"You know what they used to say? 'Who's Art?'" recalls Art Deco revivalist Dona Zemo. "You'd say, 'This is an Art Deco building,' and they'd say, 'Really, who is Art?' These people thought 'Art Deco' was some guy's name."
How things have changed. This guy Art has become one of the most popular Florida attractions since, well, that mouse named Mickey. The district is roughly bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Alton Road on the west, Sixth Street to the south, and Dade Boulevard (along the Collins Canal) to the north.
Simply put, Art Deco is a style of architecture that, in its heyday of the 1920s and 1930s, used to be considered ultramodern. Today, fans of the style consider it retro fabulous. But while some people may not consider the style fabulous, it's undoubtedly retro. According to the experts, Art Deco made its debut in 1925 at an exposition in Paris in which it set a stylistic tone, with buildings based on early neoclassical styles with the application of exotic motifs such as flora, fauna, and fountains based on geometric patterns. In Miami, Art Deco is marked by the pastel-hued buildings that line South Beach and Miami Beach. But it's a lot more than just color. If you look carefully, you will see the intricacies and impressive craftsmanship that went into each building back in Miami in the '20s, '30s, '40s, and today, thanks to intensive restoration.
Most of the finest examples of the whimsical Art Deco style are concentrated along three parallel streets -- Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue -- from about 6th to 23rd streets.
After years of neglect and calls for the wholesale demolition of its buildings, South Beach got a new lease on life in 1979. Under the leadership of Barbara Baer Capitman, a dedicated crusader for the Art Deco region, and the Miami Design Preservation League, founded by Baer Capitman and five friends, an area made up of an estimated 800 buildings was granted a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Designers then began highlighting long-lost architectural details with soft sherbet shades of peach, periwinkle, turquoise, and purple. Developers soon moved in, and the full-scale refurbishment of the area's hotels was underway.
Not everyone was pleased, though. Former Miami Beach Commissioner Abe Resnick said, "I love old buildings. But these Art Deco buildings are 40, 50 years old. They aren't historic. They aren't special. We shouldn't be forced to keep them." But Miami Beach kept those buildings, and Resnick lost his seat on the commission.
Today hundreds of new establishments -- hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs -- have renovated these older, historic buildings, putting South Beach on the cutting edge of Miami's cultural and nightlife scene.
Exploring the Area
If you're touring this unique neighborhood on your own, start at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Dr. (tel. 305/531-3484), which is run by the Miami Design Preservation League. The only beachside building across from the Clevelander Hotel and bar, the center gives away lots of informational material, including maps and pamphlets, and runs guided tours around the neighborhood. Art Deco books (including The Art Deco Guide, an informative compendium of all the buildings here), T-shirts, postcards, mugs, and other paraphernalia are for sale. It's open daily from 10am to 7:30pm.
Take a stroll along Ocean Drive for the best view of sidewalk cafes, bars, colorful hotels, and even more colorful people. Another great place for a walk is Lincoln Road, which is lined with boutiques, large chain stores, cafes, and funky art and antiques stores. The Community Church, at the corner of Lincoln Road and Drexel Avenue, was the neighborhood's first church and is one of its oldest surviving buildings, dating from 1921.
Or, if you prefer to cruise South Beach in a tiny yellow buggy -- part scooter, part golf cart -- consider GoCar, 1661 James Ave. (tel. 888/462-2755; www.gocartours.com), a three-wheeled vehicle for two that comes with a GPS device that not only tracks and tells you where to go, but prompts a recorded tour that kicks on with every site you cruise by. Cost is $49 for the first hour, $39 for the second hour, and $29 for the third hour, or $150 for the entire day. A 3-hour tour is $99. Prices include gas.
Walking by Design -- The Miami Design Preservation League offers several tours of Miami Beach's historic architecture, all of which leave from the Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Dr., in Miami Beach. A self-guided audio tour (available 7 days a week, 10am-4pm) turns the streets into a virtual outdoor museum, taking you through Miami Beach's Art Deco District at your own leisure, with tours in several languages for just $15 for adults, $10 for seniors. Guided tours conducted by local historians and architects offer an in-depth look at the structures and their history. The 90-minute Ocean Drive and Beyond tour (offered every Wed and Sat at 10:30am) takes you through the district, pointing out the differences between Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco for $20 for adults, $15 for seniors. If you're not blinded by neon, the Thursday night Art Deco District Up-to-Date Tour (leaving at 6:30pm) will whisk you around for a 90-minute walk, making note of how certain local hot spots were architecturally famous way before the likes of Madonna and Co. entered the scene. The cost is $20 for adults, $15 for seniors. For those who have no time or patience for group tours, there are self-guided ones and even a cellphone tour for that person who can't keep the phone off his or her ears. For more information on tours or reservations, call tel. 305/672-2014 or try www.mdpl.org.
Miami or Madrid? -- On a tiny street in South Beach, there's a piece of Spain that's so vibrant, you almost feel as if you're in Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" video. In 1925, Miami Beach developer NBT Roney hired architect Robert Taylor to design a Spanish village on the property he just purchased on a street called Española Way. Today, the historic Mediterranean-Revival-style Spanish Village -- or Plaza De España -- envisioned by Roney and complete with fountain, stretches from Washington Avenue to Drexel Avenue and features charming boutiques, cafes, and a weekend market.
Now Playing en Espanol -- A cultural gem in Little Havana, The Tower Theatre, 1508 SW Eighth St. (tel. 305/237-6180) is one of Miami's oldest cultural landmarks, opening in 1926 as the finest state-of-the-art theater in the south. After the Cuban influx in the 1960s, the theater started showing English-language programming with Spanish subtitles, eventually switching to all Spanish. After years of closings and changing hands, the theater was purchased by the City of Miami and in 1993 added to the National Register as a historic site. After a complete renovation in 1997, the Tower Theatre was back to its Deco-glory and is currently managed by Miami-Dade College, who continues the theater's history with various cultural and arts programming including films and exhibitions of Cuban art by highly regarded artists such as Carlos Navarro among others.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.