The Deal of the Century

The contents of Miami's closets and drawers are now on display around town. Organizers of the small but satisfying exhibitions at the Wolfsonian, the Metro-Dade Main Library, and the Historical Museum of Southern Florida have wisely eschewed centennial pomp and circumstance, opting instead for shows that comprise intimate reflections of the city's first 100 years. Photographs, household objects, clothing, and tourist memorabilia document the continual creation of Miami by a century of pioneers, developers, and image makers.

Wish You Were Here, at the Wolfsonian, is a snappy show that peeks into Miami's glorified past as a tourist destination. Post cards, travel brochures, and other artifacts from the museum's collection of stylish ephemera illustrate how the snowbird's-eye-view of a burgeoning South Florida was shaped by advertising images and slogans. Featuring material from the Twenties to the Forties, "Wish You Were Here" evokes the golden days when enthusiastic tour operators and hotel owners lauded Miami and its beaches as the the "Sunshrine of America," the "Magic City," the "American Riviera," or even the "Vacationland of the World."

Neatly packed into the back corner of the Wolfsonian's seventh-floor gallery, the exhibition features a display of vintage color post cards. These include scenes of settlers in the Everglades trading fur with Miccosukee Indians, and renderings of Art Deco hotels. Elegant black-and-white photographs of the hotels, notable homes, and office buildings of the period hang on the wall. More unusual is a small assortment of matchbooks from area businesses that are delightful examples of a dying art form. Matchbooks from Miami Beach's Rumba Casino feature the requisite randy dancers, while a suave man in a Panama hat smokes a cigarette on a Burdines matchbook advertising "Palm Beach suits." A matchbook cover from the Five O'Clock Club on Collins Avenue and 22nd Street adorned with a Deco-design clock and the slogan "Drinks on the house at 5:00" is enough to stir up a desperate thirst for martinis.

Some examples of hotel souvenirs attest to the cachet once afforded a Miami vacation -- a colorful deck of Delano playing cards, a Biltmore tie clip. The epitome of tourist propaganda here is an undated Dade County promotional film that relentlessly pitches Miami as a visitors' paradise. Comparable to an infomercial, the film plays out a shopworn boy-meets-girl story with marvelous Miami as the setting. Vintage shots of locales like Parrot Jungle are riveting, but the promo becomes camp comedy when one of the characters pants over the "scenery" at poolside bathing suit fashion shows, lauds Miami's "good neighbors policy" (he obviously hasn't been driving on U.S. 1 lately), or raves about "the gay hotels of Miami Beach." About twenty minutes long, the film is part of a montage of old tourist promos and newsclips put together by the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center that plays continuously on a monitor in the gallery. The kitsch factor is high in these often corny segments, but the truth is the innocent Miami seen on-screen looks very inviting.

You'll probably be longing for a time gone by when you leave the Wolfsonian, and A Century of Architecture in Miami in the auditorium of the library's downtown main branch will stoke those feelings of nostalgia, while providing some reassurance that our collective civic memories live on in the city's remaining buildings. The show was conceived by the library's always conscientious curator Barbara Young, who makes a case for preservation in a display designed to "stimulate not only memories about the past but also serious concerns for the future" of local historic buildings.

Young and her crew started six months ago with a survey that asked resident architects, community activists, artists, and others to name the most significant buildings constructed in Greater Miami over the last century. The now-vacant Freedom Tower was the big winner with fifteen votes. The most popular buildings also included the Gusman Theater, the Dinner Key Terminal (now the Miami City Hall), the Spanish Monastery, and the Dade County Courthouse. Other entries ranged from an Art Deco gas station at Coral Way and Seventeenth Avenue to the Orange Bowl, the Miami International Airport Concourse A, and the new Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Some selected buildings no longer exist -- Julia Tuttle's home, the original Roney Plaza Hotel and its extravagant gardens, the Coral Gables Coliseum, and others.

The theme of this show is a good one, as it succeeds in giving viewers a sense of Miami's architectural history while promoting preservation by documenting the wonderful structures that have criminally been lost to development. But the creative presentation of this modest exhibition also makes it a real pleasure to look at. The buildings are depicted in fine art photographs, drawings, and paintings. These include Steven Brooke's intense, romantic Ektacolor photo of the Gusman interior, Oscar Thomas's naive painting of Overtown's Lyric Theater depicting an elegant black couple standing outside, and Emilio Sanchez's drawing of a wooden house that is an example of the Bahamian vernacular style in Miami's black neighborhoods. On the back wall, Haydee, Sahara, and Michael Scull's 3-D construction shows Art Deco activist Barbara Capitman at the Cardozo Hotel, with the Glenn Miller orchestra playing in the background. These and other works, obviously labors of love, succeed in inspiring appreciation for Miami's eclectic architecture.

On the library's second floor, 100 Years of Fashion in Miami is on display. This show is hardly as extensive as its title might suggest -- it's more like a high-end jumble sale, but it's a pleasing hodgepodge. Shown in glass cases, the sixteen outfits and various accessories, borrowed from the International Fine Arts College Historical Costume Collection, basically demonstrate that Miami society kept up with international fashion trends. Among the accessories are early-century high-button shoes, plumed hats, an alligator bag, and Seventies platform shoes. Dresses include a delicate beige chiffon flapper shift from 1921 and a gold Lurex and brocade miniskirted formal dinner dress by James Galanos. But the clothes on view do offer some insight into Miami's history. For example, the label of a black-and-white late Forties silk taffeta cocktail suit reads "Christian Dior, exclusivo en Cuba, El Encanto, La Habana."

Next door to the library, Miami: the First 100 Years at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida is the most inclusive of these exhibitions. Moving chronologically from 1896 to the present, it tells the Miami story through objects and artifacts, from a letter written to Julia Tuttle by Henry Flagler and a mock trading post to examples of products used by the city's disparate nationalities today. Photos and post cards that give a good idea of the formation of the urban landscape are displayed, and pullout drawers hold everything from Seminole Indian rag dolls to bone china.

This is not a large exhibition, considering its subject, and the display is decidedly unsophisticated. A quaint, curiosity-shop air permeates the gallery. It's really a rather fitting setting for a collection of everyday artifacts.

"Miami: The First 100 Years" and the exhibitions at the Wolfsonian and the library serve their purpose as centennial celebrations. By so personally exploring Miami's past, they easily evoke a fondness for the now-chaotic city in which we live. As one visitor to the Historical Museum put it as he was raptly studying a yarmulke embroidered with the Marlins' logo, "It's a good thing somebody saved all this stuff."

Wish You Were Here. Through September 30. The Wolfsonian, 1001 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 531-1001.

A Century of Architecture in Miami; 100 Years of Fashion in Miami. Through September 15. Metro-Dade Main Library, 101 W Flagler St; 375-2665.

Miami: The First 100 Years. Through September 29. Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W Flagler St; 375-1492.

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