South Beach, in the decades since its boom in the 1930s and '40s, has grown into a full-blown cesspool of touristic masturbation and a parade ground for this city's local breeds of yeyo. In spite of this, it has also remained one of the most beautiful and architecturally enchanting slivers of Miami-Dade. And while South Beach may be home to a range of architectural styles from Mediterranean to MiMo, none are more associated with this city's image than art deco.
South Beach was reborn in art deco. After the vicious hurricane of September 1926, which utterly razed the city, wrought havoc, and left some 400 dead, Miami Beach saw a building boom that lasted the better part of 20 years. That era of rebuilding focused primarily on resurrecting the fledgling resort community in the chic new style that had come out of the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which would be shortened simply to "art deco."
Now, South Beach is home to over 800 art deco structures, according to the National Register of Historic Buildings, making the main drags of Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue a fascinating pastel spectacle. And while the scores of three-story hotels that compose that list may start to seem ubiquitous after a certain point, they all have their fair share of aesthetics, personality, and charm. Here are ten buildings among them that carry an especially great deal of all three.
10. The Webster1220 Collins Ave., Henry Hohauser
Designed in 1939 by Henry Hohauser, one of the master architects behind the urban landscape of South Beach, the Webster's ornate plaques and its perfectly symmetrical shape, filled with neon and bearing a straightforward geometric composition, are essentially archetypical of Miami's iteration of the art deco style. This former hotel has been re-envisioned as a high-end fashion boutique dealing in luxury fashion and both women's and men's couture. But fear not — if you aren't in the market for some new luxury fashion accoutrements, you can simply make yourself comfortable in the lobby and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of bubbly.
9. The Carlyle1250 Ocean Dr., Kiehnel & Elliot
Opening its doors in 1941, this hotel also adheres to a number of standard art deco stylistic attributes, like the rule of thirds, with its three dividing vertical sections and the step tops that cap them. It also wears a characteristically sparse color palette of white and sea foam green, a significantly more understated and nuanced take on art deco colorways seen in buildings like the Pelican or the Berkeley. The Carlyle has been one of the most recognizable fixtures of the Ocean Drive hotel sprawl for nearly 75 years, lending its façade to films like Scarface and Bad Boys 2, and, most notably, giving up its name to become the titular setting of 1996's The Birdcage.
8. Jerry's Famous Deli1450 Collins Ave., Henry Hohauser
Another one of Hohauser's classically enduring designs, the 1939 building currently occupied by Jerry's Famous Deli sports a streamlined or nautical style of art deco, with a curving frontage and six decorative porthole-esque shapes atop the fascia. When it was originally constructed, the building housed Hoffman's Cafeteria, and after that, it would bear a number of other names, like the "China Club" and "Ovo," before it became the immensely popular Warsaw Ballroom. It would remain one of Miami Beach's most famed gay bars until 2002 when it came full circle and transformed back into an eatery with Jerry's.
7. Colony Theatre1040 Lincoln Road, R.A. Benjamin
The Colony Theatre, completed in 1935 and commissioned by Paramount for its expanding theater chain, has evolved into a full-blown 430-seat performing arts center that is as much sought after for its prime location on the corner of Lenox Avenue and Lincoln Road as for its beautiful art deco trappings. The theater's deco merits are not only found outside among its perfectly maintained marquee and façade but also in the restored ticket box and the entryway decorated with bold lines and geometric patterns in the pristine terrazzo flooring.
6. The Breakwater940 Ocean Dr., Anton Skislewicz
Skislewicz's 1936 resort hotel bears many of the stylistic qualities of art deco design — the strong line, the emphasis on symmetry, etc. — but it also exhibits an aspect of this architectural mold that is just as emblematic as far as the image of South Beach is concerned: copious amounts of neon. At night, the Breakwater's towering central facade that bears its name lights up like a radioactive sword of blue and orange and white, a sight that can be seen from nearly anywhere in Lummus Park.
5. Cadillac Hotel3925 Collins Ave., Roy France
Standing slightly beyond the confines of South Beach, the Cadillac Hotel, erected in 1940, is the second tallest building on this list and the only one that can claim to have been designed to look like a car, from the grey finial peak that resembles chrome center trim leading up to a glimmering hood ornament, to the cantilevered portico over the driveway that looks something like a hood itself. The design is stark and distinctly less flamboyant than many other art deco buildings, but the Cadillac remains an arrestingly attractive building and a fine place to reminisce on the days when Jackie Gleason and the Rat Pack were still running around the Beach, reveling in the magic of this town when it was still nascent and new.
4. The McAlpin1424 Ocean Dr., L. Murray Dixon
Dixon, one of the great minds who designed so much of the Art Deco District we know today, contributed this 1940 design to the South Beach landscape. Today, it is one of the most widely photographed buildings in South Beach, and with good reason. The McAlpin is arguably the purest distillation of Miami's art deco style on this list, with its perfectly symmetrical design, the wonderfully Miami pastel hues of pink and turquoise, the patterns of lines that stretch the length and breadth the building's facade, not to mention the face formed in the center of the building by three windows and some of the dividing lines. It is an exceptionally pretty little building.
3. The Plymouth336 21st St., Anton Skislewicz
Skislewicz's second appearance on this list earns him a spot in the top three with a design from 1940 that is decidedly more modern and cutting edge than the Breakwater or any other preceding artifice. The narrow slit windows give the building a futuristic and mysterious ambiance, while the massive blade of concrete that cuts through the center of the rounded facade pronounces the Plymouth's presence as it towers over the street corner. It's a building that would raise eyebrows if it were proposed today, much less what it must have 70 years ago, making it an even more precious gem from this fascinating period of building.
2. The Delano1685 Collins Ave., Robert Swartburg
This choice may not sit particularly well amongst purists, who might argue that this 1947 building meanders into the Miami modern style as much as it dabbles in deco. Fortunately, they aren't writing this article — I am. And I love this building. The beveled brilliant white frontage has the amazing quality of looking variably beautiful from different angles, and the unmistakable finned Delano finial that crowns the building is both unostentatious and grand. The rooftop lounge area offers a wonderfully refreshing perspective that's far from the flatland ground-level view that's so easy to become accustomed to when looking around South Beach. This is one of the places where the sheer coolness of old-school Miami Beach continues to live and breathe.
1. Bass Museum2100 Collins Ave., Russel Pancoast
The finest example of sublime art deco architecture in Miami is also the oldest building on this list. Originally built in 1930 as the Miami Beach Public Library and Arts Center, Pancoast's design has a regal air to it in its width and the visual strength of the wings on either side of the steps. The museum also has a one-of-a-kind skin, as the building is covered in fossilized paleolithic coral that adds texture and a naturally aging hue to the structure. Perhaps most engrossing are the bas reliefs above the main entrance facing Collins Avenue that depict everything from glorious pelicans to the conquest of Florida by the Spanish. It stands apart as a gorgeous building that lacks neither subtlety nor gravitas and has stood for 83 years as a keystone of Miami Beach architecture.