Essential Architecture- the South

Miami South Beach Art Deco Gallery

Miami's South Beach Art Deco district provides its visitors a whimsical palate of color and style - a prewar Gernsback Continuum of tropical optimism given new life by the gods of hipdom. A generation ago, Miami was known mostly for a detective show that crafted a mystique about a town whose cops always seemed to dress better than the crooks they chased. Since then, the town has inspired a range of musical tributes, from the banal (Will Smith) to the bizarre (U2). Along the way, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane found themselves running a fictional South Beach nightclub in their 1996 remake of La Cage Aux Folles. What St. Tropez was in the late 1970s, South Beach became at century's end. Our first visit, in December 2000, dropped us into the middle of a construction boom as zigzag and fluted piles have become gutted to make room for more visitors.

Text copyright: Andrew Wood.
MIAMI BEACH: South Beach Commercial Buildings and Streets

Miami Beach is a great little city.

It’s one of the very few small cities to have survived in North America. This puts it in the distinguished company of Charleston, Annapolis, Quebec, and maybe Santa Fe and Savannah. Other North American cities of this size have been damaged to the point where they don’t function as pedestrian environments.

According to the 2000 census, 87,933 people live in the 7.03 square miles inside the Miami Beach city limits, for a city-limit density of 12,508—a bit more than Boston.

Its diverse and interesting population, its beach and nightlife, its shopping and dining opportunities and its cosmopolitan aura leave visitors thinking it’s unique and full of character, but most of all these days, it’s noted for its Deco architecture:

The City of Miami Beach is divided into North Beach, which is dense and suburban, and South Beach, which is even denser and thoroughly urban.


The South Beach zip code is 33139. Within its 2.60 square miles live 40,177 permanent residents (2003), yielding a density of 15,472 persons per square mile, about the same as San Francisco. This surprising figure is achieved despite swaths of hotels and a large business district with few permanent residents. And it’s achieved principally with two and three story buildings, both commercial and residential, that are mostly free-standing. It resembles Cambridge, MA in this regard.

South Beach looked like this in 1989:

Where are the back yards?

It was built mostly in the Great Depression. Just getting started in 1930, it looked like this:

Even today, few highrises interrupt the consistent three-story scale of South Beach, except at the very southern edge, from which this photo was taken:

Photo from SSP

South Beach contains the nation’s largest historic district; at one square mile, it surpasses Boston’s South End in size:


South Beach adheres to a grid, like most of Manhattan, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago or Charleston. The east-west streets are numbered for the visitor’s easy orientation, while the less-numerous north-south avenues bear names. Each of the first three avenues in from the beach can fairly claim Main Street status, though for different reasons.

Running along the broad beach, the easternmost avenue is Ocean Drive (sometimes known as Deco Drive), the main drag for tourists and beachgoers, lined with hotels and restaurants. This is Miami Beach’s raison d’etre, the symbolic and economic core.

The scene here reaches a crescendo Saturday nights, when it becomes a parade of musclemen, belly buttons, anacondas and supercars:

Sunday morning on Ocean Drive.
Next comes Collins Avenue, lined with hotels and restaurants, which are joined by chic boutiques. It’s the main drag where locals and tourists rub shoulders, and it’s also a state highway, sometimes heavy with traffic:

Convertible by Bentley.

Can you spot the parking?

Washington Avenue is the residents’ main drag: an everyday shopping street bracketed in the north by a small porno district and in the south by clubs (ah, those clubs…). At the northern end it resembles a busy street in Queens, with groceries, bistros and a hardware store; the southern end, with its cafes, may remind you of Italy:

The main drag where the locals shop.

A glitzy bus stop and a dull office tower at Washington Avenue and Lincoln Mall. This building makes me grateful new structures in the South Beach historic district are built in Deco style, rather than International Style Modernism, which reduces all places to the same place: anyplace. “International,” after all, is the opposite of “local:”

“Local” is Deco:

South and west of the historic district, big new non-Deco bayside condos introduce another scale that looks good from a distance but meets the ground plane in anti-urban fashion:

Photo from SSP.

At the other end of town, standard North Beach highrises loom above the strand:

Big buildings materialized on the Beach itself in 1947 with the primo Hotel Delano, shown here on a deserted early Sunday morning beach, waiting for a thunderstorm. The Delano was recently reconceived by that guru of glitz, French hotel architect Philippe Starck. This may be the city’s most desirable digs.


South Beach is for people who like to look. Whether you like to look at people or buildings, you’ll be equally rewarded:

Here you may also enjoy looking at cars:

Refugee from Cuba? A ’60 “Dodge Imperial.”

Boys on a cruise in the Azure by Bentley. Just a bit more than 400k will get you one too.
My personal predilection is looking at cityscape, ensembles of buildings that delight the eye:


The Cardozo, named for the Roosevelt-era Supreme Court justice, and owned by Gloria Estefan. Emerson made a radio that was its spitting image.

Deco Revival, just five-or-so years old (left), added to the real thing (right):

Wait a minute…they’re both the real thing! What difference does it make when they were built?

Some more Deco Revival. The five-story height also gives it away:

Elevator tower hurts the symmetry.

And yet two more:

Late Deco morphs into International Style around the time Gropius comes to America in the Forties; this one also exceeds the usual three stories:

Around this time, things start to look a little cheap (Gropius would say “economical”), and ground floors start to get a bit chaotic as the car muscles in, relegating pedestrian access to a kind of pit: