When we decided to attend the event Cruise Shipping Miami we simultaneously decided to make it a mini-vacation. After researching walking tour providers on TripAdvisor we booked a top-rated one for a tour of the Art Deco buildings of South Beach.
We did not give a thought to the fact that it would be Spring Break – a time famous for lewd behavior, public intoxication and sidewalk vomiting (often in that order). Imagine our delight when that realization sunk in!
However, aside from having lots of people and cars blocking any and all of our attempts at photography, Spring Break was actually a fascinating chance for people watching and sociological observances. More on that later…
History of Miami Beach and Art Deco
In 1926 “The Great Miami Hurricane” hit, well, Miami (you thought Cleveland?). It killed over 400 people and destroyed most of the existing architecture lining Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. The (Not So) Great Depression and other economic woes resulted in it taking 30 to 40 years to rebuild.
The only good news in all of this was that the rebuilding was done primarily in the Art Deco style. Art Deco had become popular after its debut at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. (Perhaps Aussies, with their syllable-eliminating way of speaking, were the ones who shortened the name to Art Deco.)
Our guide, a condescending chap who must have told us 30 times that he moved to Miami Beach in 1995, with the result being that’s about all we remember, assembled our rag-tag group and got busy annoying us. Err, educating us and showing us the sights.
The guide did seem to be knowledgeable and told some interesting tales of mob activities in Miami Beach. Apparently Miami Beach was Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas to be Las Vegas. Gambling was the numero uno activity, booze was a booming business during Prohibition and women of ill repute entertained gentlemen who weren’t really gentlemen.
In the 1970s so-called “Cocaine Cowboys” introduced the cocaine trade and the accompanying drugs and murder that are often linked to that particular pharmacological endeavor.
Finally, in the mid 1980s Don Johnson, Philip Michael Thomas and a sprinkling of beautiful, brainy and boobalicious detectives brought the show Miami Vice to television screens across the U.S. Even though it was a fairly dark show in terms of focusing on crime and murders, it also brought a glamour to Miami Beach.
Real men no longer wore socks with their loafers. They did wear pastels, had beard stubble and favored T-shirts under Italian sports coats. The Art Deco architecture was almost its own cast of characters in the show. The crew of the show painted unused buildings in Art Deco pastel colors (as defined by Leonard Horowitz in a specific palette) and used the deserted buildings as locations for shoots. Miami Beach was on the upswing again!
And, due to the diligent efforts of Barbara Baer Capitman and Leonard Horowitz, in 1979 a square-mile Art Deco district of Miami Beach was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The term “the American Riviera” was coined and artists, designers and writers flocked to Miami Beach.
A fashion designer who was among the early flockers was Gianni Versace who was famously murdered on the front steps of his home on Ocean Drive. Richard Avedon and Madonna spent time at Versace’s mansion prior to his murder.
Today that mansion is the high-end boutique hotel Casa Casauarina (although it may be for sale if you’re in the real estate market).
Characteristics of Art Deco Architecture
Art Deco, almost more than a form of architecture, is a way of decorating the architecture (says this Psychology and Business major with no background at all in architecture). Our guide, who is really a writer and who moved there in 1995, told us the three main characteristics of Art Deco are symmetry, the rule of thirds and decorations that borrow heavily from Aztec and other Native American designs.
If you look at the picture above you see the symmetry of 2 windows on either side of the central spire and the decorative “eyebrows” on the building (a less evolved person might call them cement ledges).
Something else you see are a lot of in Art Deco are geometric shapes, including chevrons and ziggurats.
After the Art Deco tour of Miami Beach
We tried to focus on the architecture and history of Art Deco and Miami Beach but were frequently diverted by what we concluded was the best people-watching we had witnessed anywhere on 6 continents!
After additional mentions that our guide had been in Miami Beach since 1995, we were on our own at last.
The mixture of humanity was fascinating. The crowd was basically Black and White, young and old, regular looking people you might see at Macy’s and amazing physiques and attire you would only expect to see if you took LSD.
Tops and bottoms were optional. You can tell that in the picture above once you get past the butt.
But this crowd, that covered a spectrum few people will see over the course of a lifetime, was very well-behaved. They didn’t litter. They weren’t drunk (except for one loud white kid). They weren’t giving each other dirty looks or spouting obscenities. They weren’t being attacked by or attacking the police and they weren’t creating an atmosphere of danger that we often sense in large crowds. Families, elders, hipsters, everyone was just doing their thing. Our concerns about Spring Break rowdy crowds were unrealized and, instead, we really enjoyed the experience.
We were lucky enough to get a prime table on the porch of the groovy, upscale restaurant A Fish Called Avalon which is on a corner of Ocean Drive. We dragged that meal out with dessert, coffee and any other delaying tactics we could produce. Our waiter was nice enough to indulge our lingering.
If you are going to be in the Miami Beach area, even if you don’t want to do a walking tour, please take the time to look at the architecture and the people and enjoy a leisurely good meal.
Oh, and you might want to cross the street and see the actual beach in Miami Beach!
If you read this far please try not to forget that our tour guide moved to Miami Beach in 1995. This fact seemed to be of great importance; to him.