Walking and Touring in Miami Beach

Although we have spend many hours walking, and stopping for occasional drinks in Miami Beach’s beautifully restored art deco historic district, and especially along Ocean Avenue, we never tire of it.  Among the most interesting on our November 2014 trip were those:

Along South Pointe Park, at the southern tip of the island. The southern strip of the park is characterized by a coral walking, biking and skating sidewalk along the waterfront, all lit by a series of order tower lights. West from Ocean Avenue takes you past a large, lovely Smith & Wolensky steakhouse, an open lawn and, up along the southwestern corner of the island, to a pleasure boat harbor. The character heading east from ocean is totally different. After a small, level grass park is, believe it or not, a man made hill which appears to be popular among local children who may have never before seen a hill (Florida is very flat). Beyond that, a naturally landscaped sandy section with native grasses. The sidewalk ends at a walking and fishing pier that stretches out into the ocean. Just before the pier is a long sweep of beautiful beach that stretched all the way up the east coast of the island: Great for swimming, sunbathing, or like us, just a leisurely walk along the shore, past the people and the pretty, differently decided lifeguard stations.

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Art Deco Walking Tour. Although we have taken a number of Miami Beach Art Deco Center walks (this is the nonprofit group from the Preservation League that is staffed with volunteers, not the tours offered by for profit companies), each is different, with different guides and content and featuring different buildings. So we decided to take yet another. We passed the time waiting for the tour with a brief tour of the Center’s Art Deco Museum, which gave a brief history of Miami Beach and the three primary architectural styles: Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco and Miami Moderne commonly known as MiMo) and the different phases of each. The museum provided explanations and artifacts of the Deco and Moderne eras–everything from music and literature to salt and pepper shakers and poodle skirts.

Then came the tour. While we have enjoyed and gotten different things out of all the Deco District tours we have taken, our docent guide Paula gave the best, most informative tour we have enjoyed to date. She began with the founding of Miami Beach, from the initial late 1880’s failed attempt to establish it as a coconut plantation to the more successful early 1900’s creation as an avocado orchard. Then came Carl Fisher, a midwestern industrialist (Prestolite) who was determined to convert the strip of muddy, sandy mangrove swamp into a winter playground for northerners seeking a respite from the cold and the snow. He built roads, canals, hotels and parks, planted gardens and created polo fields. While the 1920’s saw a huge real estate boom, it was all but wiped out by a 1926 hurricane, followed by the Depression and World War II, which saw the hotels repurposed into army barracks and the parks and polo fields into parade grounds. Then, after the war, bolstered by the popularity of the automobile, the New Deal’s guarantee of paid holidays and a growing passion for travel, Miami Beach saw its second major boom, not just for the smaller hotels in South Beach, but increasingly (and aided by the popularity of air conditioning and elevators, of huge luxury hotels and more downscale motels to the north. By the 60’s the smaller hotells on the southern part of the island had fallen into decline and most were converted into low-priced boarding houses for retirees. By the 1970’s, developers smelled opportunity and began tearing the boarding houses down to replace them with large developments. By then, however, the Design Preservation League stepped in and convinced the city, and then the federal government to designate large stretches of Miami Beach as protected historic districts–protecting and spurring the renovation of more than 800 buildings within 1.5 square miles.

With this context, we left on our walking tour, exploring some of the best examples of all three of the architectural styles, learning how each evolved over time, seeing the architectural and design elements that characterized each and discovering the roles of important architects such as Henry Hohauser and L. Murray Dixon. Among the most interesting of the dozens of lovely buildings we saw were the:

  • Congress Hotel, a classic example of Deco ABA symmetry, zigarat style, eyebrows, playful nautical themes and blending of Aztec, Mayan, Egyptian and Hollywood elements;
  • Essex House, with its pioneering use of its corner site to wrap the building in a way that allowed for more rooms and larger windows, use of horizontal elements to denote speed, portals to denote maritime themes and its striking neon tower asked on the famous RKO tower;
  • Fat Tuesday, a classic Mediterranean Revival building with its red tile roof, small decorative balconies and frilly decoration;
  • Breakwater, which evokes the shape and feel of an ocean liner an use of color to accentuate its design elements;
  • Clevelander (which happens to have the highest grossing bar in the state–followed closely by its Ocean Drive neighbor, Mango) exemplifies the Miami Moderne style with its pierced balconies (which provided both privacy and airflow), catwalks and sloping roof;
  • Versace Mansion (described and pictures in our Miami Restaurant post), a classic Mediterranean Revival style based on Spain’s Columbus Mansion (including the Columbus family’s coat of arms), stands out with its large, elegant entryway, large wood doors and polished coral trim. The mansion, by the way, which cost $30 million to buy and convert into its present hotel, is the third most photograph home in the country, after the White House and Graceland.
  • Victor, a MiMo building with many deco elements, nautical themes and large ballroom;
  • Tides, which along with the Victor, were among the most luxurious hotels in the city’s did not, like most of the others, become a 1960’s boarding house, is distinguished especially by its interior, including its terrazzo floor, elegant balcony and silver leaf wallpaper;
  • Carlyle (which many consider the most beautiful Deco building in the city), along with its neighbor the Cardozo, were among the first and most popular party hotels in the city and prominently represented in movies (including The Birdcage) and TV shows (especially Miami Vice); and
  • Winterhaven, which while generally in the Deco style, is distinguished by its sharp corners, use of color, elegant staircase and terrazzo compass.

This is a must-do tour if you are at all interested in architecture and beautiful buildings.

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