By Lee Foster
If I had to select a single Miami attraction of nearly universal interest to the cultural visitor, it would be the Art Deco Architecture of Miami’s South Beach, those 800 buildings from 1928-1942 that narrowly escaped the wrecker’s ball roughly 40 years ago and are now splendidly restored.
Art Deco South Beach
This square mile of preserved structures is one of the largest concentrations of so-called Art Deco buildings on Earth, though the style can be found from Morocco to New Zealand, and on both coasts of the United States.
Art Deco architectural style in Miami is characterized by human-scale buildings, constructed of masonry and stucco, adorned by geometric patterns, ornamented with ocean liner rounded motifs, and painted with white and pastel colors. The term arose after the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Artes Decoratifs.
As with any district in an American city, South Beach has had its ups and downs over the years.
At one point South Beach was an old folks’ home for Jewish people from New York. It was called “God’s Front Porch” or “The Sixth Borough,” referring to the five in New York.
More recently, in the 1990s, South Beach had a “fabulous” period characterized by the presence of designer Gianni Versace and the mega-model scene he encouraged. Gorgeous models seemed to be hanging out at all hours at the News Café, where Versace had breakfast every day. Versace was shot to death by a deranged person, and his home became a pilgrimage site for his appreciators.
When new buildings were constructed near the Art Deco treasures, one preservationist observed, they must be “in conversation with each other.” Some construction companies were allowed to put up new buildings if they agree to preserve and restore an older structure.
One of the best ways to experience the Art Deco architecture is via a guided or self-guide walking tour of the area. Tours start at the Miami Design Preservation League’s Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive. The history of these buildings comes alive during an insightful tour.
Travelers focused on Art Deco might especially like to visit here on the weekend each January designated as the annual Art Deco Weekend, when all the amenities of architectural tours, food, drink, antique autos, and music focus on this special heritage.
If you enjoy ocean beach sunning and swimming, South Beach is also a superlative destination. The sand is light-colored and is kept relatively clean by vigilant maintenance crews. The ocean has breakers of moderate size and there is a long flat shelf of land, safe for swimming and soaking. The sun is strong and the temperature remains congenial year-round. Beachgoers are not shy about going after an all-over tan.
People Watching is a major sport here as you sit at an open-air bar on Ocean Drive. The parade of people going by is endlessly entertaining, especially from 4 p.m.-4 a.m. Gorgeous, slim men and women, straight and gay, of all racial and ethnic origins, pass before you. This is the world of the body beautiful, possibly tastefully pierced or tattooed. Celebrity sightings are frequent.
You can rent inline skates or bikes to increase your mobility. The total mix of the human family is thickly represented, ranging from retirees to the young, from French or Italian vacationers to local Latinos.
Besides Art Deco architecture and South Beach, here are five additional cultural pleasures that await a Miami visitor.
Five Additional Pleasures in Miami
The highly accessible Design District allows one to peruse the finest in home furnishing, an access usually allowed only to design professionals in other cities. The Design District is sometimes dubbed “One Square Mile of Style.” Furniture, home furnishings, art, and antiques are among the categories of shops.
Be sure to seek out a major sculpture of this district, an immense high heel shoe. The Italian sculptor Miralda envisioned his “Gondola Shoe” as appropriate footwear for the Statue of Liberty. Maps of the Design District, showing the shops, are readily available locally. Stroll the shops to find specialty items, such as American Northeast wood furniture or Italian flooring. This is one of the few Design Districts in American cities that presents itself as a visitor attraction for the layperson.
Pulsating club life could occupy a midnight-3 a.m. slot of your day. No place does “clubs” better than Miami Beach. However, clubs come and go, so it would be imprudent to recommend places in this volatile category of travel information.
A selection of quality art from various eras and areas, whether Native American fabrics or Greco-Roman sculptures, can be seen at the Lowe Museum. This distinguished small art museum, located on the University of Miami campus in nearby Coral Gables, boasts strong collections from several eras. The Native America textile collection, especially the Navajo blankets, is superb. There is also a substantial African Art collection. Some beguiling modern paintings are on display, such as “The Fox Games,” which shows a middle-aged couple in a gray environment with red foxes running about. Sculptor Duane Hanson’s “Football Player” presents a realistic, almost life-like football player, at the moment of defeat. Different subjects are clustered in individual rooms. The 6000-piece holding is not large, but is select. Rooms are devoted to art and artifacts of the Italian Renaissance, the Baroque Era, the Pre-Columbian period, and the Old Spanish Masters times, among others.
Creativity on the culinary cutting edge in Miami can equal the offerings in New York or San Francisco at restaurants such as Sushisamba and Azul. Miami restaurants have matured to the point where daring creations by innovative chefs are the norm. The Latin influence is strong, but with 158 different worldwide ethnic groups in the Miami-Dade County mix, the range of possible food tastes is extensive. Sushisamba is a good example of a Miami restaurant blending Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian flavors. It takes confidence and talent to concoct these taste adventures, such as cornmeal-crusted calamari or seared yellowfin tuna marinated in sugarcane juice. At Azul restaurant, try the wild mushroom soup with sherry reduction, followed by the braised short ribs with Thai chilies. In the Art Deco district, the restaurant named Wish has a French-Brazilian style. Try the appetizer of chilled avocado vichyssoise, with its smoked shrimp and sweet peppers, followed by the black trumpet dusted sea bass, served with garlic braised kale and flageolet beans. For breakfast, consider sitting outdoors along Ocean Drive at a South Beach café facing Lummus Park, such as the Front Porch Café, where the omelets are a good choice.The new names suggested for Miami Cuisine innovations are bound to amuse the visitor. Should these chefs be called the Mango Mafia? Is their cuisine Floribbean? Or possibly Tropical Fusion? Or maybe Nuevo Latino? You be the judge. Whatever it is called, there is some delicious food artistry awaiting the visitor.
An evening of classical symphonic music, played by new and upcoming stars in the American orchestral scene, can be savored at the New World Symphony, a special Miami institution. The New World Symphony nurtures some of the best and brightest young symphonic musicians. This organization, founded in 1987, brings together young musicians who aspire to orchestral careers. Graduates of the better North American music schools gather here for a three-year internship of music. The interns live, eat, and sleep orchestral music, putting on some 60 concerts during the September to May season. A typical program might be a chamber music offering of clarinet pieces by Mozart and Bartok. Some performances take place at the historic Art Deco treasure known as the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Spend some time before or after a performance strolling Lincoln Road, a major shopping/dining street and now a pedestrian mall.
For lodging in Miami, a visitor could choose one of the small South Beach Art Deco hotels, such as the stainless steel motif of the Marlin or the sea-view rooms at the Tides. There are also full-service luxury hotels north of the Art Deco district, such as the Loews, which have large outdoor pools, beach access, and proximity to a 6.5-mile beach boardwalk ideal for strolling and jogging. One of the most luxurious hotel in Miami is the Mandarin Oriental, with its notable design emphasis.
With each passing year the cultural/arts experience in Miami available to a traveler becomes more creative and richer.
Miami: If You Go
For area tourism information, contact the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.miamiandbeaches.com.