Deco Drive-by: A guided Ocean Drive tour

 

What makes a lesson in architecture more fun? Drinking, of course! Good thing Ocean Drive's got both.

deco1
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images.
 

By Amy Reyes

Welcome to our Art Deco Tour. Come along now, don't dawdle. The stretch of Ocean Drive that extends from Fifth Street to Fifteenth Street is an architectural museum of sorts, showcasing a unique moment in American construction and design. On this tour, we'll highlight the architecture, the history, all things Deco.

Wait, come back here!

Don't worry; we'll make a few pit stops to recharge your battery. And we promise we won't point at every balustrade and terrazzo pattern. We'll wait for you to grab a drink at Wet Willies (760 Ocean Drive). It's okay to buy the huge 32-ounce Call-A-Cab (contents unknown), since they serve their smoothie-like specialty drinks in a plastic cup that you can take along.

Deco Drive acquired its characteristic look after the hurricane of 1926 flattened the coastline and left a blank canvas for depression-era architects and designers to rebuild upon. The building frenzy of the '30s and '40s relied on inexpensive building materials like block and stucco and the simple yet unique designs we've come to know as Art Deco. The architects of this era relied on symmetry, vertical and horizontal lines, incorporation of art into the architectural design, the characteristic eyebrows that give shade to the windows and inspiration from the large skyscrapers, huge steam-liners and boats and other mega-structures built during this era.

Have a look at the Park Central Hotel (640 Ocean Dr.), built in 1939 by Henry Hohauser, a leading architect of South Beach's Art Deco building explosion, who also built Congress, Essex House and the Cardozo. The PCH is one of the larger boutique-style hotels on South Beach and mimics the symmetric look of big city skyscrapers and the nautical references evidenced by the porthole windows -- an appropriate detail for a beach town. Why are you giving us your camera? Oh, you want a snapshot in front of the fancy antique car that's always parked there. If you look inside, you'll see a statue of Humphrey Bogart lookalike done by Cuban artists the Skull sisters that transports you back to the '40s.

You look great in your Magnum P.I. Hawaiian-print shirt, but how about we do a subtle wardrobe change since we're passing the Havana Shirt Co (760 Ocean Dr)? Sure, they're a bit pricey, but a nice loose linen shirt or a guayabera with its perfect pleats down the front is just what you need to blend in.

Wait, why have you stopped in this line of people waiting in the hot afternoon sun for an iced coffee? Because you want to check out News Café (800 Ocean Dr) since you've heard that all the celebs and supermodels hang out in this Euro-style coffee house, that's why. Though it's mainly teeming with tourists, News Café still gives you the best people-watching perch on the beach, as you snack on the Middle Eastern meze or just down cup after cup of Venetian with Sambucca. But let's keep moving.

The next Deco gem on our tour is the Waldorf Tower (860 Ocean Dr.), which was built by Albert Anis, another pioneer of tropical Deco architecture whose other projects include the Clevelander (currently boarded up), the Winterhaven and the Leslie. The tower on top was rebuilt using the original plans after the structure was condemned by the city in the early 1980s. The redevelopment of the Waldorf Tower was a major victory for the Miami Design Preservation League, an organization that fights for the preservation of Miami Beach's architectural heritage and monitors future development to keep the character of the neighborhood consistent.

Finished your Call-A- Cab already? Let's hit Mango's (900 Ocean Dr.). Stop gaping at those waitresses in their low-cut cat suits -- this restaurant/nightclub provides you with a whimsical tropical vibe and sizzling Latin beats that'll transport you to a modern Macondo. Need a refill? You might find your waitress dancing on the bar. But you'll just have to wait; it's part of her job.

Let's walk a few more blocks and check out this Mediterranean Revival-style mansion, which was once Gianni Versace's house (1116 Ocean Dr.). Here's a nugget for you: When Versace was in the process of remodeling his house (now called Casa Casuarina), he found himself in need of more space, thus planned to demolish the neighboring Rivera Building, another Art Deco jewel, to expand his estate. The MDPL fought him, but Versace prevailed because the Riviera, built in the '50s, was not covered by the city's preservation ordinances. However, as a result, those ordinances were changed to include structures built from the '20s up to 1955, saving other structures from future destruction.

Here's another finely restored Art Deco boutique hotel: The Cardozo (1300 Ocean Drive), which was bought by Andrew Capitman, son of Barbara Capitman, perhaps the most vocal activist for the preservation of Miami Beach's architectural patrimony. The building was refurbished and eventually purchased by the Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who have turned the it into one of Ocean Drive's most solicited and posh boutique hotels. It's hard to believe, but hotels like the Cardozo, now considered chic and hip, were neither flashy nor luxurious when they were built, and instead were geared to an emerging industrial class who, with FDR's economic reforms, found themselves struggling, but employed and with a few dollars saved up for a trip to the beach.

After all this walking, I think you deserve a real meal. Let's buy a cigar at Deco Drive Cigars (1446 Ocean Dr.), head over to Table 8 (1458 Ocean Dr) inside the Hotel de Soleil and grab a table on their vast front porch. This place is the Floridian outpost of star chef Govind Armstrong's popular LA restaurant. The menu is short and sweet and replete with delectable offerings that defy classification (New American, fusion?) but surely satiate your belly after our stroll.

Wait, after such an informative tour, aren't you going to get the check?

The Art Deco Welcome Center leads guided tours Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays at 10:30 a.m., then on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. starting at the Art Deco Welcome Center (1001 Ocean Dr.) and they offer self-guided or cell phone tours for folks that can't get up early enough.

Speak Up!