With the re-opening of the Bass museum of art last month, the Perez Art Museum Miami, the year-old Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum, the new Frost Museum of Science and next week's Art Basel Miami Beach, it's fair to say that the south Florida art world is in full swing. And that's without even mentioning Wynwood and the Design District.
Things have changed a lot since I was last here, for Art Basel in 2004. Yet even then, between art installations in shipping containers – a new thing at the time – and parties from Collins Park to Coconut Grove, the city’s defining characteristic, the world’s largest collection of art-deco architecture, had faded into the background. Fast forward 13 years and I check into the Traymore, one of the landmark art-deco hotels, now rebranded and refurbished as the Como Metropolitan Miami Beach. Dating from 1939, it is white and an architecturally slight six storeys high, in contrast to the newer, deco-style mega hotels to the north.
After a long period of decline that affected even these brilliantly located hotels in the 1980s, the Traymore has had a stylish refurb by the Singaporean hotel company run by Christina Ong.
She was described as “aloof and chic” in a profile in The Independent newspaper, and this hotel seems just that. The lobby is old-school; terrazzo floors are smooth and solid; rooms are textured in soft white and pastels. The Traymore restaurant is beautiful to look at, quiet and relaxing, with smooth curves and solid pillars. The pool is fenced off between the hotel and the beach, and guests can enjoy the discreet back exit onto the boardwalk.
The flashiest thing about this hotel is probably the roof terrace, dominated by a hydrotherapy pool. I spend a couple of hours here, watching huge storm clouds gather. The only other guest is Evan, a young financial analyst who went to university in Miami and is in transit from a trip to Latin America. Good-looking and clean-cut, for Evan, Miami was and still is a gateway to the exotic, stopping over frequently on trips to restructure bank debt in Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Honduras. For me, too, on the way to the Caribbean, Miami Beach is an extension of that landscape in terms of climate, geography and culture.
I meet James Cubby, a local author and guide for Miami Art Deco Tours, at the Essex House hotel on the corner of Collins Avenue and 10th Street, in the heart of the Miami Beach Architectural District. Cubby has lived in Miami since 1995, and knows the ins and outs of all the notable buildings. He explains that the hotel at which we meet was designed by New Yorker Henry Hohauser, one of the two most distinguished art-deco architects of the time when it was built in 1938. Hohauser had lived in South Beach since 1932 and designed the three-storey, 32-room hotel with a maritime accent and neon signage. In the lobby, there is an evocative original mural of Seminole Indians in the early wild Florida Everglades.
Looking at the building from across the street, Cubby explains how Essex House illustrates various art-deco features, including “eyebrows”, or protective edges over the windows, pastel colours, symmetry and asymmetry, and a central, futuristic, antenna-like feature. “White, beige, brown, grey and black were the original art-deco colours, with pastels to brighten them up,” Cubby says. “Buildings were governed by symmetry and the rule of threes. Decorations were things like glass blocks, terrazzo, neon. There was nothing above six storeys.”
Despite the name coming from the 1925 Paris Expo, or the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, the term art deco wasn’t coined until the late 1960s, Cubby says. Walking around, it’s remarkable to see how reflective these buildings were of global developments. Archaeological discoveries in Latin America and beyond were referenced in ziggurat-style buildings and Aztec designs; even the Empire State Building, Cubby says, is suggestive of a Mayan pyramid. There are also Egyptian motifs, “because in 1922 they opened up King Tut’s tomb”; machine-age iconography symbolises technological advancement.
Cubby illustrates his points with a quick stop at the Florida International University branch of the Wolfsonian museum on Washington Avenue, which has Dudley Vaill Talcott’s 1929 cast aluminium sculpture of a muscular, roboticised male in the lobby. “See how futuristic it was,” Cubby says. “It preceded Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.”
Across the road, the 1941 Washington Park Hotel has undergone an uncanny restoration and reopened as a design-lover’s paradise, with four landmark art-deco buildings amid landscaped gardens, complete with tempting swimming pools and palm trees from the West Indies.
Cubby tells me that Miami is unique in being the only major city in the United States that was founded by a woman, Julia Tuttle. Tuttle, from Cleveland, Ohio, acquired 260 hectares of land in the area in 1891; in 1896, she persuaded industrialist Henry Flagler to extend his railroad here. As an inducement, she gave Flagler 40 hectares for a railroad terminal and hotel, and 106 hectares in alternate city blocks, amounting to half her land.
During prohibition in the 1920s, Miami Beach became a popular winter playground for the very wealthy, Cubby continues as we walk at speed, including the Vanderbilt, Firestone and DuPont families; at the same time, the Italian mob settled in. Most of the city’s buildings, which had been made of wood, were destroyed in the great hurricane of 1926, sparking a building boom; inexpensive materials including concrete, stucco and coral stone were used in the reconstruction. “In 1929, the stock market crashed, but they kept building as if nothing was wrong, because there were by then very wealthy people here and there was also a lot of mob money. Only the rich could afford to travel during the Great Depression, but instead of Paris or the Riviera, they came here. Many of the hotels were built with hidden casinos; the coded diagonal or diamond directions to them are in these terrazzo floors.”
We head to Ocean Drive, as Cubby explains that Miami boomed until the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour and the subsequent US involvement in the Second World War. In February 1942, the Miami Beach Training Centre was opened, as the US Air Force and almost 500,000 troops took over more than 300 hotels and apartment buildings, and the beach, for housing and training. “At the end of the war the hotels were very worn out and there was no tourism,” Cubby says. “It picked up again in the 50s, but some were boarded up for 20 years.”
Even after that, Miami Beach took years to recover. “By the 1970s the median age was 71,” Cubby says. “It was God’s waiting room.” Also in the 1970s and 1980s, the city was consumed in drug wars depicted in films such as Cocaine Cowboys. “The drug industry owned Miami Beach in the 1970s,” Cubby continues. “In the 1980s, it was one of the murder capitals of the world alongside LA and cities in Colombia, Brazil and South Africa. Tourists were getting mugged. Miami Vice was filmed here between 1983 and 1989, but at least this glamourised the place.”
Fortunately, amid all this also came an appreciation of art deco. “Andy Warhol came here in the 70s and demanded a tour.” There were also the positive forces of people such as Barbara Baer Capitman, a campaigner for art-deco architecture, and Leonard Horowitz, a hotel doorman-cum-industrial designer, who together founded the Miami Design Preservation League in 1977. “In 1979, thanks to their efforts, a square-mile art-deco district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore protected”, Cubby says. “Altogether there are more than 800 buildings from the 1920s and 30s, which makes this the largest concentration of art-deco architecture in the world.”
We finish our tour with a quick stop at a Cuban coffee shop, before I continue my trip to the Caribbean. Having carefully researched which islands would be worth a trip from the UAE, and not dominated by cruise ships, I’ve settled on the Turks and Caicos, a low-lying British Overseas Territory hosting the world’s third-largest barrier reef and whose currency, like most in the Caribbean, is the US dollar. It has a population of just 35,000 people, and thanks to sand made up largely from naturally broken down particles of sea shells and white corals, electric-blue water. Also, because the islands’ subterranean foundation is made up of limestone, the sand is light and powdery.
From Providenciales International Airport, I’m driven to a jetty about 45 minutes away for a speedboat transfer to Parrot Cay, a private island resort also owned by Como. Even from the boat, the water is a fluorescent blue, clean and clear. Parrot Cay is a flat island surrounded by mangroves, though its wild beach fronts onto a lagoon beyond which is the open sea. Even though it’s cloudy, it’s like swimming in neon-lit liquid glass.
The spread-out, plantation-style resort dates from the 1980s, but is now a good mix of comfortable rooms with huge balconies, set back from the beach, a slick-but-minimalist pool and restaurant area behind the beach, and a gorgeous spa overlooking the mangroves. It’s a place to spend a week, rather than 48 hours, as I do.
The open skies, fresh air, free yoga classes and great range of food – from Caribbean barbecue to South East Asian and Mediterranean – and lovely local staff are such that should you want to stay, private residences are available to buy from about US$10 million (Dh36.7m) per villa.
Already popular with wealthy Americans, I don’t think it will be too long before buyers start turning up from much further afield.
Emirates flies direct from Dubai to Fort Lauderdale from Dh4,600 in economy and Dh18,730 in business class, return, including taxes. Emirates' partner airline JetBlue flies direct from Fort Lauderdale to Providenciales International Airport in the Turks & Caicos Islands from US$222 (Dh815) return, including taxes, in economy. The flight takes two hours.
Two-hour walking tours of Miami Beach cost from $30 (Dh110) per person with Art Deco Tours (artdecotours.com). Ninety-minute tours are also offered daily by the Miami Design Preservation League; tickets cost $25 (Dh92) per person.
Double rooms at the Como Metropolitan Miami Beach cost from $240 (Dh882) per night including taxes. Double rooms at Como Parrot Cay cost from $1,321 (Dh4,852) per night, including taxes, breakfast and ground and boat transfers from Providenciales.