Exploring Miami’s Art Deco District: A Self-guided Walking Tour

Miami has the highest concentration of Art Deco resort buildings in the world, and the best way to discover them is by walking around South Beach

Credit: Enesse Bhe

Miami’s Carlyle Hotel exemplifies classic Art Deco features

The best way to get to know a new city is to delve into its history, and in Miami’s South Beach neighbourhood, that history jumps out at you in a flourish of Art Deco buildings

The Miami Design Preservation League’s self-guided walking tour of Miami’s Art Deco District is the most fascinating, beautiful and informative historical research I’ve ever done, and led to an adventurous exploration of Miami’s roots.

The Most Art Deco Buildings in the World

The iPod-led self-guided tour of Miami’s Art Deco District lasts 90 minutes and starts at the Miami Art Deco Gift Shop (1001 Ocean Drive).

As the tour began, lovely bluesy jazz transported me back to the ’20s and ’30s, when this area was born. The one-square-mile district has the highest concentration of Art Deco resort buildings in the world due to a hurricane that completely devastated the South Beach area in 1926.

Economic times were good back then and the money was flowing, so developers were quick to rebuild, influenced by a style unveiled in 1925 at the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs: Art Deco (shortened from the expo’s title ‘Arts Décoratifs’). And so, an entire neighbourhood was created in this school of design.

Miami’s Architectural Playground

While I was walking up and down the surrounding streets, it really felt as if I was touring an outdoor architectural museum.

After the first phase of reconstruction, South Beach very quickly regained its reputation as the playground for the rich, famous and powerful. Even the Mafia came to Miami to play.

Rumours abound to this day that Miami was considered neutral territory for gangsters, so for a city of considerable wealth and influence, it remained relatively organised-crime free.

Art Deco Styles

The tour covered three main sub-styles of architecture present in this South Beach neighbourhood.

  1. Mediterranean Revival: A whimsical interpretation of the Old World and typical of 1920s era buildings
  2. Streamline Moderne: Came into prominence around the time of the Great Depression and the start of WWII and is literally more streamlined, less decorative – a reflection of the sombre times.
  3. Miami Modern (MiMo): This post-WWII style and reflects a lot of the optimism people were feeling. Sharp angles gave way to organic shapes and designs were taking on a futuristic bent.

Famous Miami Buildings

The tour includes famous buildings such as Versace’s estate (‘Amsterdam Palace,’ a gorgeous example of Mediterranean Revival, complete with rough stucco walls, clay roof tiles, arched windows, a courtyard and wrought iron fencing; and the Carlyle Hotel (exemplifying classic Art Deco features including sweeping ‘eyebrows’ over windows, the use of neon, and an overall sense of symmetry. This is also where The Birdcage with Robin Williams was filmed in 1996.

The tour is part of the Miami Design Preservation League’s advocacy program to protect this historically and culturally significant neighbourhood.

Sure, you can literally rip over examples of Art Deco in this area if you come here on your own, but the tour gave me a level of understanding and appreciation for these buildings that I’d never otherwise have.

Catherine Tse is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver. From the Great Wall of China to Sydney’s Opera House to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, Catherine loves an adventure and loves to share them with her readers.