Can you imagine Miami Beach without the Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive? This could have happened, had it not been for the efforts of activist Barbara Baer Capitman and industrial designer Leonard Horowitz, who founded the non-profit Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), 40 years ago to protect Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings from demolition.
Judith Frankel, MDPL’s director of programs and outreach, says the founders, both of whom are now deceased, wanted to come up with a way to bring more people to Miami Beach during the ’70s, when tourism was low and the concept of preserving Art Deco architecture was unheard of.
“The first Art Deco Weekend festival took place in 1977,” said Frankel, “a year after Barbara and Leonard formed the MDPL. “Not many people were interested in coming to Miami Beach and the concept of preserving Art Deco was new.”
The duo, along with other members of MDPL, thought the festival, which spans three days with vendors and artists selling their works in front of the Art Deco buildings along Ocean Drive, would be a great way to show people firsthand why the unique buildings were worth saving and to educate them about the history of Miami Beach’s Art Deco architecture. Guided Art Deco walking tours, offered by MDPL, continue to be a staple of how the organization promotes the history and relevance of the architecture.
The festival’s theme this year, is “The Colors of Miami Beach: 40 years of Fabulous.” Horowitz was responsible for bringing the pastel color palette to the facades of Art Deco buildings, ridding them of the drab beiges and tired off-whites.
Frankel says that Art Deco movement, popular in Europe first, and then abroad between both World Wars, began with the Bauhaus Movement in Germany, an art and architecture school that was later closed by the Nazis because they thought it was a center of “communist intellectualism.”
“After WWI, there was a movement of change within cultural norms,” says Frankel. “This is when jazz became popular; there were all kinds of things happening in literature and art – think Picasso and Hemingway – all were happening at the same time. Social norms were beginning to change. As the culture changed it impacted the architecture,” she says of the leap from over the top Victorian styles to the clean, modern styles exemplified in Art Deco architecture.
Art Deco architecture came to Miami Beach when investors started seeing more potential in the tropical land than just agriculture. “The beach started getting developed when Art Deco was at the peak of style,” says Frankel, of the historic buildings, many of which were built in the 1930s. “That’s how we got so much Art Deco – and the Art Deco in Miami Beach is heavily influenced by Florida,” she says of its uniqueness. “The flora, the fauna, the sea and the sky; so our Art Deco looks different from styles in New York, London, New Zealand because the architects made use of the materials that were available locally.”
Miami Beach’s Art Deco District became the nation’s first urban 20th century Historic District, when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The Art Deco Museum, which opened in 2014, and is located at 1001 Ocean Drive, includes scale models of Miami Beach’s three paramount historic design styles: Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco and Miami Modern (MiMo).
The Art Deco Weekend Festival has grown in size and volume since its inception 40 years ago, with over 150,000 attendees flocking to the free fair in recent years. Ocean Drive will be closed to vehicles as white vendor tents take over the streets from Friday through Sunday.
If you go:
What: Art Deco Weekend
When: Noon-11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Along Ocean Drive between 5th and 13th Streets, Miami Beach
Cost: Free, some ticketed events