Miami Beach offers a vivid vintage vacation

April 25, 2016
The Park Central hotel on Ocean Drive is an iconic sight in Miami Beach. Designed by Henry Hohauser in 1937, the hotel was among the first ones renovated in South Beach in the late 1980s. It is currently closed for a $40 million renovation.

MIAMI BEACH — With the energy of the sun and colors to rival a rainbow, Miami Beach architecture is happiness wrapped in doo-dads.

OK, I know. These are not the analytic words of a serious architecture buff.

Honestly, I don’t know a doo-dad from a hole in the wall.

It’s just that you don’t have to be an architect to appreciate the city’s Art Deco and Miami Modern sensibility. Real, curvy and a little zany, most buildings are in condition that would make their original architects proud.

"Before I moved to Miami Beach I thought it was just a party town, and it took me a little while to connect to the history and culture," says Amanda McMaster, marketing manager for the Miami Design Preservation League.

Now?

"Sometimes, it almost seems like it is its own country."

Today, Miami Beach glows with vitality. Artists, designers, celebrities, several variations of rich people, hotel developers, spring breakers and South American visitors all play here.

While some renovations remain, the city has come a long way from the dumpy shape it was in 30 years ago. Billions have been poured into this beachside city since the 1970s, says Daniel Ciraldo, the preservation league’s historic preservation officer. That was when a handful of Miami Beach citizens ran to the rescue of teetering old buildings built between 1915 and the 1950s. They successfully argued that the one single thing that made the city special was the architecture.

They were right. Miami Beach’s Art Deco District is not only on the National Register of Historic Places (www.nps.gov/nr/travel/geo-flor/39.htm), it arguably has evolved into one of the most delightful tourist spots in the world.

New arrivals may not exactly grasp what makes Miami Beach so appealing, other than picking up a sort of happy, comfortable feeling when they arrive. But one key is that everything is human scale here.

Among the clever architectural details of the bright Art Deco hotels and businesses built between the 1920s and ‘30s are ship-like railings, port holes, eyebrow window overhangs, odd-stepped ziggurat roofs and terrazzo floors.

Farther north in the Miami Modern area, where the buildings date from the 1940s to 1960, hotels and other buildings sport wild details such as huge expanses of plate glass, mosaic tile, fin walls, woggles and cheese holes.

Cheese what? Huh?

Obviously, you need more education.

So between your trendy alfresco dinners, bar hopping and beach sunning, here are a few suggestions of how to spend your Miami Beach moments:

On the beach: The whimsical, vivid lifeguard stations dotting the wide beach for miles have recently been updated to harken back to Miami style. And if you want to see a real tropical Art Deco gem, try the Beach Patrol Headquarters. It dates from 1936 (1001 Ocean Drive).

Drop into the Miami Historic Preservation League Visitors Center and its 2-year-old museum, 1001 Ocean Drive, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (www.mdpl.org). There you can see the history of Miami Beach’s boom-bust-boom days.

Have your picture taken in front of some of the sweetest cinematic hotels, the Breakwater (1936) and the Park Central (1937).

Take an organized or self-guided architecture tour. There are independent walking tours (such as www.artdecowalks.com or www.artdecotours.com ) or seek out a tour through the Miami Design Preservation League (www.mdpl.org). League tours include self-guided audio tours, a guided 90-minute Art Deco tour, a MiMo (Miami Modern) tour, Miami Beach culinary-history tour, a Jewish Miami Beach tour, and a gay and lesbian Miami Beach tour. During the annual Art Deco weekend each January, there are 40 different tours involving everything from cocktails to the Mob.

THE HOTELS

When in Miami Beach, of course, you must stay at a historic hotel. This is harder than it seems. Even new buildings look vintage. And some buildings that say "hotel" on the outside actually aren’t.

For example, the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue was recently bought by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and will close in May to be turned into a private club. On Ocean Drive, walk by the cute McAlpin Hotel — but don’t try to stay there unless you are a member of Hilton Vacation Club.

Another thing. Don’t be surprised if your hotel has two names on the building. Because of historic preservation rules, "some hotels can’t change names because it was part of the original hotel," McMaster says. A new Hampton Inn on Collins Ave. still says "The Claremont" on one side. The Ritz Carlton stills says "DiLido Beach" on one tower. The spire of the Hotel says "Tiffany" because it was once called the Tiffany Hotel.

"The owners wanted to be the Tiffany Hotel again, but Tiffany, the brand, wouldn’t let them," McMaster says.

To confuse the issue further, hotels keep changing hands and changing names. With pedigrees more carefully noted than that of a French poodle at the dog show, hotels keep reinventing themselves. This spring, for example, Hyatt bought South Beach’s Thompson hotel, formerly known as the Crown, originally known as the Lord Tarleton. Hyatt, for reasons known only to its marketers, plans to rename it "the Confidente.

MIAMI BEACH TIPS

Because this city is so popular (tourism in the greater Miami area rose to a record-breaking 15.1 million between fall 2014 and fall 2015), you will be fighting for elbow room at some points during the year here. Follow these three tips for a happier visit:

— Double-check what festivals and events are happening during your Miami Beach visit. For instance, don’t be the person expecting a quiet romantic March weekend if the electronic music festival is booming. http://www.miamiandbeaches.com/events/annual-events

— Ask your hotel ahead of time if renovations are going on and the pool is open. So many hotels are being renovated that calling ahead can avoid unhappy surprises.

— Look at photos of your hotel. Many historic hotels that have been preserved and renovated still have fairly small rooms and elevators. That is part of the charm, but if you don’t want that, either stay at another property or upgrade to a larger room.

Miami Beach may be only seven square miles and beribboned with seven miles of beach, but, as they say, good things come in small packages.

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IF YOU GO

Getting there: Miami Beach is about 25 minutes from the Miami International Airport, about a $35 cab ride.

Stay: I’d recommend staying at a hotel away from busy Ocean Drive and instead on Collins Avenue around 17th Street. These hotels all are one block from the beach.

— National Hotel, 1677 Collins Ave. (www.nationalhotel.com, $225-up). Epic 1939 Art Deco hotel totally renovated in 2014.

— The Hampton Inn Miami South Beach (www.hamptoninn.com, $150-up). Historic hotel totally renovated in 2015.

— The Nautilus (www.sixtyhotels.com, $225-up.) Historic hotel just reopened after two years of renovations.

For more: Miami Beach Tourism: www.miamiandbeaches.com; Miami Design Preservation League: www.mdpl.org; Miami Modern on the North Shore: www.mimoonthebeach.com; City of Miami Beach, www.miamibeachfl.gov/visitors. If you see a building you like, look up its history. Many have been cataloged: www.ruskinarc.com/mdpl.

 

 





 


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