SoBe Teaser


Vickie Kelber

The art deco fountain in the lobby of the Wolfsonian includes a gilded window grill from the from a movie theater in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

The Renaissance Academy of Florida Gulf Coast University provides programs for “lifelong personal revitalization” and their offerings include day trips. I’ve taken two of them and while they are well organized and the leaders cordial and informative, their overambitious planning has resulted in some frustration for attendees. There just wasn’t sufficient time to enjoy the main features of the trips. I’m not one to take a lot of time at museums and other locations. Usually, I walk through fairly quickly, but do try to get a good sense of a place or collection. On both Academy trips, too many activities (3) were squeezed into a short day which meant rushing through and feeling as if I’d been teased rather than satisfied.

Despite living in southwest Florida for 14 years, I’ve never been to South Beach (SoBe) in Miami. When the Academy offered an architectural tour of the area, I thought, “wonderful”……no driving to Miami. The day also included a visit to the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum. I should have known from my first Academy trip that the day might not be fulfilling, but the temptation of making a visit by bus was too much to resist.

As is typical in Miami (or, as our leader described, “the parking lot that is Miami”), there was traffic and we arrived later than they thought we would. The local guide who met us was noticeably vexed by the limited amount of time we had for the tour. Although we were not able to see as much as she would have liked to show us, I did learn about the area’s history and architecture.

The opulent villa where Gianni Versace met his fate.

In the late 1800’s, the area that is South Beach was first settled as a coconut plantation and many of the trees in today’s beachfront Lummus Park are descendants of those first Jamaican coconuts. In the 1910’s and 20’s, the area began development as a tropical paradise. We are blasé about our weather, flora, and fauna, but just imagine in those days if you lived in cold, snowy Pennsylvania or Minnesota. As the only subtropical experience in the United States, what a fantasy land this would be. Cruise ships began finding their way here, as did millionaires, some of whom built homes.

Unfortunately, the hurricane of 1926 destroyed much of the area. During the period from 1935-41, the area was rebuilt as “modern”, and included Art Deco, Streamline and Nautical Moderne decor. There were 2,000 buildings constructed, almost one new each day in this one mile wide by .8 mile long area which once was mangroves. In those days, architects did not need a license and the 10 who basically built South Beach were considered amateurs who wanted to have “fun” with their designs.

Along Ocean Drive, South Beach, one can see the art deco, nautical, and Mediterranean influences of the architecture.

What ensued is referred to as “tourist” Art Deco. All of the work and money went into the facades of the buildings. The sides and backs were plain. Inspiration came not only from ornate Art Deco Parisian designs but also Germany’s Bauhaus movement, Mayan, Aztec, and Egyptian ruins, and, of course, a nautical influence.

The heir to the Standard Oil fortune built a mansion during this time that was fashioned after the house that belonged to Christopher Columbus’ son in the Dominican Republic. Although lavish to begin with, it was purchased by Gianni Versace in the 1990’s and he added $30 million in gilding, mosaics, inlays, and other embellishments. Of course, we know the fate of Versace at that mansion in 1997. After his death, “The Villa”, as it was by then known, was sold to the owner of BTT telecom who tried to turn it into a celebrity club/hotel. It now operates as a restaurant/catering enterprise.

Art Deco bar at The Tides hotel. PHOTOS BY Vickie Kelber

In the 50’s, South Beach developed an extensive club life, enhanced in the 60’s when Jackie Gleason broadcast his TV program from there. As the 60’s and 70’s progressed, much of SoBe fell into disrepair. The area was inhabited by drug dealers and so many elderly people that it became known as “God’s waiting room.” The film “Scarface” reflected some of that history and, in fact, portions of it were filmed along South Beach, including at the Starlight Motel on Ocean Drive. A few of the buildings of SoBe were destroyed and many more were targeted for demolition. Fortunately, a group of activists were able to save the area and the late 80’s saw a renaissance, with buildings renovated, painted bright colors and the introduction of a Mediterranean influence. Today, the structures are an eclectic collection of styles and influences, but the original “tourist” Art Deco is notably present.

Also in the 80’s, the beach area was tripled which allowed pavilions to be built to host various large events such as Super Bowl parties and wine and food expositions. Miami Beach has a population of 88,000 who greet 10 million visitors a year. The area began a hundred years ago by trying to convey the message, “forget your troubles…have fun” and that message rings through today in the charming hotels, restaurants, clubs, shops that are SoBe.

Even the lifeguard stations in South Beach encourage the idea of “let’s have fun”.

Following an organized lunch, we visited the Wolfsonian-FIU Museum. Originally a private museum created to showcase the modern collections of Mitchell (Mickey) Wolfson, the Wolfsonian was given to Florida International University in 1995. Housed in what once was a warehouse to store furnishings belonging to the wealthy industrialists who were Miami’s winter residents, the building itself is an art deco gem. The permanent and temporary collections attempt to demonstrate “the persuasive power of design and art” or how design impacts and influences us.

The Wolfsonian is usually closed on Wednesdays, but it was opened just for our group which meant no crowds to negotiate. Unfortunately, we had very limited time and were able to race through only two of the floors. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and it would have been wonderful to have benefitted from more of the information that she had to share. There are more than 100,000 items in the collection. I found the choice of displayed items and the way they fit into the reality of their time and place to be fascinating. The Wolfsonian is well worth a trip, but make sure you have sufficient time to be able to read the descriptions as well as reflect on some of the pieces in relation to their time. Unfortunately, guided tours are only available for groups. However, on Friday evenings, a guided tour of one floor is offered to the public.

While my trip did leave me less than satisfied, the positive thing about it was that should I ever return to South Beach, I feel I know quite a bit about it. Now, if I just could find an alternative to driving!

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.

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