By PJ Thomas
It’s 9:30 a.m. and the tourists are strolling along Ocean Avenue in Miami’s South Beach with the pageantry of an Easter promenade.
Any sidewalk bar or restaurant table is the perfect perch to watch the procession of shiny cars, tour buses, motorcycles or Segway riders. There are brazen, muscled guys in pink rolled-up pants and turquoise shirts, and heavily made-up women dressed in attire more appropriate for an evening of club hopping rather than an $8 sausage-and-egg breakfast.
Female servers in booty shorts, tight leopard pants and platform sneakers, or fashionable mini dresses, lure customers to their establishments. None of this seems out of place. South Beach—day or night—has more pomp than the queen’s coronation.
South Beach is hot, hip, fab, and is one of the world’s most famous beaches, where celebs have been known to spend tens of thousands of dollars in a few minutes of publicly displayed partying.
As much as it is known as a place to party, South Beach is best identified by the unique Art Deco-designed buildings along Ocean Avenue. The Art Deco style of interior design and architecture, with its luxurious curves, bold lines and geometric shapes, became immensely popular after World War I.
“The Art Deco period is loosely defined as being between World War I and II,” said Judith Frankel, programs director for the Miami Design Preservation League (MDL), a nonprofit organization that promotes and preserves the architectural integrity of Miami Beach.
Art Deco is a shortened form of Arts Decoratifs, which was the title of the modern architecture style given at the 1925 Paris Exhibition.
The Miami Beach Art Deco boom was the second phase of the Deco period known as Streamline Moderne, and the pink, blue, yellow and whitewashed colors of the iconic façades give South Beach its unique character. Buildings here are covered with flora and fauna art and some have “eyebrows,” a quirky little design element above the windows which really helps to keep rooms cooler by blocking the sun. Other elements include large stucco marquees and terrazzo floors with bold geometric designs.
However, by the late ’60s and ’70s, the beach along Ocean Drive was simply a haven for retirees looking to escape the cold Northern states.
Fortunately, in 1979, the area was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
A wave of redevelopment swept through South Miami Beach. Instead of having the old, historic properties razed, they were restored into eye-caching façades worthy of a Hollywood movie set.
Then, in the 1980s, a popular television program, “Miami Vice,” starring actors Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, helped increase the city’s profile. Despite a weekly storyline of drugs, fast boats and bad guys, South Beach exuded a certain allure and by the ’90s it was chic, sexy and synonymous with designer labels and celebrities.
The Art Deco District is comprised of about 1,200 properties in the Art Deco District in a one-square-mile area that is encompassed just north of Lincoln Road to 6th street in the south, to the east by Ocean Drive and West to Alton Road. Most of the famous Art Deco-designed hotels are located along Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue.
An Art Deco walking tour is offered by MDL volunteers at 10:30 a.m. daily except on Thursdays, when the tour is offered at 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Those who wish to ride instead can take one of many bus tours offered by various companies.
Purchase tickets online or at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Dr. (10th and Ocean Drive) and obtain other visitor information. In addition to the permanent exhibit on the history of Art Deco, there are changing exhibits. The entire space recently opened as a museum.
A great gift shop next door sells unique Art Deco and Florida items. Both spaces are nice places to browse and learn about this colorful city while providing a cool respite from the heat.