Architecture & Design

Miami Icons: The Colony Hotel, the Most Famous Art Deco Building on Ocean Drive

San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Travis Cohen argues that the Colony Hotel's Art Deco history and Ocean Drive location have earned it icon status.

For better or worse, when most people think Miami Beach, they don't think about Normandy Isle and seven-one or Surfside or Sunny Isles They think about South Beach. They think about half-naked women with perfectly sculpted bodies coated in deep summer tans. They think of candy colored super cars. They imagine SoBe as a scattershot settlement of clubs overflowing with beautiful people who meander towards the shoreline at 4 a.m., bedecked in barely buttoned Armani shirts and short Valentino dresses that have crawled up a long length of thigh, as they search for a palm tree to vomit on beneath the neon moonlight. And what is the backdrop for this glamorous scene? None but the Historic Art Deco District of Miami Beach and all those lovely pastel palaces along Ocean Drive.

And even if the ideas and attitudes towards South Beach that locals and tourists hold don't exactly match up, nobody can contend that the Art Deco architecture is an intrinsic part of the Beach's personality as a city. Most of that style was designed by a man named Henry Hohauser, who was responsible for a great many of the buildings that still stand on Ocean Drive and the surrounding sections of the Deco District. And out of all his classic creations, there's hardly a one that can be said to be more of a well-known staple in the recollections and postcards of South Beach than the Colony Hotel.

The Colony, designed in 1935, was one of the early buildings erected during the Art Deco renaissance that revived Miami Beach after the great hurricane of September '26 leveled the city in its infancy. The facade is emblematic of the Art Deco style - simple and symmetrical, with bold geometric elements like the inverted "T" that bears the hotel's name and the horizontal eyebrows that hang over the windows in order to give a little extra shade to the tenants as they watch people strutting in the sunshine.

It's playful and tropical in the daytime, but come the night, it's vibrant and garish and pulsating with the allure that has drawn people to this oceanfront playground since the 1930s, growing all the more atavistic and openly wild over the years. And while the scene itself has undoubtedly changed more than anyone could have imagined 80-some odd years ago, the low-lying face of South Beach has remained intact -- and the Colony's iconic blue glow has buzzed over the bustling sidewalk below without missing a beat.

Next time you have a chance to pop into any of the 16-million novelty shops on South beach, take a look at the racks of postcards. Eight out of 10 are going to be pictures of Ocean Drive, lit up in all its nightly extravagance. And almost every one is going to have the Colony Hotel dead smack in the middle, like neon Jesus at a far less somber last supper.

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Travis Cohen is a writer for Miami New Times and covers subjects ranging from arts and architecture to marijuana and monkeys with herpes. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English in 2012 and began working with New Times shortly thereafter. He was born and raised in Miami.