If you have an interest in Art Deco design, South Beach Miami has a treasure trove of historic buildings to see.
Recently I had a chance to take an Art Deco tour in South Beach, hosted by Christine Michaels of Art Deco Tours. We were a small group–only six-so it was possible to get into buildings that couldn’t accommodate larger tours and I got to ask all my questions.
Art Deco originated in the 1920s in Paris at the World Expo, although the style didn’t get its name until the 1960s. The Art Deco buildings in South Beach were mostly built in the 1930s.
To some extent, the fairly simple design was a reaction to the excesses of the Mediterranean buildings popular at the time.
South Beach went through an up and down history, with many of the gorgeous structures destroyed in urban renewal. Fortunately in the 1970s, Barbara Capitman waged an all out war to save them. She was successful and we can enjoy them today.
So, what’s the big deal about Art Deco and how can you tell if you are looking at an Art Deco building?
First of all, the underlying themes are streamline, motion and luxury.
Typically the buildings are symmetrical with sections of threes. They often have cantilevered eyebrows over the windows, providing important shade at the time of no air conditioning. Frozen fountains, or large decorative panels designed to mimic the idea of fountains, thought to be the height of luxury are often seen in historic Art Deco decor.
Sometimes you see nautical features like the round windows and many international themes. According to our knowledgable guide, “Art Deco borrowed from international motifs including Egyptian ziggurat (also known today as zigzag) after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Art Deco also used Mayan and Aztec Indian symbolism. Miami was feeling quite worldly at this point”.
I loved seeing it all. I also loved the fact that many of the hotels are furnished in the Art Deco Style with some including original light fixtures and furnishings.
When you go into an Art Deco building here it is important to look down at the terrazzo floors. They were designed with gorgeous patterns and colors but very practical. They could withstand flooding of salt water which happened frequently in the early years.
A building that particularly interested me include the Commodore, because the automotive inspired medallions are supposed to have stimulated Jean-Paul Gaultier to create Madonna’s famous bra. I also liked the Cadet Hotel because Clark Gable was stationed there during W.W. II.
The Hotel Victor broke the rule of symmetry but demonstrates the use of portholes, which get larger in later buildings. They are another sign of luxury, referencing the grand ocean liners of the time. I also found the Post Office to be interesting. It is known as Depression Deco because of its lack of embellishments.
And finally a building in the process of being restored stopped us in our tracks. Clearly the regulations require leaving the facades alone.