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Thursday, 22 August 2013

Miami Nice

Miami Beach, Florida

When Henry Flager brought the railroad to South Florida in the early part of the last century, this place was going to be his El Dorado -- with an gilded architectural style to match. Viz the work of his handyman builder Addison Mizner in Palm Beach.

This town had other ideas as it evolved from Flager's original vision of Mediterranean Revival, a kind of Old World Spanish kitsch that also became California's high style. The periods are rough. Each decade brought new architectural standards that mirrored the growth -- and the ultimate division of this southern portion of Miami Beach island  (known as South Beach) and its northern modern upscale bit, the land of mammoth hotel complexes with the Fountainbleau Hotel as its signature edifice.

In the south, the island took a more commercial and civic turn, also retaining, for the most part, in its core along Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive a human-sized building scale. Hotels top off at about twenty floors. Restaurants and cafes flourish. Even a museum or two -- given this is Florida, 'a museum of two' is saying a lot -- are tourist destinations. And the luminous beach, opening to the Atlantic from Ocean Drive, remains an unbuilt landscape, open to the public, and free.

As important is built environment, a pastiche of styles -- in all, dubiously dubbed 'Art Deco' --  that blends in with the mellow yellow of South Beach's reputation as a hedonistic playland open to all comers -- even such A-listers as clothes designer Gianni Versace who died here in 1997, an assassination victim.

If you look hard enough, you can single out dozens of buildings from the 20s and 30s that smack of Classical Art Deco. But South Beach also boasts its own indigenous styles, Streamline Modern (through the Depression), Tropical Deco in the 40s, and, introduced in the 50s, MiMo, sui generis Miami Modern. As a conglomerate, South Beach's Miami Beach Architectural District is said to be world's largest concentration of Art Deco buildings. Well, Art Retro buildings, at least.

While some residents and visitors lack the sedate taste of their surroundings (still this place is hardly anywhere as outlandish as Venice Beach, California!), it has been these very same people who have made the preservation of South Beach architecture possible.

Decay and rot set into in a serious way in the 1970s. Elderly empty-nesters hung in in cheap apartments. Buildings deteriorated. Tourists stayed away.

Thanks community activist Barbara Baer Capitman, who founded the Miami Design Preservation League, that changed. South Beach was also show-cased in Miami Vice, a hit television show in the 1980s. The turnaround soon began, and now young Europeans and South Americans blanket the place. While Spanish is the dominant second language (in some cases, the first), French is increasingly a South Beach lingua franca.

Meantime, the Preservation League remains dedicated to maintaining the district's century-old architectural legacy. The MDPL, it reports, 'continues as the advocate for sensible development in Miami Beach, blending the search for exciting new buildings with preserving the human-scale of this unique urban neighborhood.'