Devotees of architecture will drop their jaws in awe at the astounding array of Art Deco homes and hotels in Miami’s South Beach (SoBe). This quintessential beach community boasts the largest concentration of Art Deco architecture in the world. In what seems like a stage set, glamorous and glitzy beauties parade day and night past the pastel-painted buildings of South Beach’s Art Deco District. Scantly clad and statuesque, this cosmopolitan crowd sets the stage for street-walking drama and neon-night decadence. It is entertainment at its best.
Stunning Art Deco architecture emerges street after street. Over eight-hundred preserved buildings display the style in SoBe’s Art Deco District. The 1925 Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris inspired this architecture. Since its inception, the Parisian brand of Art Deco has taken on many variations, as was the case in the 1920s and 1930s when Miami conferred its unique interpretation upon Art Deco.
The Paris Exhibition unveiled the novel design featuring expensive materials, angular yet rounded with elaborate motifs of fountains, nudes and flora. The architects of Miami’s South Beach envisioned a summer paradise by the sea, a fantasyland of hotels, gambling sites, houses of prostitution, and bootleg whiskey. In the 1930s, the demand for more hotels rose with middle-class tourists flocking to the area to escape the Great Depression’s gloom. On the sparkling white sand cradling the blue Atlantic, visitors could imagine the world was once again grand.
The construction boom in Miami began during the second phase of the Art Deco movement, known as Streamline Moderne. This period fell between the 1929 stock market crash and beginning of World War II. American industrial design influenced this less ornamental version of Art Deco. Sharp corners, sparse fixtures, electric embellishments, and pastel shades of pink, green and aqua are typical elements. Miami interpreted the style using symmetry, glass blocks, sculptural panels of nautical scenes, eyebrows, round porthole windows, terrazzo floors, neon lighting inside and out, and elements in groups of threes.
In the 1930s, Miami’s South Beach hotels developed a uniform style sporting vertical elements with racing stripes, speeding trains and automobiles adorning the facades. Reliefs of seaweed, starfish and rolling ocean waves decorated the walls connecting with the sea. During the second and third quarters of the 20th century Miami’s tourism luster faded, and along with it the grandeur of its Art Deco district. Today the historical hotels have been rejuvenated into a glittering neon wonderland for the rich and famous. If ever there were a time to visit Miami, and bask in the glory of SoBe beaches, this is it. The refurbished Art Deco hotels, trendy new restaurants and swinging nightlife of SoBe are at their finest.
The best way to explore the Art Deco district of SoBe is by contacting the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) (305/531-3484). This non-profit organization is devoted to preserving Miami’s Art Deco district. From its Art Deco Welcome Center/museum located at Ocean Drive and 10th Street, the MDPL offers wonderful architectural tours of the area, including guided walking tours; self-guided walking tours; and guided bicycle and rollerblade tours. The excursion times vary so it is best to make reservations during the planning stage of your trip.
For those who wish to explore South Beach on their own, it is located in the city of Miami Beach, separated from the mainland by Biscayne Bay. A drive across the Macarthur Causeway affords views of the Port of Miami, the bay and the islands crowned with mansions of the stars. This is the best point to start a tour of the delightful Art Deco district proceeding to the southern tip along Ocean Drive.
The trip down Ocean Drive is breathtaking with its kaleidoscope of pink-painted and restored hotels, apartment buildings and outdoor cafes. To the east is Lummus Park where itsy-bitsy bikini clad sun-worshippers stretch out on the sugar white sand leading to the Atlantic Ocean. A popular spot is the Beach Walk where huge sound systems serenade joggers and skateboarders. At night, Ocean Drive is a scene out of the 1950s where luxury cars and cool-colored convertibles cruise in a slow moving procession.
The blue neon sign of the Colony Hotel (305/673-0088) is an Ocean Drive landmark. The stretch between 6th Street and 8th offers views of three and four story classic Art Deco hotels. The sounds of jazz can be heard not far away at the swank News Café, where hoards vie for umbrella-covered tables. The Italian designer Gianni Versace was a regular before being gunned down on the steps of his Ocean Drive mansion.
The yellow and white Waldorf Towers Hotel (305/531-7684) and the white and blue stripes of The Breakwater Hotel (940 Ocean Drive) are great Art Deco examples on Ocean Drive. Not much further down the Clevelander Hotel (305/531-3485), draws locals to its enormous outdoor bar and all-night parties.
A landmark on Ocean Drive is the late-Versace’s mansion, Casa Casuarina, now a private club. Although it is not open to the public, the curious can peer through the massive gates to view the gorgeous Mediterranean Revival-style mansion modeled on Christopher Columbus’ home in the Dominican Republic.
Parallel to Ocean Drive are Collins and Washington Avenues, also part of the hot SoBe scene. Collins Avenue runs through Miami Beach past Bal Harbour. Washington Avenue is just two blocks from the beach, a bustling strip of high-and-low end establishments. One can find ethnic restaurants, fruit stands, tattoo parlors and packed nightclubs here. Collins is also popular for Miami-style open-air cruising.
Hotel Nash (305/538-8288) on Collins Avenue was built in 1935. This Art Deco beauty was recently restored to its former glory. The restaurant, owned by famous chef James Beard is a well-known celebrity hangout. Another star haunt is the Shore Club (305/695-3100). Hollywood moguls frequent this sprawling property with its private gardens, cabanas and reflecting pools. The Shore Club’s Nubu restaurant serves great Japanese-Peruvian cuisine.
For decadent dancing and nightlife, SoBe has it all. Many nightclubs are difficult to get into if you are not on the “who’s who” list. Dress casually chic – tasteful clothing for men, slinky but not too sexy for women. Do not drop any names at the door; just state your name and hotel. A tip of $20 is about right for the doorman, if he lets you through the entrance rope.
Folks use different methods for gaining entry to the popular nightclubs. Knowing people who go to a club is best; they can waltz you right through the front door. Another tactic would be to ask the hotel concierge to make reservations for you. A $40 tip is appropriate for this service. A third way is a new service called “South Beach VIP club,” part of a company called Miami Beach 411. They can arrange for someone to take you to Miami’s top clubs. They will get you in the front door for a fee, and the cost of admission (usually $50 to $60, plus the cost of beverages). Because this is not an escort service, after that, you are on your own. Some of the hottest clubs are on this company’s VIP list. Following are some SoBe clubs to seek out for nightlife adventure.
Opium Garden Nightclub (136 Collins Avenue) is an Asian themed restaurant and nightclub featuring hydraulic tables, an awesome wind tunnel, great sushi bar, plus a beautiful oriental garden. On Friday nights expect to see an A-list crowd. The very ritzy Mansion (1235 Washington Avenue) is the crown jewel of South Beach nightlife. Originally built as a movie theatre its beautiful Art Deco space is worth the visit whether you are dancing or not. Note: being on the VIP list is required for access to the dance floor; otherwise plan to dance on the stairs. Another wild venue is the B.E.D. (929 Washington Avenue). This sexy venue serves up entertainment and drinks in luxurious beds packed with pillows. Monday and Wednesday nights are always rocking. B.E.D. is rated as one of America’s top nightspots. Hours are from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.; the restaurant serves elegant French cuisine. Specialties of the house include: pan seared foie gras, paprika seared sea scallops with champagne caviar sauce and saffron orzo paella. Next on the top club list is the Pearl (1 Ocean Drive), where music from the 80s rules and beautiful people can be seen. Bubbling waterfalls cascade in orange and white rooms, with polka dot tables and a champagne bar. The restaurant serves American Fusion /eclectic cuisine. It features items like caviar on toasted brioche points; lobster Cobb salad; Jamaican seafood cakes; and chorizo and Manchego cheese empanadas. From the dessert menu, “drucken milk chocolate marquise” is a sinful blend of coconut ice cream and macaroon napoleon.
Miami is a major hub city accessible from Louisiana by many airlines. To save on airfare, fly into Fort Lauderdale on Jet Blue and rent a car or take a cab into Miami’s South Beach. Jet Blue flies direct from New Orleans to Miami daily. Direct flights on others carriers are usually pricey; lower fares are not direct flights and require connections in other cities, like Atlanta.
However you decide to get to Miami, it is worth the trip if you love architecture, beaches, great food and nightlife. Art deco and dancing make a beautiful partnership in the neon nights of SoBe.