South Beach


Special thanks to Richard Blanco Luna Goldberg and David Rifkind

South Beach (SoBe) is cradled on the bottom half of the barrier island Miami Beach. It runs north from South Pointe Park until Dade Boulevard and 24th Street. This lateral city has an area of 2.70 square miles, and a high population density of just under 1,300 people per square mile. The island is connected to mainland Miami by a series of bridges and roads, and most of the traffic in and out of the city is due to the immense tourism industry that sustains and characterizes the city. 

Most of the action takes place on Ocean Drive. The picturesque and world-famous strip houses some of the most unique architecture on SoBe. With the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world there is literally no other place like it. It plays a quintessential role in the makeup of South Beach, and is a large part of what attracts the more than 20 million tourists that pass through its beaches each year. 

Today, South Beach is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the state. With world-famous beaches, unique architecture, and an aura of glamor, it still holds true to the ideas that the original developers had for this land. As we will learn, however, the glamour of Miami Beach came at a staggering human and environmental cost that continues to this day.

South Beach seen from South Pointe Pier (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

South Beach is essentially the only neighborhood in South Florida in which visitors will not need to rent a car to explore. The distance from South Pointe Park (Southern tip of SoBe) to the Bass Museum is approximately 2.5-3 miles—a one hour walk. There are also free shuttles as well as bike and scooter rentals that make car-free transportation a breeze.

120 Bus from Downtown Miami to South Beach (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

South Beach is fully accessible from the mainland via Miami-Dade Transit. With the purchase of a Day Pass ($5.65 in March 2020), riders gain unlimited use of the Miami-Dade Transit system for 24 hours. From any metro stop one can access the MetroMover at Government Center. There, the Omni Loop will take you to the Adrienne Arsht Center stop where the Omni Metrobus Terminal is also located. At the bus station, wait for the 120 Max. This line will take you directly to Washington Ave, where it makes multiple stops. Get off the bus around Washington Ave and 5th st. Walk one block east, towards the beach and you’ve arrived at the historic strip of South Beach along Ocean Drive, home to some of the most celebrated examples of Art Deco style architecture in the the world. 

If you are driving, make sure to park in an official City of Miami Beach parking garage. The prices are reasonable in City garages. There are, however, several private parking services on Miami Beach that overcharge outrageous prices for parking. Beware of the scam.


A section through the mangrove forest in the north Bay Shore section during clearing operations in 1920

“There’s almost nothing natural about Miami Beach—it all had to be created.” Frank Luca, Chief Librarian of the Wolfsonian-FIU

There is an ignorance and subsequent myth about Miami Beach: that the natural island was a wasteland and that no human had ever set foot on it. This story reflects the standard cultural imperialism and misunderstanding of the environment that defines the notion of Manifest Destiny. Charlotte Luxford in her Culture Trip webpage embodies this notion perfectly.

“It’s hard to imagine the sunseekers’ paradise of Miami Beach as a swampy, mosquito-infested wasteland, but that’s how automobile pioneer Carl Fisher discovered it while on vacation in 1910. Others couldn’t see the forest for the mangroves and palmettos, but Fisher, a well-known visionary, pictured transforming the 3,500-acre (1,400-hectare) landmass into the perfect getaway for himself and his car-industry pals. In 1912, he decided to buy a holiday home in the area and swiftly bought up the land, dubbing his future haven ‘Miami Beach.'” Charlotte Luxford, A Historic Timeline of Miami’s Art Deco District

Workers in the Mangroves in Miami Beach in 1914

Wait what???? Let’s contrast that with the words of Samuel Hensdale Johnson, quoted in Marvin Dunn’s “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century”

“In its early days Miami was a small town, where everybody knew everybody—whites and blacks. Sunday afternoons were times for boat trips to Ocean Beach (Miami Beach) for picnics and baseball games. As the town developed, however, the lines were drawn fast. We became hemmed in … Miami really became a hell-hole after the railroad arrived and Carl Fisher developed Miami Beach.”

It is historical fact that Miami Beach was multiracial before Fisher’s development, but soon after, blacks were banned from access to public beaches. Far from being a wasteland and empty, the area that is now South Florida has archeological evidence of humans dating back 10,000 years. In addition, African-Americans, Afro-Bahamians, and Seminoles had long inhabited the region after the extinction of the Tequesta. People have been on the land that is Miami Beach for centuries. To erase their existence is dehumanizing and irresponsible.

Environmentally, the island that is now Miami Beach was not a swamp. It was a mangrove-populated barrier island between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Biscayne Bay is a shallow tropical saline lagoon, with abundant marine life and fresh water springs. These fresh water springs were essential to the Seminoles and marine life. As the Bay was dredged, these springs were drowned by salt water intrusion. Mangroves are the nursery of marine life and birds. Habitat destruction directly correlates to species reduction.

Cutting down the mangrove forest in the Bay Shore section of Miami Beach in 1920.

“The first bridge to Miami Beach was built in 1913 by John Collins, and Carl Fisher began development of Miami Beach as a tourist resort. This led to the destruction of the mangrove forests of the barrier island and the bulkheading of the shoreline on the western side of the Bay.” from NOAA’s “Biscayne Bay: Environmental History and Annotated Bibliography”


Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU
301 Washington Avenue
“The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (JMOF-FIU) is the only museum dedicated to telling the story of more than 250 years of Florida Jewish history, arts and culture, with a growing collection of more than 100,000 items. It is located in the trendy SoFi area of South Beach at 301 Washington Avenue. The Museum is housed in two restored historic buildings that were once synagogues for Miami Beach’s first Jewish congregation. The original synagogue was built in 1929, and the second, built in 1936, was designed by Art Deco architect Henry Hohauser and features 80 stained-glass windows, a copper dome, and a marble bimah.” Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU

Luna Goldberg Lecture at the Jewish Museum of FIU (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

Jews constitute a large portion of the identity and community of Miami Beach, but that was not always the case. Carl Fischer and Henry Flagler discriminated against Jews.

Postcards with Antisemitic text (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

“When Jews began settling in the area in the 19th century, landlords and business owners routinely posted “Gentiles Only” signs on their properties. Such discrimination persisted into the 1950s. “Always a view, never a Jew,” read one hotel advertisement from the 1930s. Another, from the Coronado Hotel, read: “Air-conditioned rooms available. Oceanfront luxury at low cost. Gentile clientele.” Others made do with the somewhat more subtle “Restricted Clientele.” The first synagogue in Miami Beach, Beth Jacob, was built in 1929 on Washington Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets because at the time Jews were not allowed to live north of 5th. The building, which operated as a synagogue until 1986, has since been turned into the Jewish Museum of Florida.” Uriel Heilman, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Meyer Lansky sign in Jewish Museum (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

“The Jewish gangster Meir Lansky and his cronies attended services here and gave the synagogue the appellation ‘the gangster shul.'” Jewish Virtual Library

Go back to Ocean Drive. On the east side of the intersection of Ocean Drive and 5th Street is the southern point of Lummus Park.

Ocean Drive in September 2020 (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.

Colony Hotel on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.”

McAlpin on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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

Congress Hotel on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.

Essex House in South Beach (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

Eyebrows!!!: Long horizontal shades of reinforced concrete that seem like unfinished balconies are essential to the compositional movement of Art Deco.

Crescent on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.

Crescent on Ocean Drive(Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.”


The door to the Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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

Stairs of Versace Mansion on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)


Monument to Barbara Baer Capitman on Ocean Drive (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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 Betsy Poetry Rail on South Beach (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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 on the Betsy Poetry Rail (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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. Blanco is an alumnus and a current Faculty member of FIU.


Condo Canyon is the section of Ocean Drive north of 14th Place (Photo by JW Bailly / CC BY 4.0)

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.


Craven, Jackie. “An Introduction to Art Deco Architecture.” ThoughtCo, Feb. 11, 2020,

Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture). University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

Luxford, Charlotte. A Historic Timeline of Miami’s Art Deco District.

 John William Bailly & Sofia Guerra 24 March 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: