After booking this tour online, we received an email with the meeting place, Hotel Astor in Miami Beach. We checked Google maps and decided it wasn't too far from our hotel so we could go on foot. Hotel Astor seemed more difficult to find than anticipated though, andI was already stressing out but we arrived just on time to find that we where the first ones there. Typical...
John, our guide for the 3 hour tour, arrived a few minutes later and we quickly found the other couple, Martha and her daughter from the New York area.
We quickly found out that meeting at Hotel Astor wasn't at random. This lovely hotel was designed by T. Hunter Anderson in 1936 and is considered transitional Deco. Transitional between the earlier Mediterranean revival, mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 1926 and the Art Deco style that came afterwards.
Local builders got most of Miami 's building blocks from the nearby swamps where they carved out chunks of coral rock and used stucco to give it a marble like character.
Indeed most of Florida used to be largely swamps. It was only when Henry Flagler, an American industrialist and a founder of Standard Oil, invested some of his vast fortune to extend his rail road from Palm Beach to Miami that the area started to develop. Now not only the rich but middle class could also travel on vacation to "America's Riviera", a sign of not just luxury but equality.
John was getting on a roll and had many quirky stories to tell. It's really nice to have an enthusiastic guide show you around town and we had lots of laughs during our Art Deco tour.
Next stop was Coral Rock House, the 1922 home of pioneer Henri Levi. This low frill house survived the 1926 hurricane because it was built largely out of coral rock.
Nearby boutique hotel Dream South Beach consists of 2 historic Art Deco hotels: Palmer House and the Tudor Hotel designed by L. Murray Dixon. A developer bought the run down hotels and got permission to install a sky way between the two. A multimillion dollar refurbishment kept much of the original appearance and it is now one of the most trendy hotels in Miami Beach with off course a rooftop bar and pool. Nice to know we had access to all the art deco hotels, and John joked not to take any pictures of the topless guests around the rooftop pool. It was a strange experience to mingle among the hip and trendy (yet mostly ugly) hotel guests who probably don't have any idea of the building's history.
The next door Essex House Hotel, a Henry Hohauser design, was one of the most luxurious hotel in 1938. The lobby retains much of the original design and features a fireplace with a painting by Earl Le Pan from 1931, an artist almost lost in history. They managed to track him down in 1989 and he restored the mural himself, adding an alligator that the original owner cut from his original design in order not to frighten tourists . He died a short time after the resauration, but it's nice to know he got some recognition during his lifetime, unlike many very talented artists.
Ever heard of the Clevelander hotel? It is party central in Miami Beach, the place where celebrities and wannabes go to... euuh get drunk basically. The outside speakers are very loud, and to our surprise, they where playing hits by Belgian artists like Stromae and 2 Unlimited!
The spectacular roof top bar has panoramic views of the beach and city, just be careful you don't get an STD after jumping in one of the pools, John jokingly warned us. We had to show our ID to get in to The Clevelander, but in return got one of the best Piña colada's we've ever tasted. For free!
Strange to see nobody under 35 at the Clevelander, because until the 1980's this area was known as God's waiting room, a slang term used in Florida referring to the high number of retirees living there, mostly of Jewish descent. Before 1978, there where no laws protecting the Art Deco district, any many beautiful buildings were lost. One person stopped the destruction, Barbara Capitman, whose vision and persistence helped to turn this rundown area of Miami Beach into a vibrant Art Deco historic district.
Next place we visited was the Congress hotel. John explained all the basic guidelines for an art deco building: streamlined classicism, symmetry, rule of 3, motion and balance and cantilevered eyebrows. The Miami Beach art deco style has some embellishments like frozen fountains, Aztec/Mayan motifs and ziggurats influenced by discovery of King Tut's tomb.
Lightning rods are also commonly found in US art deco buildings, but not in Miami perhaps due to superstition, as Florida is the lightning capital of the world.
The Versace Mansion is one of the 3 most photographed houses in the US. It is a classic example of the pre Art Deco building style in Miami Beach called the Mediterranean Revival style . This style is characterized by clay tile roofs, arched windows and Corinthian columns.
Designer Gianna Versace was shot down on the steps by a man on a killing spree throughout the US. The exact reasons why were never discovered. The first owner was a bit of a Columbus nut and the main house is an exact copy of the mansion built by Christopher Columbus's son in Santo Domingo. Indeed he was even buried in a Columbus costume! The origins of Halloween... No just joking ;)
There are now plans to turn the Versace Mansion in to a restaurant, it would be be the first time that it will be open to the public.
By now, we had moved further down the SoBe strip to Hotel Victor by L. Murray Dixon. He broke the rule of symmetry on this gray building with asymmetrical addition and Asian inspired Art Deco elements. This luxury hotel is now under new management and closed for business. You can still visit the lobby and bar, where they are trying out new looks that blend well with the protected elements.
The Tides is the second luxury Art Deco hotel on Ocean Drive. The hotel was in a bad state in the early 1990's and was used as a set in the movie Ace Ventura Pet Detective. The building bears symmetry but no eyebrows and large round portholes. The lack of eyebrows suggests that they where going for a New York City skyscraper look. The interior is very kitsch, the restaurant features large replicas of sea turtle shells. Weird.
This is where we said goodbye to our guide John, after more than 3 hours, he gave us lots of info on the Art Deco district and I'm sure the other guides are as knowledgeable.
Sure, you can walk around SoBe and see all the Art Deco buildings for free, but it is great that this tour gives you access to all the interiors too, and that have a knowledgeable guide to give you a more in-depth experience. FreeAsBirds