in the world.
Art Deco Weekend, now in its twenty-second year, actually stretches over a week of lectures, films, tours, concerts, and outdoor sales of antiques, all of which make for a great introduction to South Beach and its kaleidoscopic past. The theme in 1998 was fashion, in recognition of Miami’s growing role as a magnet for models and designers.
New on the schedule was an hourand-a-half excursion on a small canopied boat, docked on the Collins Canal at the north end of the official South Beach Art Deco District. The cruise followed an itinerary planned by Randall Robinson, who works for the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation. He explained that we’d be traveling past what he called the Lost Art Deco District. With architecture as fine as any on South Beach but without the shield of historic designation, it is under constant threat.
Robinson painted a quick history of Miami Beach, from its early days as a mosquito-ridden swamp to the lush life of the 1950s and 1960s, massively documented by hotels we floated past. Once a synonym for vulgarity, even behemoths like the Fontainebleau now have their defenders, among them Robinson, who pronounced Morris Lapidus’s 1954 Eden Roc “a jewel.”
The Collins Canal was the work of a South Florida pioneer farmer, John S. Collins, who in order to more easily transport his mangoes and avocados in 1912 cut this waterway across the island that forms today’s Miami Beach. Turning into Indian Creek, we came upon small islands holding the last remaining examples of the Mediterranean Revival mansions of the teens and early twenties, with their red-tiled roofs and Gothic arches. These represent the first phase of Miami as a resort, when the entrepreneur Carl Fisher platted the area starting in 1913, cut down its forbidding growth, and, setting himself a seemingly impossible task, dredged sand from the ocean bottom to create Miami’s famous strand.
The boat trip was but one of many competing events. I found that I needed to take the early-morning Saturday walking tour so as to keep the noon hour clear for a lecture, “The Fashion Revolution: The Art and Style of Paul Poiret,” followed immediately by a fashion-rich 1935 movie, My Man Godfrey . That meant skipping a concert by the Moon Over Miami quartet, at an outdoor stage on the north end of the district. Later I did manage to catch the tail end of a vigorous set by John G. and his Dixie Kats at the South Stage. Then I had to get back to the lecture hall to hear a food writer, Christopher !done, summon up “Fashionable Soirées of the Platinum Age,” followed by another movie classic, Dinner at Eight .
And so it went. On Sunday a trolley tour of the district, a lecture on fashion photography, more concerts, and another talk, this time from Michael Boodro, arts editor of Vogue , characterizing “Streamlined Style: The Cocktail Party and the Cocktail Dress.” Speaking of the enthusiasm with which 1920s and 1930s America embraced Deco in every aspect of living, Boodro teased out interesting connections by asking such questions as: What does a dress have in common with a skyscraper, and does a streamlined toaster work any faster?
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.