Immerse yourself in all the architectural glamor of Old Florida – pastel colors, neon and window “eyebrows”, all inclusive.
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JJust the mention of Miami might conjure up images of linen suits, Cuban sandwiches, tough bodies basking in the South Beach sun, or four lovely ladies living their lives. golden years (Miami is nice, so I’ll say it twice) in the Florida heat. But perhaps Magic City’s best-kept and not-so-secret secret is that the city is also an architectural paradise, especially when it comes to art deco.
Short for International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (referring to the conference where the style debuted), Art Deco is characterized by strong geometric shapes, vibrant pastel colors, and smooth, clean shapes. Sometimes called “Cubism Tamed”, the movement originated in France in the 1920s and exploded in popularity in the United States in the 20s and 30s. Two famous art deco buildings you may already know are the Chrysler New York Building and the Empire State Building.
Located just south of South Beach, Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District has more than 800 art deco buildings in less than a square mile and is home to the largest concentration of art deco buildings in the world. Much of Miami’s art deco wealth can be attributed to one man: the auto mogul Carl Fisher. In 1910, Fisher first traveled to the rat- and mosquito-infested swamp that was Biscayne Bay on vacation. Where others saw only swamps, Fisher saw a future getaway destination and a major investment opportunity, of course. So he soon set about emptying the bay.
Fisher knew that to attract the other wealthy auto moguls he hoped to join in what would become Miami Beach, he had to make the place beautiful – and in the 1920s, that meant art deco. Fisher then sought out and hired architects Henry Hohauser and Laurent Murray Dixon to direct the gargantuan architectural project. And although the couple and their team designed some of the most iconic buildings of their time, the allure of art deco, and then Miami, has faded over time, as trends do. Miami Beach went from being the playground of the rich and famous in the 1930s and 1940s to, by the late 1960s, a favorite destination for retirees; Being labeled “heaven’s waiting room” doesn’t exactly scream sexy, as one might imagine.
However, Miami’s art deco buildings saw a massive revival in the late ’70s when the Miami Design Preservation League has been created. In 1979, the one-mile zone which is the Miami Beach Art Deco District became the first 20th-century urban historic district on the United States National Register of Historic Places, sparking renewed interest in Miami’s architectural heritage. Additionally, a visit to Andy Warhol in 1980, and featured several times in the hugely popular (and hugely 80s) series miami vice didn’t hurt either.
Considering it’s only a one-mile area, Miami’s Deco District is an easy area to explore on foot in an afternoon. Here are eight must-see art deco buildings to add to your itinerary:
1. The Carlyle
1250 Ocean Drive
While its crisp white exterior may seem more tame than the other buildings on this list, there’s no doubt that the Carlyle is one of the most famous buildings in all of Miami. Designed by German-American architect Richard Kiehnel, the Carlyle appeared in movies like scarface (1983), The bird cage (1996), and Random hearts (1999), and it is located 100 meters from Gianni Versace‘s former mansion, where the fashion designer was murdered by madness killer Andrew Cunanan.
The Carlyle originally opened with 50 units in 1939. After undergoing renovations in the mid-2000s, the Carlyle is now a 19-condominium residential building. Still pretty enough to put on a postcard and with ocean views, it evokes all the mystique of Miami of yesteryear.
2. The McAlpin
1430 Ocean Drive
The McAlpin is considered a near-perfect embodiment of Miami art deco. Delightfully symmetrical with turquoise and coral pink accents, the McAlpin’s boxy silhouette stands out from its Ocean Drive neighbors. Designed in 1940 by Dixon, the McAlpin follows the rule of three: a design guideline purportedly influenced by Egyptian tradition where decorative elements are arranged in groups of three: look at the three vertical lines horizontally and vertically crossing its facade. Today, the McAlpin is a 52-room hotel owned by Hilton and is one of the city’s most popular selfie spots. But be sure to book a room in advance as this property often sells out months in advance.
Book now: From $359, hilton.com, expedia.com
3. Miami Beach Post Office
1300 Washington Ave.
Built in 1937, the Miami Beach Post Office on Washington Avenue was envisioned by a Chicago-based architect Howard Lovewell Cheney and built under the supervision of Work progress administration during the Great Depression. The curious post office features a round lobby with a cone-shaped roof topped by a small cupola, a 10-foot-high glass block wall above the entrance, and a large stone eagle above Door. Inside, a triptych fresco by Charles Hardman depicting pivotal scenes in Florida history, such as the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1513, is located in the lobby above the gilded post boxes. Not a bad place to pick up the mail!
4. Colony Hotel
736 Ocean Dr.
Dreamed up in 1935 by Henry Hohauser (one of Miami’s most prolific architects, who is estimated to have created 300 buildings in the area), the Colony Hotel has a simple yet striking design. The building was the first “streamline modern» building in Miami; its three floors have been accented with turquoise paint. But perhaps the building’s most iconic element is its inverted T-shaped sign that bears the hotel’s name and glows a moody shade of blue at night.
The structure was built to serve as a luxurious getaway for upper-middle-class guests – each of the hotel’s 50 rooms had its own bathroom, and some high-end amenities (for the time) included a radio and a telephone in each room. And in a rather unusual move for Florida, the Colony Hotel also has a basement, which has been outfitted with a card room, recreation rooms, and locker rooms with bathing facilities.
Book now: From $145, colonymiami.com, expedia.com
5. Park Central Hotel
640 Ocean Dr.
Sometimes called the “Blue Jewel of Miami” due to its azure paint accents and neon lighting, the Park Central Hotel is a Magic City icon that opened in 1937. Another Hohauser creation, the hotel was a favorite among celebrities like Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth in its heyday. Seven stories and with 135 rooms, the Blue Jewel is outfitted with Old Florida-style rooms and also offers a sculpture garden, rooftop terrace, plunge pool, and sleek terrazzo flooring. After changing hands a few times over the years, the Park Central Hotel was sold to hotelier Richard Tabet in 2013; he invested money in major renovations for the property in 2018 as well as several surrounding properties. Unfortunately, the Park Central Hotel closed during the pandemic and it is unclear if and when it will reopen for business.
6. The Webster
1220 Collins Ave.
Completed in 1939, the Webster is a prime example of Hohauser’s adherence to the rule of three – the building is equally divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, and a trio of windows sit on each of its three stories. Although it was originally designed as a hotel, it now operates as the flagship storefront for an upscale clothing boutique, also known as Webster. Inside, visitors can find eye-catching terrazzo flooring, pastel decor, and modern warehouse-style beamed ceilings.
7. Hoffman Cafeteria Building
1450 Collins Ave.
This pretty little building on the corner of Collins Avenue and Española Way has seen quite a few businesses come and go since it opened in 1940. Yet another Hohauser-designed build, the gloriously curvaceous property (a welcome change from the ultra-line-obsessed creations of the early art movement deco) was originally built to house the popular Hoffman Cafeteria, a favorite hangout for Air Force cadets training in the area during World War II. Then, in 1942, it temporarily became an army canteen before transforming again, this time into a Jewish grocery store. It would then pass through a series of dance clubs (including a Chinese nightclub with a 2,500 gallon shark tank) before being acquired by Jerry’s Famous Deli in 2000. In 2015, Jerry’s sold the place to Señor Frogs who (unfortunately) closed its Miami location in 2020 due to COVID-19. Rumor has it that Miami Beach investor Yossi Lipkin, who bought it this year for $10 million, has plans to turn it into a “beautiful high-end resort clothing store”.
2100 Collins Ave.
The bass is probably the most subtle example of art deco on this list, but it’s also one of the most attractive. Originally built in 1930 to house the Miami Beach Public Library and Center for the Arts, the building was the first-ever public exhibition venue art in south florida. Architect Russell Pancoast, grandson of John Collins, one of the area’s first real estate developers, designed it. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the building are its walls, which consist of oolitic limestone and fossilized Paleolithic coral. As an additional finish, the walls are also decorated with bas-reliefs carved by the sculptor Gustav Boland. Highlights include a pelican eating a fish and a depiction of the Spanish conquest. The structure became the Bass Museum in 1964 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. You can visit the Bass and its impressive collection of contemporary art Wednesday through Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Next: 10 Frank Lloyd Wright homes you can visit in the US