Around about 1915, a few blocks of buildings established on a barrier island in Biscayne Bay were incorporated as the City of Miami Beach. The rest, as they say, is history. Glamorous Art Deco history, to be exact. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a history geek or art major to enjoy a walking tour of the Art Deco Distict. Although, at almost 9-square-miles, being in shape wouldn’t hurt. But don’t worry – we won’t walk that far!
So how did Miami Beach come to be the Art Deco Capital of the World?
With easy access to sandy beaches and ocean swells, Miami Beach was an instant hit with the well to do. Captains of industry, stars of stage and screen, and wealthy socialites were drawn to its sunny shores, and chic resorts and hotels quickly followed. After World War I and the Great Depression, Art Deco was popular around the world. American architects fused the lean Industrial style with Art Deco designs and American glamour in the buildings of Miami Beach.
By World War II, the rest of the world had move past Art Deco, but Miami Beach kept right on going. In the Post War years, Mid-Century Modern was taking hold in Palm Springs, while something called Miami Modern, or MiMo was pioneered by Morris Lapidus. It was more lavish and “over the top” and, according to Lapidus, was for Americans just getting accustomed to luxury. In describing the overflowing style of the Fontainebleau in North Beach, Lapidus explained that when guests walk in “they do feel, ‘This is what we’ve dreamed of, this is what we saw in the movies, this what we imagined it might be.’ ”
Today, that small sliver of Florida real estate is home to the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, spread across the city from Dade Boulevard south to Sixth Street. In 1979, the Art Deco District (officially the Miami Beach Architectural District) became the first Historic District to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. While there are nearly 1,000 buildings in the District, we hit just the highlights, plus a few stops to keep things interesting for everyone – Art Deco devotee or not.
But first, coffee!
We started in the morning at Starbucks on Ocean Drive at 14th, right on the corner by Lummus Park. Some would say this area is even better looking all lit up at night, so you could make this a twilight tour ending at Starbucks or the nightclubs down the street. Either way, we stroll down Ocean Drive gawking at the pastel colored buildings, starting with a personal favorite, the McAlpin Hotel. This building is special as it was designed by L. Murray Dixon, the architect responsible for many of the city’s iconic structures. Although just about every building is photo-worthy, a few highlights in the next few blocks include the Cardozo, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan (who own several properties in the area), the sleek Carlyle, and the lemon-yellow Leslie. The Carlyle may seem familiar: It was the setting for The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.
Between 12th and 11th Streets, you’ll see one of the most famous homes in South Beach, Casa Casaurina, the Versace Mansion. The Mediterranean Revival mansion built in the 1930s is a private party club today. Not only did Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace live here, it’s where he was shot and killed in 1997. While Miami Beach is definitely known for more modern architectural styles, the Mediterranean Revival theme was popular on the island, although more so on in communities like Coral Gables on the mainland.
Further down Ocean Drive is where the serious party scene begins at the Clevelander. The colorful hotel was built in 1938 and is known for its poolside bar and street-side stage. Across the street at 10th is the Art Deco Welcome Center. Although it’s the home of the Miami Design Preservation League, it’s a surprisingly plain building. Inside you can learn more about the design styles prominent in Miami Beach through the years, get information on events in the area, and sign up for tours ($20 to $25). In the next block, you’ll see more famous South Beach venues including the Breakwater, Mango’s Tropical Café, and the Estefan’s restaurant Lario’s on the Beach.
In the last few blocks of Ocean Drive, you’ll pass the Colony Hotel, the Beacon, the Avalon, and eventually the Park Central Hotel. Built in 1937, it was the first of the Miami Beach hotels to be restored to its full Art Deco glory in 1987. The “portholes,” metal rails and tall façade are meant to resemble the ocean liners that called at nearby Port of Miami in the 1930s. In the 1940s and ‘50s, a Hollywood clientele at the helped define South Beach as a glamorous playground for the rich and famous.
Strictly speaking, the Art Deco District ends at 5th Street and this is where Part One of our tour concludes. However, you could continue a few blocks further on Ocean Drive to the very nice South Pointe Park where you might catch cruise ships leaving for/returning from the Bahamas and Caribbean. Or you can turn west on 3rd Street and visit the Jewish Museum of Florida at Washington Avenue. We’ll pick up Part Two a little less than 1.5 miles north on Washington at Lincoln Road. There is not much to see between here and there, so we totally would not blame you for taking Uber or renting a CitiBike at Washington and 3rd. (You can drop it off right at Lincoln Road.)
If you like to keep track, the stroll down Ocean Drive from Starbucks to South Pointe Park is about 1.5 miles. (A complete map of the route is in Part Two.) Making the round trip up the shore and along Lummus Park is a nice walk with stunning scenery AND the opportunity to get your feet wet! Does it get any better than that?
Ready for Part Two? See more historic buildings on Lincoln Road and Collins Avenue, plus a map of our route.
No time to finish? Want to keep it handy? You can Pin it for later, or continue to Part Two!
You’ll need someplace to stay in
Miami Beach! Find your digs with our friends at Trip Advisor. (When you book at Trip Advisor through our link, TravelLatte we may be compensated.)