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PCR #113 (Vol. 3, No. 21) This edition is for the week of May 20--26, 2002.

La Floridiana by Will Moriaty
"The Tropical Deco of Miami Beach--Part 2"

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The Original Glory Years
As noted in Part I of this series, Miami Beach's Tropical Deco hotels were primarily erected between the 1930's and 1940's. The bulk of these Art Deco hybrids were originally situated in a one square mile area of Miami Beach north of the Government Cut at the Beach's southern tip. The earlier hotels, such as the Carlyle, tend to populate the southern tip of this area, and are generally only several stories high. The later hotels, such as the Delano, were erected near the area's northern perimeter and rise as high as ten or more stories. For the vacationing American during the latter years of the Great Depression, the Tropical Deco buildings were a welcome escape from the grim realities besetting the economic health of the nation. Winter weary visitors could temporarily forget about snow, slush and gray skies, and revel in the tropical sea breezes of the Atlantic Ocean while looking out the nautical deck or porthole type windows of their hotel room.

The War Years
Miami Beach's Tropical Deco District found itself in an important role during the Second World War as the United States Army Air Force took over a majority of its hotels in order to train over 500,000 soldiers between 1941 and 1945. Close to 20% of all U.S. troops in the Second World War were trained on the ocean front sands of the South Beach.

Post War Prosperity Almost Spells Doom for the South Beach
Things pretty much went swimmingly for the South Beach once things began to return to normal after the Second World War. The hotels were returned back to civilians, and many of their visitors were former soldiers who trained there in the recent past. By the 1950's, however, a new found Post War Prosperity would relegate the architectural masterpiece known as Miami Beach's Art Deco section to a low class, seedy and crime-ridden part of Miami Beach.

With new prosperity, incredibly opulent hotels such as the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc, designed by architect Morris Lapidus, were built north of the South Beach area. These hotels featured grandeur not seen in hotel architecture since the days of railroad magnates Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. As opposed to having classical Mediterranean or Moorish architecture, Lapidus's hotels were strictly 1950's chic, incorporating graceful sweeping lines, gigantic fountains, and Olympic size swimming pools. To wit, this newfound prosperity, and newfound interest in the more modern hotel relegated the South Beach to being passť-its days as a draw to the upwardly mobile visitor was rapidly drawing to an end.

The Decline Years
The once brash and sensational South Beach area had declined to such a degree that many of its once proud hotels were converted to low class efficiencies, populated with poor retirees, the first wave of economically disadvantaged Cuban refugees, prostitutes, street gangs and was a center of operation for a burgeoning illegal drug trade. While the "Jackie Gleason Show' hit its stride in the 1960's, Miami Beach city officials were concerned about the image that the crime-ridden and increasingly abandoned South Beach area was showcasing to the world. City officials believed that only one thing could cure this economically troubled part of Miami Beach-urban renewal. In a nutshell, urban renewal in the 1960's and early 1970's usually meant one thing-if its old, abandoned or crime ridden, bulldoze it.

A Glimmer of Hope for the South Beach
In 1976 a visionary writer named Barbara Baer Capitman was so moved by the beauty of the Tropical Deco designs of the South Beach that she founded the Miami Design Preservation League, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving many of the Deco hotels from the bulldozers and wrecker balls so beloved by the pro urban renewal advocates running Miami Beach government. In 1977 the MDPL was incorporated under state law, and in 1978 it gained Federal Tax Exempt status. Her battles with this government were legendary-- often emotionally charged; each building targeted for destruction necessitated a new battle strategy for Ms. Capitman in order to rescue it. The mission, and end goal of Ms. Capitman and the MDPL was to "preserve the architecture and design of the Art Deco District and the cultural, social and economic growth and welfare of the area will follow."

Needless to say, ms. Capitman's adversaries were both monetarily powerful and political entrenched. Undaunted, through Ms. Capitman's hard work and valiant fighting, the Art Deco District of Miami Beach was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now the body politic of Miami Beach had to come to grips with the fact that Ms. Capitman and a soon to be revived South Beach could no longer be ignored and were now forces to be reckoned with.

A New lease on Life
A rebirth of the South Beach was further promulgated through the involvement of Leonard Horowitz. Horowitz, an industrial designer, resurrected many Tropical Deco buildings through creative renovations and by painting them in appealing pastel hues. This resuscitated area began to attract people of national and international note. In the early 1980's Calvin Klein conducted photo shoots for a successful and controversial series of underwear ads using the South Beach as a backdrop. He was quickly followed by movie producer Michael Mann who brought the set and cast of NBC's "Miami Vice" where the Tropical Deco hotels were now seen by a national audience on an almost weekly basis.

By the 1990's the South Beach had not only retained but also surpassed its original glory. Considered one of the hippest, well-moneyed and most trendy places on the planet, this architectural treasure nicknamed "the American Riviera" may not be here today without the efforts of people such as Barabara Baer Capitman and Leonard Horowitz-both of them Florida Folk Heroes of the highest honor.

For more information about the Miami Design Preservation League, log on to http://www.mdpl.org/

"La Floridiana" heads for the hills--Your fearless Florida author will be on vacation in Colorado, so there will be no "La Floridiana' column for the next two weeks. Until then, keep enjoying that old Florida Sunshine!


"La Floridiana" is ©2002 by William Moriaty.  Webpage design and all graphics herein are creations of Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2002 by Nolan B. Canova.