Art Deco Miami is an architectural wonder. The city has the highest concentration of art deco buildings in the world, and their preservation has saved the [South Beach] skyline from becoming a canyon of condos. Amazingly, these buildings were almost destroyed by developers in the early 1970s. Their survival is due to a handful of activists who, in 1976, founded the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) and ensured that South Beach was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Miami art deco highlights
Collins and Española
The inspiration for the drag queens at the Birdcage was the Warsaw. Now closed, it was a legendary 1990s centre of debauchery housed in the striking Hoffman's Cafeteria Building (1450 Collins Avenue), a deco gem with central turret and sweeping "angel wings" designed by Hohauser in 1939. From a cafeteria it became a ballroom, then a series of clubs, including the Warsaw; now it's Jerry's Famous Deli.
Collins Avenue is less of a unified architectural set piece than Ocean Drive. Nonetheless, a handful of gems survive, notably the Marlin (no.1200), a 1939 design by Dixon that recalls sci-fi serials of the era such as Flash Gordon. Two blocks south of the Marlin is another beauty—Hohauser's 1938 Essex House Hotel (no.1001), where the porthole windows and smokestack-like neon tower call to mind a land-locked ocean liner. Collins also looks great at night, as the light fades to a bruised purple and the neon is switched on.
Ocean and 5th
The principal architects of deco South Beach were New Yorkers Henry Hohauser and L Murray Dixon. Park Central Hotel (630 Ocean Drive) is one of Hohauser's best efforts, dating back to 1937 and featuring bold vertical bands and window "eyebrows." In the early 1980s, this area was a bad crime spot, a natural setting for the gory violence in Brian De Palma's movie Scarface, which was shot at 728 Ocean Drive, as well as much of the action in hit crime show Miami Vice. (The mauve, green and white color scheme isn't authentic. The buildings of South Beach were originally painted white with subtle pastel trim. The candy colors came along in the 80s when interior designer Leonard Horowitz devised a palette of tones to draw attention to the architecture—and away from the squalor.)
The Colony Hotel at 736 Ocean Drive is one of Hohauser's first hotels (1935), and it's worth slipping into the lobby for a look at the original green Vitrolite fireplace with mural.
More murals can be found at the 1939 Breakwater Hotel (940 Ocean Drive), signposted by a soaring pylon; the lobby paintings here feature a group of politicians and preservationists turning away a wrecking ball hovering over Ocean Drive.
Just over the road, the lone building in the park is the Art Deco Welcome Center. The centre is run by the MPDL, which first sprang into action when it tried to save two blocks of Ocean Drive, from 12th to 14th Streets. The focus was the deco triumvirate of the Leslie (no. 1244), Carlyle (no.1250) and Cardozo (no.1300) hotels, built by different architects between 1937 and 1941. The Carlyle is classic Miami Beach deco: a flashy ensemble of striking vertical piers, horizontal lines, visor-like sunshades and curvaceous corners. Pure camp, it was a natural for the role of gay nightclub in The Birdcage (1996).
Washington and 10th
Three blocks up on the left is the Miami Beach Post Office (1300 Washington Avenue), dating from 1939 and designed in a style termed "deco Federal." It has a classical central rotunda and a minimalist façade, but the interior is busy with a cowboys-and-Indians frieze, a starburst ceiling and bits of shiny brass detailing. On Washington, it's best to look up, particularly at the old Cameo Theatre, now the Cameo nightclub; above the chrome canopy and glass-block panel is a pretty carved keystone with a flourish of palm fronds.