Miami Deco

(L) The Greystone, 1926 Collins Ave.
(M) South Beach Lifeguard Station
(R) The Tropics Hotel & Hostel, 1550 Collins Ave.

Miami's South Beach Art Deco district provides its visitors a whimsical palate of color and style - a prewar Gernsback Continuum of tropical optimism given new life by the gods of hipdom. A generation ago, Miami was known mostly for a detective show that crafted a mystique about a town whose cops always seemed to dress better than the crooks they chased. Since then, the town has inspired a range of musical tributes, from the banal (Will Smith) to the bizarre (U2). Along the way, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane found themselves running a fictional South Beach nightclub in their 1996 remake of La Cage Aux Folles. What St. Tropez was in the late 1970s, South Beach became at century's end. Our first visit, in December 2000, dropped us into the middle of a construction boom as zigzag and fluted piles have become gutted to make room for more visitors.

(L) Century Hotel, 140 Ocean Dr.
(M) The Marlin Hotel, 1200 Collins Ave.
(R) Colony Hotel, 736 Ocean Dr.

Towering quasi-deco hotels grow methodically even as the real ones, mainly built in the 1930s and 40s, endure undignified facelifts. Back in the 1970s, many of these relics had been reduced to lonely half lives of their previous selves, flop houses for winos, last chances for the elderly poor who migrate to the warmth of the Florida sun. Today, this square mile twenty-block district, recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, features upscale shopping, theme bars, and swanky restaurants where your every meal can be al fresco. You'll also find UFO cultists inviting you to a free seminar at the local Holiday Inn, ecstasy-addled ravers looking for an even more droning beat, and the occasional model posing for dozens of cameras.

(L) The Crescent, McAlpin, and Ocean Plaza, 1420-1430 Ocean Dr.
(M) Post Office, 1300 Washington Ave
(R) Essex House, 1001 Collins Ave.

Most of the action parallels the shore along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue inland. Up and down the strip, you'll find structures comprising a coherent architectural form known for its curious mixture of modernism, naturalism, and tropicalism. Modernism emerges with streamlined structures, flat colors, and repetitious components. Naturalism appears in friezes whose stylized flora and fauna appear to be machine-pressed even as they manage to apply some human scale to the structures. Tropicalism unifies the scene with pastel colors and nautical details that even include porthole windows and faux streamship railings. This combination of attitude, style, and motif is unique because of its conscious blurring of formal deco elements and streamlined design so that many structures look like they lost their edge in hurricane force winds, an architectural language of the nineteen-thirties if there ever was one.

(L) Plymouth Hotel, 336 21st St.
(M) Hotel Webster, 1220 Collins Ave.
(R) Miami Beach Patrol, 1001 Ocean Dr.

As you set out on your deco excursion, there are two fine references to bring along, Barbara Capitman and Steven Brooke's Deco Delights and Laura Cerwinske and David Kaminsky's Tropical Deco. The first is organized around streets, the second around styles. Don't be too disappointed, though, if the hotels and other structures you photograph have been repainted since being shot for these books. The color scheme debate still rages on the beach and individual sides shift as new owners replace the old. Naturally, you'll find these reference books along with dozens of other deco themed trinkets at the Miami Design Preservation League Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive (beach side). The space is cramped but the folks are friendly. From the beach, the Center looks like a cruise ship that ran aground when Metropolis was a first run film.

(L) Delano Hotel, 1685 Collins Ave.
(M) Waldorf Towers Hotel, 860 Ocean, Dr.
(R) Haddon Hall Hotel , 1500 Collins Ave.

As with most beach-related sites, plan your visit in the fall or spring. Florida winters assure delightful weather, but the extortionist rates will depress you. Summer trips are cheaper, but you'll pay in sweat. Whenever you come, wear comfortable shoes. Deco is designed for a leisurely pace and Miami South Beach is a pre-auto town. So jail the jalopy and hit the sidewalks.

Wood Valley Text copyright: Andrew Wood. Photos copyright: Andy and Jenny Wood. Want some more Deco? Check out our South Bay Deco and Motel Moderne sites.