Saturday, January 30, 2010

Streamline Moderne in South Beach

Streamline Moderne is the era of Art Deco design that roughly begins with the stock market crash and ends with the outbreak of WWII according to Miami Preservation League's website. "It relied more on machine-inspired forms, and American ideas in industrial design... it was buttressed by the belief that times would get better and was infused with the optimistic futurism extolled at America’s Worlds Fairs of the 1930s," the site explains. The Miami variation of Streamline Moderne is often referred to as Tropical Deco and displays the following characteristics:
• Relief ornamentation showing whimsical flora, fauna, ocean-liner and other local imagery
• Symmetry, stepped roof lines, and neon lighting
• Glass block and terrazzo floors
• Eyebrows, round porthole windows, curved edges and corners

The spectacular Deco district of South beach had fallen on hard times between the 1930s and 1980s becoming known as a "center for drug traffic." But thanks in part to the TV series Miami Vice in the '80s, South Beach made a comeback and the area has been "transformed into a super chic destination of celebrities and an urban neighborhood of eccentric residents."

My first visit to South Beach was not long after the renewal had begun, but it was still a little sketchy. I stayed at an inexpensive Deco hotel with a faulty window unit AC and a less-than-desirable musty smell. Since then South Beach has come a long way. While I could do without the throngs of tourists and traffic, the architecture is still amazing. The colors, shapes and details are so compelling that a quick afternoon of photography only made me return again for more exploring. If you're into architecture, this section of Florida will not disappoint.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Viva Vizcaya!

I couldn't wait to revisit Vizcaya. I had been there years ago, during a trip to the Coconut Grove Art Show, but it was overcast and gloomy. This was a sunny, crisp December day and I was excited to show my family James Deering's over-the-top European inspired estate. Deering, who merged his Deering Harvester Company with McCormick Reaper Company to form International Harvester, the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the country, built the property in 1916 on 180 acres of what is now primo South Florida property. Designed to look like a 400-year old Italian estate, the spectacular home is surrounded by extensive formal gardens which I found to be a joy to photograph. Upon our arrival, all five of my family members separated, as each went their own way to explore. My brother, a professional photographer, and I were in our element, as our camera lenses devoured the stone sculpture and amazing architecture.

James Deering by John Singer Sargent

State Archives of Florida

The National Trust for Historic Preservation had Vizcaya on the list of endangered historic sites in the US in 2008. Developers had proposed building high rise towers within a hair's breadth of the manicured grounds; but for now Vizcaya's tranquility appears intact. However, the salt air tends to eat away at the European sculpture, and the effects of time and tide year after year must be pronounced. The famous stone barge, located between the house and the bay, is actually a breakwater, and I imagine it has had to be restored a number of times, especially after the recent hurricanes of the last decade. But there was restoration under way in several areas, and the parts that are open appeared to me to be in good shape.

State Archives of Florida

While the outside is a dream for photography, there is no photography allowed in the interior. There is a guided tour worth taking, that allows you access to nearly every room of the palatial mansion. The rooms are very opulently decorated; I would have to say Vizcaya and Ringlings' mansion in Sarasota are the two private homes I've visited in Florida that most remind me of European palaces, at a much smaller scale. As the new elite of the United States in the early 20th century flouted their wealth, they turned back to old world examples of art and architecture to emulate in their new world mini-palaces. One website I came across said that the Mediterranean Revival architecture seen throughout Coral Gables can trace its origins to Vizcaya. If that is the case, James Deering left an enduring legacy beyond his stately home.

State Archives of Florida

Some more interesting facts about Villa Vizcaya:
• Vizcaya is named after a Basque Provence in Spain
• According to wikipedia, Vizcaya is referred to as the Hearst Castle of the East
• 1,000 workers were involved in construction of Vizcaya; at the the time the entire population of Miami was only 10,000
• The house and grounds were severely damaged by hurricanes in 1926 and 1935

Today Vizcaya Museum & Gardens is owned by Miami Dade County and is open 364 days a year. I suggest a visit anytime you're in South Florida. Bring a camera!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A peak inside Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel

Coral Gables founder George Merrick's most ambitious project may have been the elegant Biltmore Hotel. Teaming with John McEntee Bowman, founder of the Biltmore Hotel chain, Merrick opened the hotel in 1926 with great fanfare. For two years the central tower of the structure was the tallest building in Florida, just one of the building's notable historical footnotes which include:

• Hosting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and Al Capone as frequent guests
• Providing a temporary residence for FDR when he vacationed in South Florida
• Having Johnny Weismuller as swimming instructor (and he set a World record swimming in the Biltmore's pool, which was then the worlds largest)
• Providing a plethora of entertainment options including synchronized swimming, alligator wrestling and high diving shows

John McEntee Bowman and George Merrick

Babe Ruth and New York Mayor Al Smith tee off in front of the Biltmore

Golfing legend Bobby Jones at the Biltmore

Grandstands next to the pool for water sports exhibitions

According to, The Mediterranean Revival structure's lobby features "a dramatic 45-foot hand-painted ceiling, large stone colonnades and fine craftsmanship governing every detail." The 315 tower was modeled after Giralada bell tower in Spain. One of the most eye-catching features in the lobby were the intersting free-standing bird cage structures. Full of tiny colorful birds, some of the cages were draped with blankets to keep the birds warm on this cool December day.

Just blocks from the Venetian Pool, the hotel was converted into a military hospital during WWII and continued to operate as a VA hospital until 1968. The City of Coral Gables gained control of the hotel in 1973 and it sat vacant for almost ten years. In 1987 after a $55 million dollar restoration, the hotel reopened. Today it is an elegant resort and spa on the National Historic Register and a National Historic Landmark.

Wounded veterans during the hotels days as a hospital

So as my family and I approached, after 3 nights in the Residence Inn, we felt a little out of our league. We snuck into the incredible banquet rooms, sauntered warily by the ritzy swimming pools and finally came into the cathedral-like lobby. When we saw other tourist gawking and taking pictures we felt more at ease. The space is truly regal and it is without a doubt the most elegant historic hotel I've visited in the state. The hallways are lined with historic photographs and the buildings wonderful past is put on display for all interested visitors. With so many intricate architectural details, I may just have to visit again to take it all in!

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida