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Once the Grossinger Beach Hotel (1940), now the Ritz Plaza: A splendid design by architect Lawrence Murray Dixon
Once the Grossinger Beach Hotel (1940), now the Ritz Plaza: A splendid design by architect Lawrence Murray Dixon

Dean of Deco

The Raleigh. The Ritz Plaza. The Tides. The Marlin. The Tiffany. The Victor. For anyone the least bit familiar with Miami Beach's hallowed Art Deco District, those hotel names instantly conjure up visions of clean lines, sweeping curves, dazzling terrazzo floors, gleaming metal railings, shimmering etched glass panels, block and porthole windows -- tasteful manmade glamour seemingly more appropriate for a swanky movie set than a sandy seaside resort. But those buildings were not designed for fancy-dressed Fred Astaire types. The idea was to appeal to ordinary middle-class families, hoping to get away from their dreary lives for a short while in post-Depression America. The notion worked brilliantly back then, and the unrivaled collection of historic edifices continues to draw hordes to what has become a hot spot for vacationers from all over the world.

One of the handful of men responsible for creating so many of those buildings was architect Lawrence Murray Dixon. A native Floridian who never fully completed his architectural education, he nevertheless cut his design teeth in New York City with prestigious firm Scultze & Weaver, masterminds of ornate structures such as the Freedom Tower and Biltmore Hotel. Dixon returned to Florida in 1929, working with Coral Gables building-makers George Fink and Phineas Paist and then striking out on his own in 1931. In the sunlight and warm weather, a fecund Dixon, his designs gradually simplifying, began producing residential and commercial buildings at an amazing rate. Anyone could design a structure, but in Dixon's hands Art Deco metamorphosed into Tropical Deco, capitalizing on the high points of the South Florida climate and incorporating singularly local motifs such as palm trees and birds for embellishment. In 1949 Dixon's death from a stroke at the age of 48 cut short an illustrious career.

Culled from Dixon's archives, which his sons Richard and Larry generously donated to the Bass Museum, the show "The Making of Miami Beach, 1933-1942: The Architecture of Lawrence Murray Dixon" fails to properly pay tribute to the architect's vast legacy. Close to 100 photos, drawings, and descriptions are crowded together on the walls of a room the expanded museum -- so proud of opening its more than 20,000-square-foot addition at last -- uses to hold lectures and show films. Clearly a figure so instrumental in fashioning what would become the first 20th-century district to be put on the National Register of Historic Places deserves better than to have his work relegated to an auditorium. Those who want a complete understanding of Dixon's career would do well to purchase Jean François Lejeune and Allan T. Shulman's lavishly illustrated and sensitively written 250-page catalog, which far outweighs the poor excuse for an exhibition. Ultimately, though, the best way to appreciate Dixon's genius is to take a long walk around Miami Beach and gaze in awe at the simple, elegant hotels, homes, and apartment buildings he designed, so many of which remain standing today.


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