Art Deco, the architectural and decorative arts style of the 1930’s and 1940’s known for its curved, streamlined, modern lines and emphasis on a posh yet clean sense of urbanity is mostly associated with New York City and other cities in the northern states. Indeed, New York’s nickname of the Empire State was showcased in various buildings built in the Art Deco style, and Art Deco murals and other artwork often illustrated the triumphs of American industry. Art Deco stood in the world as the distinct visual arts aesthetic of American boldness and success.
However, another Deco appeared in a place as far from New York as possible in most every sense: the sunny shores of Miami, Florida, in the then-quiet community of South Miami Beach. Due to the efforts of enterprising businessmen and architects who had sophisticated vision beyond the standards of their day, such as L. Murray Dixon, a whole new breed of Art Deco known as Tropical Deco found its advent in the American South’s new—and perhaps last—geographic frontier.
In 2015 it’s perhaps difficult to imagine how young Miami really is, but this region of Florida had only really been settled around the 1880’s at a point in time when much of America was experiencing vast expansion after the Civil War. Atlanta, in contrast, was a city rebuilding at the time—not a military camp slowly being settled by homesteaders as was Fort Dallas, which was located in what is now downtown Miami.
Julia Tuttle, a widow from Ohio, moved to Miami and bought a parcel of property in the Fort Dallas area, turning it into one of the finest homes in the small community. She knew the railroad magnate Henry Flagler from Ohio and communicated with him while he was in Saint Augustine developing Florida’s rail system.
In the winter of 1894, a horrible freeze caused many of the citrus groves around north-central Florida to lose their entire crops—a sad and sorry fate that growers in Florida thought impossible. Counties such as Alachua, Marion, Putnam, Levy, and even Citrus—a county named for the very crop—all found themselves badly affected by the freeze, and counties even further south were hardly better off. Around Miami, however, the chilly weather had only caused slight dips in the mercury and no freezing, and thus no damage to plants or crops.
Julia Tuttle had been trying to charm Flagler into extending his railroad to Miami, convinced (and correctly so) that the coming of the railroad would transform her sleepy little town and open the floodgates for enterprise and progress. Flagler’s interest, however, had been only polite, and the project seemed stalled—beyond Tuttle’s charm and one-woman crusade, Miami had seemingly little to offer. Then when the freeze devastated the established citrus groves, Tuttle came upon an idea: she shipped Flagler a box of oranges and an arrangement of local flowers from Miami, proving that the awful freeze had done no damage to Florida’s southernmost lands.
Flagler, apparently, was intrigued enough to send some of his men to investigate and decided to extend his rail-line to Miami, and later Key West, opening south Florida to the origins of the explosive growth that would one day make it what it is now.
The insular beaches of Miami offered a beautiful, semi-tropical, and pristine ocean experience with white sand, palm trees, and everything else you would desire in a beach. The railroad made Miami viable for growth, and from that point on the concept of Miami as a tourist destination was clear, with South Beach being the logical epicenter for tourism. Businessman Carl Fisher had already led the initial development of Miami Beach, and with an increase in tourism prospects, South Beach stepped up to the challenge.
While Fischer had his own ideas about architecture and a knack for knowing what would sell, it was an architect from rural northern Florida’s small county seat of Live Oak, who had trained in architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who actually brought the regal charm of Art Deco to South Beach. His name was Lawrence Murray Dixon, and along with Carl Fisher’s business acumen, Julia Tuttle’s original advocacy for Miami, and the work of an urbane architect from New York, Henry Hohauser, it was Dixon who made South Beach what it is today—a vibrant resort community where unique architecture has allowed it to weather storms of economics and fickle trends that could have washed out other beach towns. And it was Dixon, more than his colleague Hohauser, who brought a sense of elegant delight in tune with the times but deeply steeped in Southern culture.
What Dixon understood about Miami Beach was akin to what Tuttle had understood about Miami itself: Florida was novel ground and fertile for all manner of development, but it was remote, and selling its tropicality would rely on both bringing in the types of social graces affluent northerners appreciated and focusing on the native geography. Art Deco, of course, was the trendy visual arts style of the time, but simply parroting the Deco of New York City would fall short in terms of scale and size while also doing nothing in the way of seeming native to the region.
As a Florida boy himself, Dixon realized that the Deep South extended into the further-most reaches of Florida and the bright colors of the beach could mix with the stately whites found on plantation houses for decades in the South—the porches of many a Charleston or Macon mansion could inspire streamlined patios with shade-providing overhangs. The pragmatism of Southern native architecture from Savannah’s homes on their squares to the varied typologies of New Orleans to the Victorians of the well-to-do of Dixon’s own native Live Oak would all inform his take on Deco, while the concept of skyscrapers would come down to a more sedate but no less formal nor impressive scale appropriate to a resort.
What makes Miami’s Deco unique? For one thing, the façades while obviously Deco are at first glance totally different affairs from those of New York or elsewhere. The lines of the main entry-ways often extend like mini-overhangs across the full expanse of the façade instead of just framing the doorway. There is a festive feeling, a treatment of line that seems fitting for a theatre or other entertainment venue but common to hotels, apartment buildings, and even offices. There is the overwhelming statement that this is architecture for relaxation, for the resort community.
However—and here is where Dixon saw something no one else did—there is a necessary seriousness in some of his structures, a feeling that while South Beach was intent on being inviting and fun, it wasn’t to be seen as a trifling place or simply the beach-side aspect of Miami. Dixon wanted Miami Beach to have its own identity, one of relaxation but mature. He knew that the South in general was still seen by some northerners as less-sophisticated—just as New York was seen this way by some Europeans—and he was resolute that his architecture would convey sophistication unique and home-grown. We speak your language, these buildings seem to be saying, but with a Southern accent all our own.
Note on the photos: The author, Mike Walker, shot all photos used here on various types of 35mm film to provide a look and style befitting Miami’s Deco masterpieces.
See More Mike Walker Miami Art Deco Photos Here