The Art Deco District: Miami Beach’s Historic Treasure

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Miami Beach’s Art Deco District is a historic treasure that came close to being wiped off the face of the earth.

Remember that the term “historic” combines with “South Florida” in a way that will provoke smirks in other locales. By the standards of England or even New England, nothing here is truly old. The City of Miami was founded in 1896, and the Art Deco buildings of Miami Beach were products of the early 20th century.

Miami Beach was a prime destination for beach-goers from the 1920s until the late 1960s. Small hotels gave way to monolithic resorts such as the Fountainebleau that offered giant swimming pools, sweeping ocean views, and trendy restaurants where people went to be seen as much as to dine.

But time caught up with the boom on Miami Beach. Caribbean destinations developed destination-resorts. Baby Boomers saw Miami Beach as an uncool relic of their parents’ leisure days.

By the mid-1970s, Miami Beach was in rapid decline. Once proud Art Deco hotels along Ocean Drive were broken-down eyesores. Crime increased dramatically. Calls for demolition reached thundering magnitudes.

Against long odds, Barbara Baer Capitman and five of her friends formed the Miami Design Preservation League. They fought to have 800 of these buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. They lost a number of high-profile battles to save individual properties from demolition, but they won enough to preserve hundreds of others.

Work began slowly, but within a decade many of the old Art Deco buildings were sporting new facades, pastel colors, and a hip new image bolstered nationally by the hit NBC television series Miami Vice. The area enjoys an international jet set reputation as “South Beach,” the place where upscale clubs attract high rollers and celebrities.

Today, dilapidation is no longer a fear. The issue now is gentrification.

In another 10 years, will anyone lacking serious wealth be able to afford a home on Miami Beach? Will there be affordable places to stay and to dine?

Which brings us to finding affordable strategies for a visit.

If you pay the first price you see, you’ll be staying in a $500/night hotel and eating overpriced food that comes with a mandatory 20 percent service charge (with a 15 percent tip requested above that total), a 7 percent sales tax and a 2 percent city tax. This partially explains how it’s possible to pay $36 for a Cuban sandwich and a soft drink on Ocean Drive.

Miami Beach doesn’t exactly cater to budget travelers — at least not those who are diligent in finding bargains in such places. But as is always the case with budget travel, those who do the homework are rewarded.

The James Hotel (on the avenue of the same name, just north of Lincoln Road) offers rooms at many times of year for under $150/night, and enjoys strong visitor ratings on  At about the same price point, nearby Crest Hotel Suites bills itself as a boutique hotel swept up in the Art Deco revival.

Naturally, you don’t have to stay in Miami Beach to spend a day enjoying the sights and sounds. A stroll down Ocean Drive costs nothing beyond the $4/hour municipal parking (when you can find it). It’s a place where rollerbladers and volleyball players mingle with joggers and newly arrived tourists in need of a base tan.

If your credit card limit doesn’t mesh with a visit to a trendy South Beach eatery, there are some budget-friendly options. Sylvano Restaurant moved to the Collins Park area from Alton Road several years ago, and offers Italian entrees starting as low as $10.  Icebox Cafe on Purdy Ave. brings a some great salads and innovative drinks to the area. Reservations can be made via Open Table for parties of six or fewer.

(c)Mark D. Kahler

To learn more about the area’s fascinating history, visit the Art Deco Welcome Center at 1001 Ocean Drive. From here, Art Deco walking tours originate twice daily (morning and afternoon), and self-guided tours also are available.

Fair warning: prices for these services aren’t exactly cheap ($25 for adults, $20 for seniors, active military and students). But you’ll benefit from a personal guided tour to understand the nuances of these neighborhoods. It is an attraction you won’t find anywhere else in the world.