You’ve cruised along Ocean Drive plenty of times, zooming past the colorfully old-school buildings that line the road. You love everything about them — who wouldn’t? The tropical pinks and blues, the perfectly curved balconies and hip little details; it’s all so very cool, so very Miami. But, you have to admit, you don’t know much about them.
To correct this, take a Miami art deco walking tour with your friends, a fun, fascinating amble up Ocean Drive that will raise your deco I.Q. to genius levels in a single afternoon. You start your 90-minute adventure at the Miami Design Preservation League, where a peppy guide will begin by explaining just how deco took root in Miami. As it happens, it was a matter of timing. Miami was booming in the 1920s, just as deco was taking off in Paris, London, and New York. Wanting to put their own mark on the international phenomenon, Miami architects designed hundreds of deco buildings over the next two decades, embracing the fundamentals of the style while dressing it down for the beach. Art deco is based on classical symmetry, geometric shapes, and Machine Age imagery layered with repeating motifs and flourishes. Miami took that style and added a splash of pastel colors. The result? Gatsby with a tan and a fruity cocktail.
With your guide leading the charge, you make your way past the iconic Colony and Carlyle hotels, looming high above as you shield your eyes from the beating sun. As you admire these grand old buildings–built in 1935 and 1939, respectively–you start to notice the fusion of form and function. The Colony’s recessed balconies provide a bold look — but they’re also also useful against the South Florida sun and rain. The Park Central Hotel, a favorite of Hollywood legends Rita Hayworth and Clark Gable, sports a clever porthole window motif to reference its seaside location.
While not technically deco, you can’t help but stop to drool over the stunningly opulent Casa Casuarina, Gianni Versace’s former mansion, which comes from the same era. Built in 1930, its Mediterranean Revival style was intended to evoke images of the 1510 “Alcazar de Colon” in Santo Domingo, the oldest house in the Americas. As you continue your journey, you’ll also see a few examples of Miami Modern style as well, which picked up in the 1950s where deco left off, adding a tropical flourish to the stark minimalism being embraced around the world at the time.
At the end of the day, your thoughts linger on early 20th Century Miami as you get ready for a night on the town. When you step out of your cab and see the glowing neon of your favorite buildings, you see this area in a brand-new light.
Photograph by Craig ONeal