The Art Deco Historic District in Miami Beach is nation’s largest 20th Century National Register Historic District. The area features more than 800 historic buildings erected between 1920 and 1940, and contains a variety of architectural styles.
Formal walking tours of the Art Deco District are provided by the Miami Design Preservation League, but if you prefer to explore the District on your own, we’ve prepared a sample tour to get you started in the right direction. The tour below is concentrated in a cohesive area that is relatively easy to explore on foot or bicycle. If you’re driving, remember that parking on South Beach can be a problem, especially on Ocean Drive, Collins and Washington Avenue.
The oldest and most architecturally interesting area of Miami Beach begins at its southernmost tip near South Pointe Park / Government Cut and extends north to 45th Street.
South Beach covers about 23 blocks and contains the most concentrated collection of hotels and apartment houses that date from the 1920′s to the 1940′s.
You should begin your exploration at 1st Street on Ocean Drive. This is one of the most picturesque streets on the Beach with Art Deco hotels lining the west side of the street, and the east side north of 5th Street up to 14th Place fronting the Atlantic Ocean.
As you move north up Ocean Drive, look for these architectural points of interest. We’ve also included the architect’s name and date of construction for each property.
140 Ocean Drive
Henry Hohauser, 1939
Hohauser designed many of the buildings in this area between 1935 and 1955. This hotel has an intimate scale, as it is only two stories high with 29 rooms. The structure sports a popular motif some aficionados refer to as “Style Moderne,” a sailing vessel. The “ship’s mast” is a striped pole symmetrically placed in the center of the facade. The maritime idea is further enhanced by the “portholes” on the concrete guard rail in front of the hotel and on the top corners of the building.
425 Ocean Drive
As is the case with most South Beach hotels that were built in the 1930′s and 1940′s, the facade is the exclusive domain of detailed décoration. The sides remain plain because viewing from the street was made impossible by the 1933 zoning law which allowed for buildings to be built so closely together. The chrome canopy is a typical streamlined feature, and machine made products like chrome were favored in this period of design especially for its shining effect. Don’t miss looking up at the very top of the central plaque on the facade which contains a pink flamingo in a stylized, geometric yellow field.
On your right is Lummus Park which was sold to the city in 1915 to be used as a public park. The beach is one of the nicest on Miami Beach.
PARK CENTRAL HOTEL
640 Ocean Drive
One of the taller hotels from this period, this structure rises six stories and has 80 rooms. Note the chrome marquee and etched glass windows. The Park Central was the scene of the first “conga line” in America on New Year’s Eve, 1940, thanks to a young band leader named Desi Arnaz.
720 Ocean Drive
Harry O. Nelson, 1936
This hotels has one of the nicest Art Deco type facades on the Beach. The dark green trim is played off well against the white ground of the building. The cast geometric and floral patterns should be noted. The recessed ground floor was a popular feature on the Beach: it raised the structure off the ground and provided a shaded porch area which faced the ocean.
736 Ocean Drive
Most hotels built in this period were inexpensive. The Colony cost about $50,000 to build, is cement block and stucco construction, and is three stories high with 50 rooms.
860 Ocean Drive
Albert Anis, 1937
A curious and unique feature of this building is the round watchtower on the upper right hand corner.
940 Ocean Drive
Anton Skislewicz, 1939
The rooftop terrace of the Breakwater was the location of Bruce Weber’s early-1980s photo shoot for Calvin Klein Underwear which sparked world-wide interest in the Art Deco District as a backdrop for the fashion industry. The Breakwater’s perfectly balanced facade helps make the central design even more pronounced. Don’t miss the etched plate glass windows which are done in the Floridiana style complete with flamingos, palm trees, and tropical terrain.
960 Ocean Drive
The urge to recreate medieval Spain was popularized in the 1920′s and persisted into the 1930′s. Carrying out this Hispanic myth, Hohauser dressed up this concrete facade with Romanesque motifs, such as the twisted columnettes.
AMSTERDAM PALACE (Casa Casuarina was the former home of Gianni Versace)
1114-1116 Ocean Drive
Henry La Pointe, 1930
This building was designed in the full measure of the Mediterranean Style, with an open courtyard just inside the entrance. The facade has a medieval flavor with its two story splayed “Gothic” archway and double wooden doors. Typical of the Mediterranean Style, the building’s design is asymmetrical. Stop long enough to view the kneeling nude statue which graces the entrance of the building. The statue was cast in Los Angeles in 1928 and sculpted by V.K. Vuchinich. The building was designed as an apartment house (24 units) and is currently “Villa by Barton G.”
1144 Ocean Drive
L. Murray Dixon, 1937
Despite its height, a horizontal emphasis is provided by the extended window ledges. Aside from a decorative feature, these ledges act as an awning.
1220 Ocean Drive
Fairly large for its day, the Tides cost $166,500 to build in 1936.
1250 Ocean Drive
Kiehnel & Elliott, 1941
The organic feeling present in the Streamlined Style is well illustrated here. The flat facade undulates and wraps around the entire structure, creating an effect of continuous motion. The horizontality of the extended window ledges is balanced by the pronounced, tripartite facade which reaches up in a strong vertical thrust.
1300 Ocean Drive
Named after Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo who died in 1938. There are no sharp edges to this entire building. The streamlined, rounded corners reaffirm the 1930′s devotion to speed, mobility, and freedom. Take a look around the corner of this hotel down 13th Street: the hotel continues with a small garden separating the two major blocks of the structure.
1440 Ocean Drive
In the never ending desire to conjure up novelty architectural design, Dixon arrived at a “NeoColonial” style as a romantic escape for tourist with this Colonial Georgian edifice.
At the end of Ocean Drive, turn left and go one block west to Collins Avenue and turn left to proceed south.
The setback entrance facade features a circular drive with symmetrically balanced lamp posts. The projecting window ledges create the curved effect of interlocking machine gears. As is the case with many of the older Beach hotels, the Haddon Hall is in need of repairs. The marvelously cubic decoration on the lamp posts is peeling as is much of the paint on the building.
JERRY’S FAMOUS DELI (originally built as Hoffman’s Cafeteria)
Wrapping around the corner of Collins and Espanola Way, Hohauser’s building is one of the best of its type on the Beach. It is delightful 1930′s Moderne with rounded, sculpted masses, and etched glass over the entrance. Was home for nightclubs such as Club Ovo, Rhythm Club, Warsaw for 10 years before becoming Jerry’s Famous Deli.
Turn right onto Espanola Way. At the end of the block on your right facing Washington Avenue is the…
Hohauser repeats many of the motifs of his Hoffman’s Cafeteria design in this movie-theater-turned nightclub, such as the curved corners. The decorative details above the marquee are especially nice, such as the cast plaque and glass block window. The Cameo has been the site of various nightclubs for the last 25 years.
Staying on Espanola Way, cross over Washington Avenue to the oldest intact area on the Beach. This block of Espanola Way, between Washington Avenue and Drexel Avenue, was designed by Robert Taylor in 1925 for N. B. T. Roney, and was known as the “Spanish Village” and was originally intended as an artist colony. Although the extending balconies and wooden trellises are gone, one can still feel the Hispanic environment. Red tiled roofs, open loggias, and asymmetrically placed turrets remain, as does the original rust and beige stucco. Looking north and south, don’t miss a glance at the alleyways halfway down the block.
Go to the end of the block to Drexel Avenue and turn left. Drive down Drexel to 13th Street and turn left. At the corner of 13th and Washington, stop long enough to look to your left.
U. S. POST OFFICE
Built under the WPA, this post office is one of the better examples of its genre. The main body of the building is a rotunda with a décorative cupola on the top. Try to take the time to park and go into this building (there is a car park on the corner of 13th Street and Drexel behind the post office). The interior of the rotunda still contains all of the original fixtures and décorations. The mailboxes are worth a closer look. They are cast and carved in the 1930′s décorative spirit and wrap around the inside of the rotunda. Above the mailboxes is a mural done by Charles Hardman, which was funded under the U. S. Treasury Department’s section of Fine Arts Projects. The theme for the mural was “Florida History” and Hardman chose to depict the discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon, an Indian attack on DeSoto, and a confrontation between Seminoles and the U. S. Army. The mural was completed in three canvas panels and installed in 1941.
Now turn right onto Washington Avenue and you will be traveling south.
CINEMA THEATER (now Mansion Nightclub)
From the outside the building does not look like much, but the inside is another issue. The interior of this former movie theater was one of the best intact examples of Moderne design on the Beach. Streamlining, geometric décoration, and superbly designed fittings could be noted throughout the lobby and body of the theater stayed in place over its last 10 years as a nightclub, however its current club incarnation has brought severe changes to the interior. The chandelier in the lobby was a stunner.
OLD CITY HALL
1130 Washington Martin Hampton, 1927
Built right after the hurricane of 1926, this building stands on wood and reinforced concrete piles. It rises eight stories and is decked out in the popular 1920′s Revivalistic Style. The general effect of the design of the structure suggests the Beaux Arts tradition which favored Renaissance details, giant columns flanking the entrance, round-headed windows, a symmetrical plan, and a tall tower.
WOLFSONIAN MUSEUM (originally the Washington Storage Company)
Robertson and Patterson, 1927
Originally designed as a storage facility, the current Wolfsonian Museum building stands today very much as it did in the 1920′s, a large block building with marginal fenestration. The decoration is in the best spirit of the Spanish Baroque Revival. Above and around the doorway is a nice example of cast stucco work in a Neo-Churrigueresque style.
801 Washington Kingston Hall, 1929
Another example of the Mediterranean Eclectic.
Now proceed one block east to Collins Avenue and walk north.
In typical streamlined fashion, Dixon wraps the facade of this building around the corner of the avenue. Two particularly nice features are the crowning finial and the sign post on the east side of the hotel.
There is really nothing especially distinctive about this three story structure, but it is worth noting as yet another example of the endless variety the Style Moderne used to dress up a facade. The use of wavy lines and scalloped detailing energizes an otherwise static decoration.
H. Maloney, 1935
This is certainly one of the largest Mediterranean styled structures that was built in the 1930′s. It covers the better part of the block and takes a commanding view of Collins Avenue. A baronial staircase leads to the second floor entrance which gives this hotel an air of distinction. Commodious terraces, red tiled roofs and centrally placed entrance further enhance the building. The Edward boasted of its own private swimming pool—a luxury feature for its day. One other note of interest, in off-season the Edward stayed open but lowered its rates. From May 1 to November 1, one could rent a double room for $1.50 per person or $2.00 for a single. The Edward also featured a solarium and a roof garden dance patio.
The Essex, like the Tiffany, wraps around the corner of the avenue and is prominently announced by a finial which bears its name. Notice the cubic decoration around the door and windows on the first floor. The Essex employs a very popular streamlined motif–the three lit-e le lines. One might call them “racing stripes” today. Regardless of the terminology, the motif has the same implication today as it did then of continuous motion and the notion of speed. The same motif was universally employed on any number of products of the period such as the Electrolux vacuum cleaner or Kodak cameras. As was the case in many of the hotels, the Essex featured guest rooms as well as an adjoining structure designed for apartments. In 1951, the Essex advertised these summer rates for double occupancy: Daily–$3.00; Weekly–$18.00; and Monthly-$60.00.
This is another streamlined structure with wraparound facade. Most noteworthy is the finial: it looks as if it were fashioned after a Buck Rogers rocket needle. It would seem that from this example and others that Hollywood and movie set decorations must have had some degree of influence on the architects of this period. The Tudor finial also has some affinity with the finial of the Empire State Building (1933).
The Palmer sports several of the more popular motifs of the period: stripes, a modified ziggurat finial, and sunbursts along the top of the building.
The Kent has yet another of the endless array of proud finials. This needle sharp finial is more than just another décorative feature. Even as Dixon employed a similar motif to the finial of the Tudor hotel, the upward thrust of this one gives the illusion of verticality to an otherwise horizontal structure.
In a more modest offering, Dixon once again uses curved corners, cast decoration plaques and a small finial.
Both of these buildings have noteworthy details and setback features.
SHEPLEY HOTEL (now the Beachcomber)
The modified setback on the top of the facade is cleverly repeated on the windows on both the front and sides of the building. As on his Century Hotel, Hohauser used the “porthole” motif and a reduced striped pole as a flagstaff at the very top of the facade. This hotel has some of the best etched glass on Miami Beach in the front windows.
The St. Moritz is now part of Loews Miami Beach Hotel complex.
1610 Collins Anis, 1940
This hotel has several typical features that have already been noted as popular motifs of the period, such as cast plaques, setback facade, and the like. One thing that should be familiar by now is the absolutely symmetrical balance to the facade and the rich ornamentation. Some of the decorative cast plaques on this hotel are worth a good look even if they suffer from over-painting.
The most outstanding feature of this fairly tall hotel is the fanciful and spherical cupola.
Robert Swarthburg, 1947
Although the crowning ornament on this hotel looks like the style Moderne, the building was not built until after the war. This does show how enduring the style was for “resort” design.
Just up the block from the Delano and also built after the war (1946), shows the same reluctance to part with an established architectural style.
RITZ PLAZA (originally built as Grosinger Hotel)
CHATEAU PETER MILLER
Russell Pancoast, 1936
Nostalgia is the root of all revivalism. It seems to satisfy an urge to recreate the aura of another age. The Neo-French Chateau Style of this hotel does indeed take us back to the 16th century, with its three storied round tower and conical roof. Russell Pancoast is, by the way, the son of Thomas Pancoast and grandson of John Collins.
GREYSTONE HOTEL (now closed)
Go west on 21st Street. This side street has a number of notable “Style Moderne” buildings. Many of the motifs and decorative features have already been enumerated: curved corners, horizontal emphasis, portholes, little stripes, cast decorative plaques, and chrome canopies. See how many of these you can spot for yourself on the:
1777 Collins Dixon, 1940
These are two more offerings from one of the Beach’s most prolific architects. The Raleigh was a fairly costly venture for its time. It was only eight stories high but it has $225,000 worth of materials in its wood piling and C.B.S. (concrete block and stucco) construction.
It’s worth your time to walk down 21st Street where you’ll see several unique hotel designs listed here:
PLYMOUTH HOTEL 336 21st Street Skislewicz, 1940
ABBEY HOTEL 300 21st Street Anis, 1940.
TYLER HOTEL 430 21st Street Anis, 1940
GOVERNOR HOTEL 435 21st Street Hohauser, 1939
As you turn onto 21st Street, the park on your right is the JOHN COLLINS MEMORIAL PARK and in the middle is the Miami Beach Library. Behind the Library is the 1930′s structure that now houses the Bass Museum of Art.
Lincoln Road was the heart of the town from the earliest days of the Beach. In 1914, it was a big, empty thoroughfare. Ten years later, Carl Fisher built his office here and it was not long after that that his road became the central commercial district of the Beach.
By 1940, Lincoln Road was called the “Fifth Avenue of the South.” Swank branches of De Pinna’s, Hattie Carnegie’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue lined the avenue, and the smart set came and shopped.
After World War Two and the advent of competition from the luxury shops in the post-war hotels, Lincoln Road suffered a setback. In 1957, to lure buyers back, Morris Lapidus converted the road into its present form of a pedestrian shopping mall. Most of the buildings on the mall date from the 1930′s and 1940′s.
Some that you should take note of as you go up and down the mall are:
Community Congregational Church
524 Lincoln Road
This is the oldest church in Miami Beach.
1650 James Avenue
Polevitsky & Russell, 1939
This hotel sports the best in ocean liner imagery in Miami Beach. Portholes puncture the sides of the building and the setback upper story (now filled in) at one time had ship’s railing. Furthering the metaphor of the high seas, the crowning ornament on top of the hotel offers the appearance of a ship’s exhaust stack.
The area from 21st Street to 41st Street is an a mixture of period styles. Some hotels remain from the 1930′s and 1940′s, and others date from the 1950′s.
The waterways and canals also offer handsome views of many of the residential areas. Boat tours departing from Bayside are the best way to see the islands (Palm, Hibiscus, and Star) that were created when Biscayne Bay was dredged in the early 1910s.
Walking tours by the Miami Design Preservation League depart Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. from the MDPL Center at 1001 Ocean Drive, $15. Self-guided audio-tours are available daily, $10 cassette rental. Bike, rollerblade, and private group tours are also available.
Art Deco Historic District
Miami Design Preservation League Center
1001 Ocean Dr.
Miami Beach, Florida, 33139. 305.672.2014
Special thanks to the Dade Heritage Trust for their assistance in producing this article.
Photo credits: Joseph Brown, Miami Beach Magazine.