Guru Guide – Art Deco District
Ever wonder why real estate developers haven’t been able to take over the Art Deco District? Or how Ocean Drive has retained its world-famous, postcard-perfect architectural style and colorful buildings? The answer is that people like Mark Gordon, our Art Deco Guru, and other members of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), fight to preserve this district. In 1976, when this area was deserted and in severe disrepair, Barbara Capitman started cataloging what today are over 800 designated historic buildings and fought for the district to be part of the National Register of Historic Places. She created the MDPL whose mission is to preserve and protect the environmental integrity of Miami Beach.
Millions of tourists visit South Beach every year and the Art Deco Walking Tour not only consistently ranks as one of the top 10 things to do in Miami but tops the list of best things to do in the world. We want you to support the original MDPL walking tour that gives funds to the League so that they continue to fight for the preservation of these historic buildings. Mention City Life Guru when you arrive at the Art Deco Welcome Center (1001 Ocean Dr., every day at 10:30am except holidays) and you will get $10 off your ticket. While you wait for the tour to begin cross the street and go to the Gloria Estefan owned The Cardozo Hotel (1300 Ocean Dr.) which last year finished a multi-million-dollar renovation and order a Cortadito and a Pastellito de Guayaba to go at the beautifully decorated Estefan Kitchen Express.
During the 90-minute walking tour you will learn the architectural details that make these iconic buildings so unique. The tour starts with a short chronology of how Carl Fisher first came in the 1920’s to Miami Beach when it was a swamp of mangroves and had the vision to develop the area as a resort for the rich and famous. Even after the devastating hurricane of 1926 that all but destroyed the area and the Great Depression, South Beach was on its way to becoming a celebrity destination. Learn how architects created a distinct Art Deco style in Miami and what were the trademarks in their buildings: streamlined curves, window “eyebrows”, larger windows, and cool terrazzo floors to help with the heat.
Learn how with certain discoveries and inventions the design details evolved. When King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922, architects began using ziggurat stepped tower design at the top of their buildings. Miami Modernism (MiMo) style arrived in the 1950’s with Morris Lapidus’ glamorous Fontainebleau and Edon Roc hotels. This new style brought the outdoors in using balconies and materials that would let air and light flow. The arrival of car culture brought new modern designs to drive-in movies, drive-thru banks and burgers joints and the beginning of motor hotels (motels).
But not all is architecture on this tour. You will also hear quirky stories like how gangsters used entryway designs to let their guests know they were open for illegal gambling. You will hear of the decay of the area in the 1970’s, the arrival of Hollywood royalty in the 80s with Miami Vice and movies and advertising campaigns filmed on location, and even a famous death in the 90’s at Casa Casuarina.
Once you have finished the tour, head south down the sandy walkway behind the Art Deco Center. For ten minutes you will walk with the dunes on your left and Ocean Drive on your right. Once you pass First street you will pass the glamorous Continuum apartment on your right and arrive at South Point Pier where you can walk to the end and take some of the best pictures of South Beach. Walk back along the beautiful boardwalk and you will arrive at South Pointe Park with several walkways that give you different views. Stop at Smith and Wollensky and order a drink and enjoy the view of Fisher Island, one of the most expensive zip codes in the nation, the port and the city in the distance. At 4pm every afternoon cruise ships go by, and it is an amazing experience to watch as they tower over you. This is also one of the best sunsets in town and on Sundays people come to a sunset party where neighbors bring drinks, their kids and dogs and chat until sundown.
There are many dining options in the area, but South of Fifth has become very expensive in recent years with the arrival of party restaurants like Papi Steak and Carbone. If you have never been to Joe’s Stone Crab the experience is “as Miami as it gets”. Democracy rules at this one-hundred-year-old restaurant where it doesn’t matter how famous you are, even Al Capone had to wait at the bar like everyone else. The sides are as good as the claws, so ask one of the waiters that has worked there for decades what they recommend.
Our second recommendation for lunch is the gorgeous Estatorio Milos (730 First St.) where people in this South of Fifth District go to see and be seen. The prices at this restaurant are exorbitant just like its sister restaurant in New York. Named by Ocean Drive Magazine as the Best Seafood Restaurant in Miami in 2021, in the know locals dress up for lunch and order from the 3 course $39 Prix Fixe lunch available every day.
A more reasonable alternative is Abbalé Telavivian Kitchen an Israeli-inspired Mediterranean restaurant with a relaxed vibe. Grab a table on the sidewalk next to the beautiful pink bougainvillea and enjoy their healthy farm to table menu. Samuel Gonstein is the chef, and he has been nominated a James Beard “Rising Star Chef” and Forbes listed him in their “30 under 30” list.
Your next stop is the beautiful Jewish Museum (301 Washington Ave.) which is run by Florida International University (FIU). Its mission is to document, preserve and interpret Florida Jewish history since 1763. It is currently running the exhibit Raymond Elman: The Portraits that document life in the Outer Cape Cod art colony of Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet.
Walk five minutes north to 10th Street to the Wolfsonian Museum (1001 Washington Ave.) also run by FIU to discover some of their over 75,000 design objects spanning the 1850s to the 1950s. Now that you are an Art Deco expert, enjoy gorgeously designed furniture and art objects in this Mediterranean Revival building. Its founder is Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Jr., a local philanthropist, and it is full of incredible modern design pieces.
For the last stop of the tour head west to Monty’s Sunset (300 Alton Rd.). This local watering hole has a beautiful view over the Miami Beach Marina, the Port of Miami and the Miami skyline. They usually have local bands playing every afternoon and take advantage of the Sunset Happy Hour with great deals on drinks (Monday – Friday 4pm – 8pm).