The South Beach History and Architecture Information


Miami, South Beach, Florida

The History of South Beach

South Beach consists of twenty-three blocks of real estate in Miami Beach, Florida….but what a twenty-three block area it is! It sits on an island between the Atlantic Ocean and Biscayne Bay. www.travelrows.com

South Beach has been a playground for the rich and famous for close to a century now but it started out as farm land…specifically coconut farming. Two brothers, Henry and Charles Lum, bought 165 acres in 1870 and Charles built the first house in Miami Beach on the beach in 1886. The brothers Lum left the island in 1894. They sold the land to a surveyor by the name of John Collins. John found fresh water on the island and enlarged the parcel of land from what is now 14th Street to what is now 67th Street.

The Lummus Brothers, not to be confused with the Lum Brothers, two Miami business men, bought four hundred acres of Collin’s land in 1912. Their idea was to build a small city on the ocean front. The houses were to be modest single family dwellings.

John Collins began construction of a bridge that would connect South Beach to Miami in 1913 but he ran out of money before the project could be completed. Then a man who was already very wealthy from the sale of Union Carbide, Carl Fisher, came to the island later in that same year. His idea was to make South Beach a city unto itself and completely separate from Miami. He loaned John Collins the money to complete the bridge and he also financed the now famous restaurant, Joe’s Stone Crab.

John Collins, the Lummus Brothers and Carl Fisher joined forces and incorporated the Town of Miami Beach on March 26, 1915. The area between 6th Street and 14th Street is still known as Lummus Park even today although the Lummus brothers sold it to the city in 1920.

South Beach has had its ups and downs in development. It has gone from rags to riches to rags and back to riches more than once since the 1920’s.

The tropical climate and the hard-packed, white-sand beaches attracted millionaires like Harvey Firestone and J. C. Penny during the 1920’s…it also attracted the criminal element .

The 1930’s saw an architectural revolution of sorts. Art Deco was all the rage and many of the buildings of that period have been refurbished and are in use today.

The Army Air Corp took control of Miami Beach after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In the late 1960’s there was a big upsurge in Miami Beach when Jackie Gleason decided to air his weekly show from the area. When the television show, Miami Vice aired it gave another huge boost to the area. Both of these programs changed the face of Miami Beach.

In the 1980’s the fashion industry discovered South Beach and brought about a kind of renaissance to the area.

Today Miami Beach is one of the premier entertainment destinations of tourists world wide and is an especially desirable destination for European travelers.

South Beach During the Roaring 20’s

In the early 1920’s Miami, Miami Beach and, of course, South Beach were the playgrounds of the rich and famous. The tropical weather attracted northerners like honey attracts flies. As transportation improved, crowds multiplied. The area projected a healthy and relaxed attitude and life style. People came from near and far to enjoy the white sandy beaches.

Then in 1926 and 1928 two very important events took place that changed the area for the worse.

The 1926 event was a hurricane…a force of nature. Hurricanes were not named in those days so the hurricane is referred to as the 1926 Miami Hurricane or the Big Blow. Hurricane predictions were not very good in those days either and the population of Miami, Miami Beach and South Beach had no idea what they were in for. Ground speed winds were recorded at 125 miles per hour and there was a 15 foot storm surge. The eye of the storm passed directly over South Beach.

Because the population was uninformed about hurricanes, when the eye passed over, many people thought the storm was over and they left their homes trying to get to higher ground only to be swept away by the rear eye wall. The local weather chief, Richard Gray wrote, “The lull lasted 35 minutes, and during that time the streets of the city became crowded with people. As a result, many lives were lost during the second phase of the storm.”

The damage was almost immeasurable. In 1920 dollars the estimate was $100 million…at today’s prices that would be $100 billion dollars. There was a significant loss of life, of course. The land boom came to a screeching halt and South Florida began to feel the effects of the depression that wouldn’t grip the rest of the country for another three years.

The second event was when Al Capone decided to make Miami his home in 1928…it was a hurricane of a different kind but just as devastating in many ways. With Capone came organized crime and everything that implies.

Miami, Miami Beach and South Beach didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for Al Capone. As a matter of fact, they went to great pains to make it exceedingly clear that he was not welcome in the area. But…he WAS Al Capone and what Al wanted, Al got. Using middle men to avoid detection by the IRS, Al Capone bought Clarence Busch’s Palm Island estate as his permanent residence. The Miami authorities were known for looking the other way or closing a blind eye to illegal gambling and prostitution before Al Capone arrived on the scene. It was obviously his kind of place.

Miami did everything that it could to rid itself of Al Capone but they never succeeded entirely. He spent years in prison several time over the ensuing years but he always returned to his Miami home when he was released. The last time he was released from prison in 1939, he did exactly that. He died at the ripe old age of 48 years and one week of cardiac arrest brought on by syphilis on January 25, 1947. Miami was at last rid of Al Capone.

Art Deco Buildings in South Beach

Art Deco South Beach, Florida

“What”, you might ask, “is an Art Deco Building and why should I care?” The Art Deco architectural style was one that was made popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. It represented a leap into the future and embracement of the new world that was emerging.

Miami Beach was not the only part of the world that came under the influence of the Art Deco Architectural movement. The Golden Gate Bridge, The Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building were also influenced by Art Deco although later than the buildings which were built in Miami Beach during the mid 1920’s….still the Art Deco influence is very apparent in these famous structures.

Sometimes Art Deco architecture is mistakenly identified as “art nouveau” but there is most assuredly a difference. Art Nouveau was a style that was popular much earlier that Art Deco and Art Deco exhibits a stronger connection to modernism. Art Deco emphases function, logic and geometry.

The building facades of the art deco period of the 1920’s and 1930’s were inspired by the ancient art of Egypt partly because of the exciting discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. Buildings of the 1920’s and ‘30’s were constructed of smooth stucco. They had clean lines, terrazzo floors, neon lights, and nautical motifs. With the advancement in travel — cross-Atlantic ocean liners and the beginnings of flight exploration — speed became a metaphor for those times. Art Deco reflected all of these things.

The lines of Art Deco buildings are clean and sleek. The buildings are above all things functional.

The wonderful Art Deco buildings in South Beach were almost lost. The area became blighted and the buildings fell into a sad state of disrepair. Some were torn down and some of those that were left standing were remodeled. It seemed as though these beautiful old buildings that were such a significant part of Miami Beach history would become the causalities of progress.

Then, thankfully, along came Barbara Baer Capitman in 1976. She formed the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) and set out to change things. She stated her vision like this: “preserve the architecture and design of the art deco district, and the cultural, social, and economic growth and welfare of the area will follow.” It could have turned into the usual war between conservation and progress but it didn’t.

It wasn’t always easy or smooth but the private sector did come to realize the economic value of restoration. There were 800 buildings that were originally slated for restoration. Of that number 755 have been completed. Not bad!

In South Beach the restoration of the buildings was what rescued the district from the brink of financial disaster but the process was occasionally painful. All remodeling that had ever been done to the Art Deco buildings had to be undone. The buildings had to be restored to their original design.

The modernization of the Art Deco buildings has been done of course. Nobody would want to stay in a hotel with all of the conveniences available in 1930 but the modernization has been done in such a way that the ambience of the building is maintained.

Restoration of Art Deco Buildings in South Beach

The Art Deco buildings in South Beach were nearly lost. They almost became a distant memory and they would have had it not been for one very determined lady. Her name was Barbara Baer Capitman. In 1976, when the Art Deco buildings were in a sad and declining state of repair and there was talk of tearing them down and simply starting over, Ms. Capitman formed the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL).

She stated her purpose in clear terms. She said that the non-profit organization would, “preserve the architecture and design of the art deco district, and the cultural, social, and economic growth and welfare of the area will follow.” It turns out that she was right but it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

The private sector knew that restoration was far more expensive than simply tearing down and rebuilding and there were a lot of very strong objections to the restoration project. But the private sector did finally come around to the notion that restoration was actually good business. Many of the original Art Deco buildings had already been torn down and some of those that were still standing in the blighted district had been remodeled. The undertaking of restoration was not a small task by anyone’s standards.

Originally there were 800 buildings that were identified and slated for restoration. Today 755 of those buildings have been completely restored.

Herb Sosa is currently the executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. Mr. Sosa explains the success. He says, “A lot had to do with the work of Barbara Baer Capitman who in the 70s realized the immense potential that these buildings had. It was also the awareness of the private sector of the economic value of restoration. It was difficult at first, but investors soon realized that preservation and restoration was in the interest of everyone, and not just for the benefit of a few fanatical architects.”

Very often architectural restoration and preservation projects are on the opposite side of the fence from the economic forces of the private sector. In South Beach, the restoration of the buildings was what rescued the district from the brink of economic disaster. The architectural preservation was the driving force of South Beach’s economic boom.

There are two very distinct periods of the Art Deco buildings in South Beach. The first period covers buildings constructed between 1926 and1938 and the second period covers those buildings that were constructed after 1938 and through the 1940’s. The earlier period building feature sharp, angular geometric forms and stylized natural designs while the later period buildings had more modest ornamentation, curved corners, and a simple mechanical appearance.

The Crescent Hotel and the Hotel Webster are good examples of the first period. The Breakwater Hotel has a bold vertical tower, and the Essex Hotel has nautical rounded corners and both are examples of the second period.

Interior designers of these restored art deco building take different approaches to the interior designs. Some will stick with historic patterns while others will go for a more contemporary style.

South Beach Architecture

The roaring 20’s was a time in American History that found wealthy families just looking for ways to spend their money. Many of these very wealthy families choose to spend some of their fortune in South Beach. It was a generation that was embracing technology….the telephone, the telegraph and travel made easier with railroads and fledgling possibility of flight! It was a heady time and the architecture of the period reflects the attitudes of the multitudes. This has always been true but never has it been more evident than in the architecture of South Beach of the 1920’s.

South Beach was originally farm land. It’s hard to believe now when you see South Beach as it is today but there was a time when only coconut trees could be found on the landscape. Development of the South Beach area didn’t actually begin until about 1912 when Miami businessmen the Lummus Brothers acquired 400 acres and started building an oceanfront city of modest single family residences.

There was some development of course but real development didn’t seriously begin until about 1915 when the causeway was completed and it didn’t really get into full swing until about 1920 when the land boom began when several millionaires moved into the area. J. C. Penny, Harvey Firestone, Harvey Stutz, Albert Champion, Frank Seiberling and Rockwell LeGorce all built homes on Miami Beach.

By the 1930’s the architectural revolution was in full swing and Art Deco, Streamline Modern, and Nautical Modern architecture structures began to pop up.

There are actually two periods of Art Deco architecture in South Beach. The first period covers buildings constructed between 1926 and1938 and the second period covers those buildings that were constructed after 1938 and through the 1940’s. The earlier period buildings have sharp, angular forms but the later ones are a little more modest in design and not nearly as ornamental. But both periods are important and all are located in what is called the historic Art Deco district.

Streamline Modern (or Moderne) and Nautical Modern are sometimes referred to as a separate architectural styles and sometimes as simply a continuation of the Art Deco style. Streamline Modern were the first buildings that incorporated electric lighting into the architectural design. These buildings feature curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements like railings and windows that look like portholes.

These grand old buildings fell into a sad state of disrepair and were located in an area that was at that time riddled with crime and poverty. Many of the building had been torn down or remodeled. Barbara Baer Capitman formed the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) in 1976 and set about the mountainous project of saving and restoring these old buildings. Of the 800 buildings that were originally slated for restoration, 755 have been completed. It has been a long an uphill battle and one fraught with difficulties but the task is nearly complete today. It took some time for the private sector to recognize the value of restoration as opposed to tearing down and rebuilding.


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