MIAMI BEACH — A dog trotting around South Beach dressed as a 1920s flapper doesn’t seem entirely improbable. If you’re going to see a dog tarted up like a canine Norma Talmadge in a red satin fringe dress adorned with a sequined chevron pattern, it’s most likely going to be in this Miami enclave.
But when I spotted another dog dressed like a 1930s gangster, I knew it probably wasn’t a coincidence. I rounded the corner onto Ocean Drive, and suddenly it was 1937. It looked like a live-action F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, except there was a klatch of drag queens serving brunch at a restaurant in the distance. I don’t recall a drag queen chapter in “Tender Is the Night.”
Unbeknownst to me, it was Miami’s Art Deco Weekend, an annual extravaganza celebrating the city’s pastel 1930s architectural salad days. There were vintage cars, 1930s music and dancing, the aforementioned Bark Deco dog show, retro cocktails, and even a Miss Art Deco Beauty Pageant. But first and foremost there were architecture tours. The 41st edition of Art Deco Weekend is taking place this week.
Since I had missed the Bark Deco dog show, I decided an architectural tour was the next best thing. Also, the weekend was intended to be about architecture, not dogs.
I’ve always looked upon the Necco Wafer-hued Art Deco buildings in Miami the same way I had seen the palm trees and the beach. These are things that had always been here, and they likely always will be, as long as the rising oceans allow for it. But I quickly learned on my tour that the city’s Art Deco heritage was in peril when the area fell out of favor among posh travelers in the 1960s and was nearly razed in order to create a new destination that would have been designed to look like Venice. Yes, the Venice in Italy. Had the Venice re-creation come to pass, I suspect the canals would have quickly filled tourist-hungry alligators.
In order to understand how Miami became an Art Deco epicenter, it’s time for a history lesson. Please put your phone down and pay attention. It all began with a hurricane in 1926. Jeff Donnelly, a historian with the Miami Design Preservation League, explained that the hurricane (they weren’t given names at the time) wiped out many of the buildings in the city. South Beach was a blank slate. It stayed blank because the Great Depression hit a short time later and rebuilding South Beach sunk low on the list of national priorities.
But by the mid-1930s, land was plentiful and cheap and a building boom was underway. The boom happily coincided with the arrival of the Art Deco movement in the United States. Miami’s version of Art Deco architecture lacked the luxurious materials of buildings found in Paris and New York. It was adapted into something more suitable for the tropics: Stucco on cinderblock.
“They really couldn’t afford the pricey materials. It was essentially cinderblock buildings with decorative elements that mimicked the Art Deco features,” Donnelly said.
These buildings kept the symmetry, rounded corners, sleek exteriors, and the uncluttered, forward-looking dynamic of the style. It was the future, through the eyes of Miami.
The building boom continued up through US involvement in World War II, and the result was 1,200 Art Deco buildings in one square mile, the highest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world. Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive were architecturally adhesive and impossibly modern. Glitzy hotels and nightclubs were everywhere. America’s winter playground was a pastel paradise.
This should have been a source of continuing pride. But, according to Mary Barron Stofik’s book “Saving South Beach,” the area was considered blighted by 1966.
“The tourists had discovered new destinations,” she wrote. “South Beach, along with its population of elderly Jews became largely ignored except during election years. It became tired, shabby, and its new nickname was God’s waiting room.”
The once glorious hotels had become threadbare, run-down homes for bubbes and zaydees. They were in disrepair and in danger of being demolished for cookie-cutter high-rises, Miami-meets-Venice neighborhoods, and goodness knows what else. When the drug cartels took over the neighborhood, residents avoided it.
“South Beach was literally a dump. It was empty and forgotten,” said Christine Michaels, owner of Art Deco Tours. “This attracted developers to demolish these buildings at a time when there was little to no appreciation for preservation in 50-year-old buildings. Protecting these buildings was more than just about saving concrete structures. It was about preserving history, art, and design.”
Donnelly recalled that even during the heady days of “Miami Vice” in the mid-1980s, people were still avoiding South Beach.
The were many who came to the aid of South Beach, but its savior was a visionary named Barbara Capitman. She founded the Miami Design Preservation League in the late 1970s to help save the Art Deco District. She passed away in 1990. Without her, I would not have seen dogs dressed as flappers or hundreds of amazing Art Deco buildings the day I stumbled into Art Deco Weekend.
Thanks to the efforts of the Miami Design Preservation League, there are high design hotels along Collins, such as the Delano, the Raleigh, or the National. Ocean Drive is a beautiful, vibrant beachfront time capsule.
You don’t have to wait until Art Deco Weekend to learn about all of these buildings. The Preservation League offers several tours a week, as does Art Deco Tours. I came away with a new appreciation for South Beach after my tour. I was also thankful that South Beach was never turned into an imitation of Venice because I suspect instead of spending the weekend enjoying architecture, I would have spent the weekend in a gondola fighting off canals full of alligators with a stick.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Mutherand on Instagram @Chris_Muther.