Sunday, October 21, 2012

Florida History: Art Deco - Miami Beach's historic mantle

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By Jane Feehan

In May 1979 one square mile was designated “Old Miami Beach,” a historic preservation area comprising more than 1,600 buildings from the 1920s and 30s. On the National Register of Historic Places, the area covers one fifth of the city from 6th to 23rd streets between Ocean Avenue and Alton Road.

Many refer to the area as the Art Deco District. Linear symmetry, gaudy ornamentation, and spires characterize buildings of the Art Deco style. Most structures were built of Keystone, a limestone quarried in Florida. Roots of the term art deco are found in the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts D√©coratifs Industriels et Modernes.  The term entered the English lexicon in the late 1960s.

Architects of Miami Beach during the 1920s and 30s, which included Henry Hohauser, Roy France, L. Murray Dixon (and others) were not aware they were employing any significant style, but a design that reflected the simplified, streamlined look of modern architecture of the day. In Miami it was a departure from the more ornate Spanish design of older hotels. Residents did not attach any significance to the motif of their buildings until the arrival of Barbara Capitman in 1973.

Capitman was a New York design journalist who saw something in Miami Beach that many did not. For her, the architecture of its hotels, apartments and theaters defined the city. She became the driving force behind the movement, along with friend Leonard Horowitz, to preserve what became known as the Art Deco

Miami Beach was inert in the late 1970s; one hotel was built in the late 60s but many of the old hotels no longer hosted tourists; they were occupied by elderly residents. A battle against developers, politicians, some long-time residents and old-time hotel owners ensued to preserve the area with its distinctive architecture. When it was over, the federal government certified 400 buildings as historic in Old Miami Beach. Federal tax incentives were made available to those who renovated and rehabilitated their buildings in the Art Deco style. Buildings could be knocked down but long advance notice would have to be given and incentives would be taken away.

Some hotels were revived, beginning in the early 1980s; others were revived and then shuttered. Old Miami Beach has seen its ups and downs and buildings have seen their share of serial owners but South Beach, which lies in the district, is now viewed as one of the trendiest, most glamorous destinations and night spots in the United States, with emphasis on youth, sophisticated dining and entertainment - and Art Deco architecture. 

Barbara Capitman died in 1990, two years after friend, Leonard Horowitz. Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved. Jane Feehan.

For a catalog of Art Deco buildings, visit the Library of Congress at:

For more on the National Register of Historic Places, see:

Kleinberg, Howard. Woggles and Cheese Houses. Miami Beach: The Greater Miami Beach Hotel Association (2005).
Miami News, May 15, 1979
Miami News, Dec. 26, 1987

Tags: Art Deco, Miami Beach history, Miami Beach architecture, film research, old hotels, film and television researcher Florida

Barbara Capitman's book

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