Back In Time In South Beach

We took off for Miami via the Turnpike – unfortunately, not the prettiest drive…

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A lot of people (including Vanilla Ice) recommended taking A1A, the old coastal route, for a portion of the journey to see both time worn and still popular beach towns. Unfortunately, I think we got on it a bit too close to Miami…

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…as all we saw were a lot of unremarkable beachfront highrises.

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We only had a day in Miami, and we decided to spend our time in South Beach, which so many of you had recommended. I basically knew nothing about it, and as we approached, I was getting a little leery. Sure, the palms were nice…

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…but where was the good stuff?

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Then we hit South Beach, the good stuff started, and I was in heaven.

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Originally farmland, Miami Beach exploded as a beachfront community in the 1920s, with much of its art deco and art moderne architecture to follow in the 1930s and 40s (over 40 hotels were built between 1940-42 alone).

Today, South Beach claims to have the largest number of Streamline Moderne buildings in the world. We decided to just get lost and enjoy the view.

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I was blown away by what great condition most of the historic hotels are in. For example, The Crescent Hotel, pictured above, designed in 1938 by Henry Hohauser with 43 rooms, might as well have been built yesterday. Below is a postcard from 1940; wish they still had that half-moon sign…

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I love the graceful arch, along with the portholes spanning the top (an example of “nautical modern”):

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I was actually a little confused by the 1940 postcard, as it shows the hotel fronting right on the beach. As it turns out, Lummas Park (named for the original Miami Beach developers) appears to have been expanded significantly over the years, ultimately resulting in the main strip beloved by Miami Vice fans everywhere:

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Random NY sidenote: the postcard pictured above was sent to a Mrs. C. Bag at 157 Nelson Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn on December 26, 1940. “Weather is grand and hope it keeps up. Hope you’re having a grand time wherever you are.” If Mrs. Bag still lives there, let her know!

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Just next to the Crescent is another masterpiece: the McAlpin, designed in 1940 by L. Murray Dixon and a prime example of how South Beach architects would keep their designs harmonious to adjacent buildings. The Crescent and the McAlpin might as well be brother and sister:

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Below is the McAlpin back in 1941, again perched on the beach (though methinks a bit of photodoctoring went into these to remove rival hotels):

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I love the centerpiece to the McAlpin, which is more typical to deco design:

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On our way back later that night, we got to see them lit up in all their neon glory.

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One reader, Cameron, recommended we visit The Raleigh Hotel, suggesting that we “sneak up on it beachside to see the famous pool.” I always enjoy a bit of sneaking…

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One of the larger hotels originally built in South Beach, the Raleigh was also designed by L. Murray Dixon (of the McAlpin and dozens of others) and opened in 1940. During the opening night ceremonies on New Year’s Eve 1940, a sick bandmember was replaced by a local unknown drummer named Desi Arnaz.

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We headed in, walking over the very cool “R” logo in the floor…

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…and my jaw pretty much hit the ground when I saw the pool.

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Very little has changed since its heyday – below, a picture from March 5, 1941…

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…and today. I love the curvature, the black outline, the bulge in the center…

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Another photograph, this one from the 1950’s…

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The pool from a bird’s eye view, revealing its squiggles and curves:

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There is one difference from how it once was. If you look, you’ll see the pool was built one level down from the main patio:

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Today, that area has been incorporated into the pool as a shallow wading area. It’s not the historical usage, but I think it adds a really beautiful aquatic frame.

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Another great element…

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…the beautifully streamlined diving board:

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Laws now prevent it from being used by guests, and it has since been turned into a fountain:

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Also, I love the nautical-themed cabana…

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…which is near identical to this photograph in 1941. Even the bar still exists!

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It again appears that the hotel once went right up to the ocean:

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Today, it’s much further back, and I’ve been having a hell of a time trying to find out when the waterfront was filled in. If you know, please leave a comment!

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We continued exploring the area at random. One building in particular I loved is the out-of-business Greystone…

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This is how it looked in operation…

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Today, painted white and boarded-up, it literally looks like a ghost building:

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The Greystone’s sign with two antennae for ornamentation. It was recently sold; can’t wait to see how it’s fixed up!

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I saw a couple of these atop rooftops throughout Miami Beach. I have no idea what they are, but I love them:

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More of a subdued, almost soothing facade is the Surfcomber (great name)…

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Built in 1948, the Surfcomber represents a transition away from the more ornamental style of earlier periods:

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The building looks gorgeous today. My only complaint: what happened to the pair of seahorses beside the entrance?? Pictured below, an old Surfcomber matchbook:

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In contrast, here’s the Cavalier Hotel, built in 1936 and awash in wonderful art deco graphics on its facade:

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Below, the Cavalier in the 1950s:

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Some hotels have chosen to keep their deco reliefs subdued, as in this example (I prefer them colored):

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While I was looking forward to the neon of South Beach, I was actually surprised by how easily much of the great design elements were lost at night – especially when not accentuated by light.

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Still, I did love seeing the shadows of palm trees swaying on their exteriors:

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And for the ones that went full-on with the lighting design, the results were stunning:

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One that stood out in particular was The Shelborne.

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The Shelborne was bulit in 1940 (pictured on the right)…

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…and is famous for its circular, spiral-lit entrance. For a second, I thought it was too good to be true, that it had to be some sort of modern idea faked in the old style.

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Nope: it’s the real deal.

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For a look at what South Beach had become by the mid-1980’s, simply watch any episode of Miami Vice where they track a villain down to a crumbling building. That wasn’t staged, and the fact that so much survived long enough to be reborn is nothing short of a miracle.

It kills us to have to leave without properly exploring more, but we’ll just have to come back someday soon. Key Largo awaits!

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24 comments

  1. In the immortal words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go there”. In the immortal words of me, “Right now”.

    • Not to nitpick (well, maybe to nitpick a little), but the actual Liz Lemon quote is “I want to go to there.” That second “to” makes all the difference.

      Apparently, it was a line spoken by Tina Fey’s daughter once, which she appropriated and immortalized for posterity.

  2. Thank you for a completely fabulous pictorial tour of South Beach. I am sorry you had only one day. I think you would have liked Vizcaya, although I believe there’s an entry fee and, I think no photography is allowed indoors. Still, I will never forget it and wish I had pictures.

  3. Oh wow. Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing those.
    I just love those windows on The Leslie, the ones that open from the bottom. Do you know what those are called?
    Wow, so much stunning art deco. Bravo, South Beach!

  4. Sea Lions? Don’t you mean Sea Horses. It all looks beautiful, I shall have to visit one day.

  5. I always thought that these Miami Deco areas looked a lot like parts of the Bronx, only in pastels and neon. Not unusual, as they were almost like an extras-suburban extension of New York.

  6. Glad you liked the Raleigh! Pictures are fantastic. They held my bags for me while I explored South Beach before catching a taxi to the airport (I had been staying at their sister resort, The Standard). I remember the doorman (in an authentic uniform) calling me Mr. using my last name and being so incredibly accommodating and proper – it expanded on the feeling that the place was of another era, and continuing on a tradition down to every detail of service.

    Oh, and they have a good matchbook too.

  7. I staid at the Shelborne a few years ago while working in Miami. I kept expecting Hyman Roth to show up on my balcony any minute. Very cool place.

  8. I suppose that would be “stayed”. D’oh!

  9. Your posts are always great, but this one was particularly stunning.

  10. I thought I never needed to go to Florida again, and I thought I didn’t care about that period in architecture, but this is amazing. I want to go!

  11. You might want to try the Fontainebleu Hotel as well. It’s got a classic film connection as scenes from the Bond film Goldfinger were shot there.

  12. Check out the roadside motels down through the keys….

  13. Jerry in South Fla

    Recommendations in Key West-

    Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe – Corner of Elizabeth & Greene – you gotta try the frozen key lime pie on a stick, dipped in chocolate.

    Garbo’s Grill – 603 Greene St. Rated #1 on Tripadvisor & it’s a “food cart”. Excellent.

    Directly across from Garbo’s – Key West Peppers – a hot sauce shop with a tasting bar. Free tasting [but they charge for bottled water].

    Skip Sloppy Joes, and go to Irish Kevins a few doors down, much better.

    Enjoy!!

  14. George Gauthier

    Thanks for the wonderful pictures, both recent and vintage, of South Beach. Stories like this are why I always check out your blog. Keep up the good work!

    Please pardon one quibble. I looked closely at the entrance to the Shelbourne Hotel and all I saw was a number of concentric circles rather than a spiral, which would be a continuous curve.

  15. I get to live in South Beach, isn’t it great! Thank you for featuring it here, your pictures are fantastic.

  16. Loved reading this – awesome post! just curious: where did the historical images come from??

  17. I’ve long admired art deco architecture, and I always love seeing photos of South Beach. I’m thrilled that you’ve created this great list of locations. Thanks for this feature!

  18. As someone mentioned above: Vizcaya. I would also like to add Venetian Pool, The Biltmore, and Coral Gables in general should you have a chance to pass through Miami on your way out.

  19. Have you tried http://historicaerials.com/? It can be pretty useful, and though it only has South Beach back to 1980, it does look like there was less of a beach behind the Raleigh in ’80, but then more of one in ’86.

  20. Pretty part of content. I just stumbled upon your site and in accession capital to claim that I acquire actually enjoyed account your blog posts. Anyway I’ll be subscribing for your feeds and even I achievement you get admission to consistently fast.

  21. Could the sort-of-deco tripod things be cleverly-disguised cell towers?

  22. The Army Corps of Engineers rebuild the beaches on Miami Beach in 1978-88. Prior to that the ocean came almost up to the hotels sea wall.

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