Miami Beach is beautiful. With its long, sandy shoreline, lovely climate, and amazing confluence of world cultures, the Beach has gone from a sleepy seaside resort to a world-class city. And in the short history of that process, it has also become one of the most distinctive and fascinating architectural cityscapes on the planet.
Exploring this unique cityscape was the idea behind Saturday's Miami Art Museum Bike Crawl, a four-mile jaunt around South Beach's historic Art Deco District that began and ended at the newly renovated James Royal Palm.
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Locals are familiar with the art deco style of architecture -- straight-lined symmetry, geometric patterns, pastel paint jobs -- that populates more than 800 hotels, storefronts, and structures in South Beach, according to the National Register of Historic Places. It's a style we know and love. But how well do we really know it?
The tour addressing this very question began by pointing out that no renovations, remodeling, or rebuilding could be done that would damage or deface the original façades of these historically protected buildings. So hotel owners can gut the structures, tear the insides apart, and replace every inch from floor to ceiling, but there's a very strict no-touchy rule when it comes to the exterior walls.
The problem with that rule is that South Beach has a whole hell of a lot more tourists flying in from every corner of the globe than it did in the '30s and '40s, when many of these fairly low-lying buildings were constructed. The James Royal Palm, constructed at 1545 Collins Ave. in 1939, exemplifies the logical solution to this quandary of insufficient vacancy: UPWARD AND ONWARD! Hotel owners for years have been building higher and higher from within the original façades, allowing art deco destinations to remain popular spots for weary travelers and jet-setting executives to hang their hats, rest their heads, and enjoy the Atlantic.
The interior of the James Royal Palm is shiny and new, with gleaming terrazzo floors, a floating staircase designed by Lauren Rottet -- who curated the Palm's interior design, from throw pillows to the antique green glass reception desk -- and a stellar staff of bartenders serving only the finest hooch.
From the James Royal Palm, tour guides led groups of ten up the boardwalk and over to Collins Park and the Bass Museum of Art. Along the way, one of the guides, Marty Mueller, explained how art deco came to Miami Beach and why our city is such a significant epicenter of the style.
"In 1925, Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs, which showcased the modern style that would come to be known as the shortened 'art deco,'"Mueller explained. "In 1926, Miami and Miami Beach were struck by the great hurricane of September '26. Four hundred people were killed and most of Miami Beach's relatively new buildings were leveled... Over the next 16 years, there was a mini-building boom that slowed in the Depression but roared in the '30s. But what's important is the style they chose to rebuild in. Rather than going with the old style, Miami Beach opted to rebuild in the new art deco style from Paris because it was deemed sexy and trendy and would make a lot of money... And it's because of this rapid period of rebuilding that the National Trust Register of Historical Buildings lists 800 art deco structures in Miami Beach and why this city is the art deco capital of the world."
Then the group rolled across Washington Avenue and meandered toward Meridian for the next two stops: the Miami Beach Botanical Garden and the Holocaust Memorial. These two landmarks have always been a striking pair -- the lush and serene oasis bordering the somber and hauntingly beautiful memorial. As the tour moved into the secluded Japanese Garden section of the botanical garden, we were informed it was in phase two of remodeling and would soon be all the more impressive with phase three. Precisely what phase three will involve, however, remained a mystery.
From there, we wound our way through the residential streets between Meridian and Michigan avenues, pausing to peek at a hidden gem in the rarified form of a late-1920s art deco home, before riding down to Lincoln Road to see the more modern capstones of our city's architectural spectrum.
When the tour reached the foot of the Herzog & de Meuron-designed 1111 Lincoln Rd. parking installation, Mueller gave a brief history of Miami Beach's famed street mall, its evolution into a fully pedestrian strip and resurgence to popularity in the '60s, and the functional and architectural significance of parking installations in Miami Beach. In a city with limited space and a meager reliance on public transit, "if you can't park, you can't come, and if you can't come, you can't spend money," Mueller said in his explanation on the city's keenness to parking installations.
And if the term "parking installation" is unfamiliar to you and leaves you wondering how installations are different from garages, take into consideration that the 1111 Lincoln Rd. installation by Herzog & de Meuron, the 420 Lincoln Rd. installation by Enrique Norten, and the prospective Zaha Hadad installation that will be erected behind the regional Miami Beach Library across the street from Collins Park are all designed by world-renowned architectural masters. For a stark contrast, look at the intriguing and arresting design of the Herzog & de Meuron installation and compare it with the bulky cinderblock mass that is the 17th Street Municipal Parking Garage. See the difference?
Speaking of which, just next to the 17th Street garage is the modern capstone to the east end of Lincoln Road, Frank Gehry's New World Center. Since it opened in 2011, the New World Center has been much more than a concert house and campus for some of the world's finest young musicians. The free WallCasts and film screenings on the building's broad white façade have drawn hundreds of locals, who come with lawn chairs, bottles of wine, and good friends in a show of community that's rarely been seen Miami Beach's history.
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Our guide noted that the two final structures -- the Herzog & de Meuron 1111 Lincoln installation and Gehry's New World Center -- are also focal points of a heated debate between those who call for a strict preservationist stand for the city's architectural style and those who argue that the variety and modernity growing around our established art deco landscape are to be welcomed and embraced as a part of Miami Beach's further evolution as a globally recognized metropolitan city.
The bike tour concluded with a ride down Drexel Avenue, passing the Miami Beach Community Church and snaking through Española Way before returning to the James Royal Palm for cocktails and tasty treats such as ceviche and chicken empanadas. A fine conclusion to an informative day of perfect weather and timeless architectural beauty.