Miami, to me, is a vibrant yet weird combo of business and pleasure. Miami is the second-most populous metropolis and one of the busiest ports in the southeastern United States, and the third tallest skyline and the largest hub of international banks in the country. It is also known as a popular vacation site, a winter getaway, and a retirement tropical destination. The city enjoys a long coastline along Biscayne Bay which contains several hundred natural and artificially created barrier islands. Its pleasant weather and miles of beaches allow for year-round outdoor activities like snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing.
Weird enough, Miami is quite close to Cuba, and the two cities are worlds apart. Lots of Cuban and the Caribbean migrated to Miami and settled down, and the Little Havana district displays Cuban art and a vibrant mix of western and Latin culture. The connection with the Caribbean somehow felt special to me. Key West, the southernmost tip of the United States which is a very iconic place to many traveler’s hearts. The small island is at the very tip of Florida Keys yet it’s famous for its vibrant party scene, key lime pie, southernmost of everything, and sunset at the Mallory Square! Check out the perfect 4-day itinerary in Miami for the complete experience.
In this chapter, I take a deeper dive into Miami’s architecture with a focus on the unique Art Deco buildings in SOBE that really pique my interest in this beautiful city.
Architecture in Miami
While Miami has the biggest Art Deco district in the world, it doesn’t mean that the city has nothing else. The downtown area is filled with beautiful historic buildings that also worth exploring. Historic architecture, no matter big or small, could be found standing in the urban area among the modern and high-rise apartment buildings – and how I love those modern apartments with big windows, balconies, and a view of the Biscayne Bay!
Mediterranean Revival was a style introduced in the United States in the 19th century – it is a mix of various styles, taking references from Spanish Renaissance, Spanish Colonial, Italian Renaissance, French Colonial, Beaux-Arts, Arabic Andalusian architecture, and Venetian Gothic architecture.
This style was applied to villas predominantly in Florida and California, which typically manifested by symmetrical primary facade, stuccoed walls, red-tiled roofs, arch-shaped, or circle-shaped windows, wood or wrought-iron balconies, and articulated door. Such buildings may go either dramatic or simplistic; with a lush garden.
The Freedom Tower, designed by Schultze and Weaver, is a Mediterranean Revival-style tower that has an important value to Miami’s history. It served as an old newspaper office and then became an immigration facility. In the 1920s, the tower was a holding place for processing Cubans fleeing to Florida – hence, the name “Freedom”. It is now a contemporary art museum and a central office to different disciplines in the arts associated with the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College, hosting art exhibits periodically.
Miami Modern (MiMo)
Miami Modern, or MiMo, is an architectural style developed in South Florida in the post-war period. It is called Miami Modern because most of the buildings could be found on the Miami Beach resorts, with a spirit to showcase glamour, fun, and efficiency. MiMo buildings can be found in different districts – from Middle and Upper Miami Beach along Collins Avenue, Biscayne Boulevard, to Design District and Upper Eastside. How can you tell it’s a MiMo building? They have asymmetry and rakish angles, kidney and amoeba-shaped pools, cheese hole cutouts, geometric or mosaic-type murals, futuristic shapes and forms, and the use of aluminum in gold and copper.
What is Art Deco?
The Art Deco architectural style was brought in from Paris and at its prime from the early 1920s to the 30s. The style is a modern take on neoclassical, historic, and retro – the buildings feature simple shapes, clean lines, and are painted with romantic pastel colors. Yet they also put on the most whimsical and flamboyant, over-the-top embellishment possible: from porthole windows, chrome accents, glass blocks, neon signboard, to terrazzo floors, as if they coexist peacefully and competing silently for attention at the same time.
I just love the bold and striking contrast of these buildings while they have modern elements and still embrace the historic beauty. Inside of the buildings, they have exotic flora and fauna motifs, prominent structural gems, fountains, or statues.
Art Deco buildings can be easily distinguished by these features:
- Smooth and often solid-colored wall
- Stylized decorative elements using geometrical forms, zigzags, chevrons
- Sharp-edged and linear exterior features
- Large windows, or windows with decorative spandrels
- Low relief decorative panels
- Stepped or set back front facade
- Reeding and fluting around doors and windows
South Beach and the Art Deco District
South Beach, or people in the know would call it “SOBE”, is in fact the first section of Miami Beach to be developed since the 1910s. It is located between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, and it was filled with condos, luxurious villas, and resorts. South Beach had experienced ups and downs from the booming economy and tourism to destructive hurricanes. While what I appreciated the most was the surging of Art Deco’s architectural style along the beach in the 1930s. South Beach’s Art Deco Historic District is one of the largest manifestos of the Art Deco building group in the world! The area contains more than 800 buildings built between 1923 to 1943. Today, these buildings are protected properties, and to protect them, renovations can only be done on the interior without destroying the design of the exterior and the integrity of the structure.
How to get around in Miami
I used the Go Miami Card to get around the city for 3 days and it’s a really good deal. Merely joining two day-tours (like Key West Day Trip + Everglades Tours), it already covered the costs of the card. Not to mention a Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus tour 24-hour pass, and free admission to lots of attractions in downtown and Miami Beach, including Biscayne Bay Sightseeing Boat Cruise, Water Taxi, Jungle Island, Perez Art Museum, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, World Erotic Art Museum, Art Deco Walking Tour, and much more! It is even applicable to places in Orlando including the Kennedy Space Center (not sure if it’s worth traveling that far with this card, though).
I visited the South Beach and explored the area with a bike the day before, and then I hopped on the Big Bus Tour to travel through the Art Deco Historic District while the on-bus tour guide gave us funny and informative commentary!
There are so many options to get around Miami (including the beaches) and I am listing a few that’s quite convenient for travelers.
Subway: The Miami-Dade Transit 9MDT) is a public transportation system that consists of Metrorail, Metromover, and Metrobus that covers the city’s area. the Metrorail has two lines commuting downtown, Omni, and Brickell; and Metromover is a light rail system that connects Park West and Arts and Entertainment District with Downtown Miami and Brickell. The best way for tourists is to get an EASY ticket – the ticket is free and can be loaded with a 1-Day Pass, 7-Day Pass for up to $40.
Trolley: The Trolley is a free service with a number of routes covering areas like Allapattah, Biscayne, Brickell, Coral Way, Little Haiti, and Little Havana. The trolley has a traditional look and it’s a great complement to places that are not covered but the Metromover.
From Downtown to SOBE
Water Taxi: A water taxi is a convenient way to connect tourists from downtown to South Beach. The Hop-on-Hop-off Kiosk is located at the Bayside Marketplace, and passengers can enjoy a glorious view of the city’s waterfront skyline as they are traveling to Miami Beach Marina.
Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus Tour: The Bus Tour is a typical service that is covered by the Go Miami Pass, and the tour offers a rather fun and interesting commentary from the tour guide. There are three lines available for the tour. The Beach Loop (Blue), The City Loop (Red), and Cultural Loop (Green). The three lines intersect at the Bayside Market, too. While it’s not as frequent and convenient as other public transportation, and it should not be used as the main method to get around the city, consider this is a great way to get around many key places and take great pictures in a short period of time. However, the traffic could get busy across the bridges from Miami to South Beach.
- The Blue Line takes off from the Central Station and travels past landmarks including the American Airlines Arena, Perez Art Museum Miami, South Pointe Park, Sherbrooke Hotel, Loews Hotel, The Riviera, Riu Hotel, Mosaic @ Miami Beach, Fontainebleau, Miami Beach Resort and Spa, Lincoln Road, Old Miami Beach City Hall, Angler’s Resort, Shops at 5th & Alton, and Jungle Island.
- The Red Loop connects the Central Station, Vizcaya & Science Museum, Coconut Grove, Biltmore Hotel, Venetian Pool, Coral Gables Museum, Cuban Eateries, and Little Havana.
- The Green Loop connects the Central Station, Perez Art Museum Miami, Miami Children’s Museum, Jungle Island, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Lock & Load, 4 Midtown Building, Design District, Prohibition Restaurant, Pride & Joy Restaurant, Wynwood Walls, Black Police Precinct Museum, Lyric Theater, History Miami Museum, and Seybold Building.
The complete tour takes about three hours, and each stop is serviced at a 30-minute interval. However, it could take more time with traffic.
Bike: It is a great way to go place renting a bike. The area is packed with landmarks, attractions, and spots that would be much easier to hop on a bike and travel between places. You can find the CitiBike parking along the beach where you could get a bike with credit card payments. With Go Miami Card at Bike and Roll, the bike rental includes a full-day bike rental, helmet, lock, and map.
The best Art Deco buildings in SOBE
The Art Deco Historic District is located on Miami Beach between 5th Street and 23rd Street, along Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue. It is a popular Spring Break and tourist area, a district that people can show off their expensive cars, and where many famous nightspots, bars, and restaurants are located! SoBe is also home to several famous sites, including Gianni Versace’s former oceanfront mansion, where he was murdered and it’s now turned into a hotel. The Fontainebleau hotel, a cultural and architectural icon where the James Bond Movie “Goldfinger” was shot.
The Miami Beach Post Office
Designed by Howard Lovewell, the post office was built in 1937 with a mural painted by Charles Hardman in 1941. The three-paneled building was a fine example of Depression Moderne. Given the subtle design from the exterior, the tall, circular lobby with a cone-shaped roof is an eye-catching feature. The rotunda is topped by a decorative cupola. Check out the paintings in the lobby, and the gold-colored brass mailboxes, it is still in service until this day.
The Webster Miami is a fashion house with seven boutiques, with a number of designer brands. It was designed by Henry Hohauser and was completed in 1939. This particular South Beach flagship store has floor space of over 20,000 square feet. The building has an easily recognized pastel pink and green color palette, and it’s an Art Deco classic.
Apart from admiring the polished terrazzo floors and staircases; Take a spin in the three-story-high upscale boutique and you will find labels from Celine, Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, and YSL.
Right at the corner of 13th Street, this Art Deco building was designed by Richard Kuehnel and completed in 1941. could be seen in a number of Hollywood movies like “Scarface“, “Pronto“, and “Bad Boys II” and “The Birdcage“. The Carlyle is painted with a soothing seafoam green color with window panels that could be recognized by walking along Ocean Drive.
Gianni Versace’s former mansion is nearby. Today it is a residence with condos available for vacation rental. Imagine how cool it is to stay in this iconic building right by the beach!
The site was inspired by everything from car fenders to airplane noses, it’s another Art Deco Streamline Moderne example that visitors should not miss. Designed by Hohauser, it is a sleek building with a curved facade, and it used be a popular gay bar.
It was later turned into a Mexican diner and now permenently closed, wait until it’s being renovated to another new business.
The Breakwater Boutique Hotel
The Breakwater Boutique Hotel is one of the most photographed buildings in South Beach because the towering is a shiny beacon along Ocean Drive; This bold design was done by Anton Skiskewiczin 1936.
Still functioning as a hotel, it is a big hotel with 99 rooms and was renovated recently in 2011. At night, the electric-blue sign is an attractive sight, and grab a hotel on the side of the road and enjoy a dinner by the Lummus Park.
Essex House by Clevelander
Essex House by Clevelander is a hotel on Collins Avenue, a short walk from Ocean Drive and within as easy reach of Miamis innumerable attractions. It is a fine example of Nautical Moderne; Built in 1938, it was again designed by architect Henry Hohauser, who was based in Florida. The building’s design was based on a landlocked ocean liner as if it was setting sail into the sea with its smokestack-style neon sign above. On top of that, the building was uniquely painted with stripes and geometric shapes that have a resemblance to marine elements, with a rare mural painted by Earl LaPan on top of the original fireplace.
The Marlin Boutique Hotel
The Boutique Hotel was once Chris Blackwell’s studio back in the 80s. Artists, like Bob Marley, Jay-Z, Pharrell Williams and Aerosmith, recorded their music here. The building was completed in 1939, and it was designed by notable architect L Murray Dixon – one signature of his design is the ‘eyebrows’ over the windows. It was recently renovated, featuring hip bars, retro lounges, 33 boutique hotel suites for tourists to enjoy this awesome architecture inside and out.
The Colony Hotel
The Colony hotel is recognized as a symbol in Miami Beach, and it is one of the most photographed Art Deco hotels along the beach. Again, this hotel was completed in 1939 and it’s situated along Ocean Drive.
With a similar name, Colony Theatre is an Art Deco gem located on Lenox Avenue / Lincoln Street. It is a trendy performing arts venue in SOBE. The theatre started operation in 1935 as a Paramount cinema. Today, it still operates as an entertainment hub, hosting concerts, comedy acts, dancing shows, operas, and more. The marquee and facade are well maintained, with a retro ticket box that makes visitors travel back in time as they are checking on the show schedules and purchasing tickets. The theatre has 430 seats, and there’s no better way to celebrate this building by actually catching a show at night.
The Cavalier Hotel
Another Art Deco hotel on Ocean Drive and its beautiful design elements will make your stay a fun and enjoyable one. The decorative stucco of this building was mindfully designed to add symmetry to the front wall, drawing the eye upward to the top of the structure. The hotel is filled with paintings and murals with a historic flavor, from ancient civilizations, King Tut’s tomb, to Chichén Itzá.
The Park Central
The Park Central Hotel or the “Blue Jewel” is taller than the others that I just mentioned. It was built in 1937, and it has seven floors that make it a landmark along Ocean Drive. The lobby is stunning, check out its typical Art Deco Design elements and the stunning geometrically paved Terrazzo floor.
The McAlpin is painted with a romantic pastel pink and turquoise. It is now part of the Hilton Grand Vacation Club – It’s one of the South Beaches’ most famous, and most photographed buildings in the Art Deco District. It’s another typical manifesto of Art Deco architecture with all its textbook features: symmetrical facade, decorative elements using geometric patterns, solid colors, and horizontal eyebrows on the windows that are simply a classic.
The Bass Museum was built in 1930 and it was a public library and arts center. Designed by architect Russell Pancoast, it showcases symmetry from the garden to the front wall. From the facade, you will see distinctively fossilized Paleolithic coral and bas relief decorations created by artist Gustav Boland.
If you look closer, you will see beautiful carvings on the wall, depicting the Spanish conquest, pelican, cruise ships, boats, and airplanes. Now, the building is a contemporary art museum with an art collection of artists including artworks from Europe in the 15th to present, and textiles, tapestries, and artifacts from all over the world.
The Cadillac Hotel
The Cadillac Hotel is a top luxury hotel in Miami Beach, and it has a strong influence by the brand’s premium motors – Cadillac. The building was designed by Roy F France and was built in 1940. The chrome center trims emblazoned with a glistening hood ornament to the car bonnet-style portico over the driveway. Unlike the other locations, it is one of the tallest Art Deco architecture on the beach, and it offers a great view of the oceanfront.
Today, the hotel retained its original Art Deco flavor, although owned by the Marriott hotel group check out the terrazzo floors and palm-embossed ceiling in the lobby.