Sunday morning on Miami's South Beach is a busy time for those seeking the good life. Walkers, joggers, swimmers and surfers are out in full force, enjoying the mild warmth of the coastal sunshine. Across the road from the beach, al fresco cafes are overflowing with late risers coming to life over hearty breakfasts. Every few minutes, an impossibly long and shiny car whooshes past, roof open and speakers blaring peppy music.
Perhaps I am imagining it, but everyone seems young and fit, and happy to be there. Just a few decades ago, this area was the exclusive haunt of the rich and famous, particularly Hollywood celebrities who flocked here in search of peace, quiet and a touch of anonymity.
Standing on the promenade known as Ocean Drive, I can see a line of buildings in lemon yellows and minty greens, interspersed between bright white facades. That’s what I am here for: a tour of Miami’s art deco district, home to the largest number of art deco buildings in the world. It is this architectural heritage that has saved the skyline of South Beach from becoming one of identical, nondescript condos. In the 1970s, property developers with an eye for vantage locations almost razed these art deco buildings to the ground. They were finally stopped by local activists led by Barbara Baer Capitman, who founded the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976. Capitman’s memory is now honoured with a bust that sits right along the beach, staring out at the buildings she helped save.
The story of Art Deco in Miami
This is now a historic district, located in a compact area along Ocean Drive and the parallel streets of Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue. And on one fine Sunday morning, I arrive at the MDPL office – also the Art Deco Welcome Centre, complete with a small museum – for my walking tour of the area’s history. My guide for the day is Julie, a Miami resident with a passion for conservation and a talent for storytelling. Over the next two hours, she brings alive the tale of this once obscure swampy town by the sea, and its metamorphosis into the buzzing holiday spot and arts hub of today.
Our walk begins right behind the MDPL office, in front of the Beach Patrol Headquarters. This 1934 building displays marine elements such as round porthole windows on its white walls and ship railings on its top level – a style called nautical deco by those in the know. These are not just classic art deco features, they also serve as a nod to the buildings function, as well as its sea-facing spot.
Art deco was introduced to the world in 1925 at an industrial design exhibition in Paris. The architectural style is marked by bright colours and vivid motifs that range from delicate flowers and creepers to chunky geometric shapes and whimsical curves, with lavish use of materials such as glass, chrome, terracotta and stucco. This style evolved as a celebration of the postwar economic boom, and the progress of trade and commerce thanks to easier train and ship travel.
From the Beach Patrol Headquarters, we move on to the main road, walking along the shore to be able to look at the line of buildings on the opposite side. Almost all of these are carefully restored art deco gems, and consistent with its development globally, built between 1925 and 1940. As of now, there are more than 800 registered in the National Register of Historic Buildings, which enforces strict preservation laws. The cheery colours and quirky accents of gleaming chrome and zigzag motifs seem to suit Miami’s own free and flamboyant mood.
Comparison to Mumbai
Somewhere along the way, I ask Julie if she knows that after Miami, Mumbai is the city with the second highest number of art deco buildings. She is taken aback by this bit of trivia, but that is not surprising. As an erstwhile resident of Mumbai, I had myself not been aware of Mumbai’s architectural heritage for a long time, hidden as it is between the all the modern structures and chaotic development.
It was only in 2018 that the efforts of local conservationists bore fruit, and Mumbai's Victorian, Gothic and art deco ensembles acquired Unesco World Heritage status. Unlike in Miami, conservation efforts in Mumbai have been slow and erratic, gaining momentum only in the past few years. Also, in the Indian city, art deco is scattered all over, particularly in the prosperous neighbourhoods of south Mumbai. I had discovered it purely by chance, during a walk with an architect friend a few years after I had moved out of the city.
The other major difference is that Mumbai's art deco heritage is very much part of its contemporary cultural fabric, with most of the mansions having residents whose families have lived there for generations (a few are original movie halls). In Miami, though, I see only hotels – perhaps because the neighbourhood is swanky and expensive, or perhaps because only commercial establishments can afford their upkeep.
Our first stop is in front of the sleek Congress Hotel, which has just three levels and is perfectly symmetrical on either side of its central marquee; again, classic art deco rules. Julie points out notable elements such as the “eyebrows” over the windows (for shade from the sun and rain) and the wavy lines of blue running along the top. She says this hotel was once the favourite haunt of bootleggers and mobsters who loved Miami for its fabulous weather and seaside location, which came in handy for smuggling.
Other hotels such as the Leslie and the Carlyle have similar designs; the former emits a sunny Mediterranean vibe with its lemon yellow paint and the swaying palm trees out front, while the latter has served as the location for popular movies such as Scarface and The Birdcage. Down the road, Cavalier sports a more elaborate facade, with colourful stucco work in earthy shades of brown and blue.
For most tourists, though, the showstopper is Villa Casa Casuarina, more commonly known as the Versace Mansion. In the midst of all the art deco splendour, this mansion of a vaguely Spanish architectural style – think sloping roof and arched entrance – looks nondescript from the outside. But those with an eye for celebrity news know that Gianni Versace lived here for a few years before he was shot dead on the property’s steps in 1997 (not to mention that luminaries like Elton John and Madonna stayed here on several occasions during Versace’s time). “Not very art deco, but very South Beach,” Julie says of this mansion. As we talk, I can see hopefuls with cameras, waiting for a glimpse of anyone even remotely famous staying inside what is now an exclusive luxury hotel.
We see countless buildings that boast remarkable art deco elements both inside and out, and the names – the Netherland, the Webster, Winter Haven – are just as catchy as the images. As we walk another block, zipping in and out of hotel lobbies to admire the design, Julie's pride in the city's architectural heritage becomes more and more evident. And rightly so, for what is Miami without these sparkling treasures?