Thank you to David Rifkind, Associate Professor at the College of Architecture + The Arts at Florida International University, for his scholarship and tips on Art Deco.
South Beach’s Art Deco neighborhood is unique in the world. The buildings aim to reflect the early twentieth century fascination with machines and their sleek designs. The components are linear—often resembling an ocean liner, a spaceship, or an…appliance, like a toaster or refrigerator!
An event seemingly unrelated to life in the Western World after World War I greatly influenced Art Deco. In 1922, the Tomb of King Tutankhamen was opened, and the linear bas-relief decorative designs captivated the imagination of European and American artists. Art Deco architects continued to look outside of Europe and incorporated Mesopotamian and Mesoamerican designs, of which the ziggurat is the most recognizable.
These ten aesthetic devices are common characteristics used in South Beach Art Deco:
Rule of Three
Buildings are often three stories tall and the facades are divided into three. According to one historian, many buildings were three stories, because city codes at the time required anything higher to have an elevator, a considerable construction and maintenance cost. This aesthetic design is not strictly adhered to, as there are several taller structures such as the Lincoln Theatre and the Albion.
White Facades with Pastel Highlights
Although the shapes of the buildings are geometric, the palettes of the buildings are meant to reflect the environment they exist in: clouds, water, and flora. As Rifkind explains “One interesting thing about Miami Beach Art Deco is that it is roughly contemporaneous with Coral Gables Mediterranean Revival architecture, and that both color palettes (pastels at the Beach, earth tones in the Gables) were meant to resonate with the bright yellow South Florida sunlight.”
Ziggurat Rooflines: “A ziggurat is a terraced pyramid with each story smaller than the one below it. Art Deco skyscrapers may have complex groupings of rectangles or trapezoids. Sometimes two contrasting materials are used to create subtle bands of color, a strong sense of line, or the illusion of pillars. The logical progression of steps and the rhythmical repetition of shapes suggest ancient architecture, yet also celebrate a new, technological era.” Jackie Craven
Curved Edges: Art Deco was the first architectural movement in the USA to look forward rather than back. The curved facades on many building make them seem more machine than apartment. These references to ocean liners and airplanes created an association with cosmopolitan elegance and mass tourism.
Eyebrows!!!: Long horizontal shades of reinforced concrete that seem like unfinished balconies are essential to the compositional movement of Art Deco.
Porthole Windows: Architects incorporated circular windows to make their buildings resemble ocean liners.
Relief Art: Low relief, abstracted representations of flora and fauna are present on several buildings.
Neon: New building styles require new materials. The neon of SoBe is the perfect embodiment of this. In the 1930s, neon was a reflection of cosmopolitan sophistication.
Glass Bricks: These are so Miami! The glass bricks reinforced the geometric design of the buildings. David Rifkind, “Owens Illinois Glass Company started making them in 1932, and they debuted at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago, which was a landmark in the adoption of Art Deco in the US.”
Terrazzo Floors: If you ask politely, hotel staff will often let you step into the lobby to appreciate the geometric Terrazzo floor patterns. Notice how the patterns and colors redefine the spaces through movement and symmetry.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 2020 describes Art Deco in the following manner, “Art deco…designates a style of design that originated in French luxury goods shortly before World War I and became ubiquitously and internationally popular during the 1920s and 30s. Coined in the 1960s, the name derives from the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative Arts, where the style reached its apex. Art deco is characterized by long, thin forms, curving surfaces, and geometric patterning. The practitioners of the style attempted to describe the sleekness they thought expressive of the machine age.”
PARK CENTRAL HOTEL
Park Central Hotel (now The Celino)
Address: 640 Ocean Drive
Architect: Henry Hohauser
Tiffany (now The Hotel of South Beach)
Address: 801 Collins Avenue
Architect: L. Murray Dixon
The Breakwater (now Hotel Breakwater South Beach)
Address: 940 Ocean Drive
Architect: Anton Skislewicz
Essex House Hotel
Address: 1001 Collins Avenue
Architect: Henry Hohauser
Address: 1250 Ocean Drive
Architect: Kiehnel & Elliot
VILLA CASA CASUARINA (VERSACE MANSION)
Address: 1116 Ocean Drive
Villa Casa Casuarina is not an Art Deco building, it is a Mediterranean Revival building. So why is it highlighted here? It’s actually the one somber part of this walk. Gianni Versace, the celebrated Italian fashion designer and champion of SoBe, called this villa his home. In the 1990s,Versace helped redefine South Beach’s culture as one that was open and hedonistic and contributed to its international recognition. On 15 July 1997, however, after visiting his favorite News Cafe, Versace was gunned down on these very steps by a deranged fugitive.
“It’s very important for people to look themself, to express themself. The only heart in fashion is to be yourself, and, I think we designers have to help people to be glamorous, happy, and alive.” Gianni Versace, Today Show in 1996
BARBARA BAER CAPITMAN MEMORIAL
Miami is truly a result of the visions of strong women. Just as mainland Miami would not be without Julia Tuttle, South Beach’s Art Deco would not exist if not for Barbara Baer Capitman. Through her activism and passion, South Beach’s Art Deco neighborhood was the nation’s first 20th century National Historic District. In 1977, Capitman and Leonard Horowitz founded the Miami Design Preservation Leag (MDPL), and fought to protect and preserve the neighborhood that makes South Beach unique.
On the east side of Ocean Drive, midway between 13th & 14th, is a memorial to Capitman. To read more about her heroic efforts, including how and why she chained herself to a building, you can read this page.
The McAlpin (now Hilton Grand Vacations)
Address: 1424 Ocean Drive
Architect: L. Murray Dixon
When you continue north on Ocean Drive, you’ll hit a Starbucks. This marks the end of authenticity and the start of what locals call Condo Canyon. This section of South Beach is characterized by bland buildings, with an urban design that is uncoordinated and claustrophobic. All of South Beach would have seen this banal fate if not for the efforts of the Miami Design Preservation League. We’ll avoid this by turning into the small alley north of the Betsy (opposite of Starbucks).
THE BETSY POETRY RAIL
The Betsy Hotel is a supporter of the arts, and nowhere is this better reflected than in this alley. The Betsy Poetry Rail features poems by authors important to the identity of Miami. FIU Professors Richard Blanco and Campbell McGrath are featured. Blanco’s poem “Some Days the Sea” can be found at the lowest point of the wave.
Richard Blanco’s “Some Days the Sea” can be read in full here. Richard Blanco is one of the most beloved and influential poets and storytellers writing today. As a historic presidential inaugural poet (Obama’s Second Inauguration), public speaker, teacher and memoirist, he continues to travel the world, inviting audiences to reconnect to the heart of the human experience and all of its beautiful diversity.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING