Just the mention of Miami might conjure up images of linen suits, cubano sandwiches, hard bodies lounging in the South Beach sun, or four lovely ladies living out their golden years (Miami is nice, so I’ll say it twice) in the Floridian heat. But perhaps Magic City’s best-kept, not-so-secret secret is that the city is also an architectural haven—specifically when it comes to art deco.
What is art deco?
Short for Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (in reference to the conference where the style debuted), art deco is characterized by strong geometric shapes, vibrant pastel colors, and smooth, streamlined forms. Sometimes referred to as “Cubism Tamed,” the movement was birthed in France during the 1920s and exploded in popularity in the United States during the ’20s and ’30s. Two famous art deco–style buildings you may already know are New York City’s Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District
Sited a little south of South Beach, Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District boasts over 800 art deco–style buildings in less than one square mile and is home to the largest concentration of art deco buildings in the world. Miami’s wealth of art deco can largely be attributed to one man: automobile magnate Carl Fisher. In 1910, Fisher first traveled to the rat- and mosquito-infested marsh that was Biscayne Bay on vacation. Where others just saw swamp, Fisher saw a future getaway destination—and a major investment opportunity, naturally. So, he soon set about draining the Bay.
Fisher knew that to attract the other wealthy auto tycoons he hoped would join him in what would become Miami Beach, he needed to make the place look stunning—and in the 1920s, that meant art deco. Fisher then sought out and enlisted architects Henry Hohauser and Lawrence Murray Dixon to helm the gargantuan architectural project. And though the pair and their team would design some of the most iconic buildings of their time, the appeal of art deco, and subsequently, Miami, faded over time, as trends are wont to do. Miami Beach went from being the playground of the rich and famous in the ’30s and ’40s to, by the late 1960s, a favorite destination for retirees; being labeled “heaven’s waiting room” doesn’t exactly scream sexy, as one can imagine.
However, Miami’s art deco buildings underwent a massive revival during the late ’70s when the Miami Design Preservation League was created. In 1979, the one-mile zone that is the Miami Beach Art Deco District became the first urban 20th-century Historic District on the United States’ National Register of Historic Places, sparking a renewed interest in Miami’s architectural heritage. Plus, a visit from Andy Warhol in 1980, and being featured repeatedly in the extremely popular (and extremely ’80s) series Miami Vice didn’t hurt either.
Given that it’s just a one-mile zone, Miami’s deco district is an easy area to explore on foot in one afternoon. Here are eight must-see art deco buildings to add to your itinerary:
1. The Carlyle
1250 Ocean Dr.
While its crisp white exterior may seem more tame than other buildings on this list, there’s no doubt that the Carlyle is one of the most famous constructions in all of Miami. Designed by German American architect Richard Kiehnel, the Carlyle has appeared in films like Scarface (1983), The Birdcage (1996), and Random Hearts (1999), and it is located 100 yards from Gianni Versace’s former mansion, where the fashion designer was murdered by spree killer Andrew Cunanan.
The Carlyle originally opened its doors with 50 units in 1939. After undergoing renovations in the mid-2000s, the Carlyle is now a residential building with 19 condominiums. Still pretty enough to put on a postcard and with an ocean view, it evokes all the mystique of the Miami of yesteryear.
2. The McAlpin
1430 Ocean Dr.
The McAlpin is considered a near-perfect embodiment of Miami art deco. Delightfully symmetrical with turquoise and coral pink accents, the McAlpin’s boxy silhouette stands out from its neighbors on Ocean Drive. Designed in 1940 by Dixon, the McAlpin follows the rule of three: a design guideline purportedly influenced by Egyptian tradition where decorative elements are organized in groups of three—peep the three vertical lines horizontally and vertically crossing its facade. Today, the McAlpin is a 52-room hotel owned by Hilton and is one of the most popular selfie spots in the city. But be sure to book a room in advance—this property is often sold out months in advance.
3. Miami Beach Post Office
1300 Washington Ave.
Constructed in 1937, the Miami Beach post office on Washington Avenue was dreamed up by Chicago-based architect Howard Lovewell Cheney and built under the purview of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The curious post office features a round lobby with a cone-shaped roof topped by a tiny cupola, a 10-foot high glass block wall above the entrance, and a large stone eagle over the doorway. Inside, a triptych mural by Charles Hardman depicting pivotal scenes from Florida’s history, such as Ponce de Leon’s 1513 arrival, is situated in the lobby above the gold-colored post office boxes. Not a bad place to pick up the mail!
4. The Colony Hotel
736 Ocean Dr.
Dreamed up in 1935 by Henry Hohauser (one of Miami’s most prolific architects, who’s estimated to have created 300 buildings in the area), the Colony Hotel has a simple, yet striking design. The building was the first “streamline moderne” building in Miami; its three tiers have been highlighted with turquoise paint. But perhaps the construction’s most iconic element is its inverted, T-shaped sign that bears the hotel’s name and glows a moody shade of blue at night.
The structure was built to serve as a luxurious getaway for upper middle-class clients—each of the hotel’s 50 rooms had its own bathroom, and some top-of-the-line (for the time) amenities included a radio and telephone in every room. And in a rather unusual move for Florida, the Colony Hotel also has a basement, which was outfitted with a card room, recreation rooms, and locker rooms with bathing facilities.
5. Park Central Hotel
640 Ocean Dr.
Sometimes called the “Blue Jewel of Miami” because of its azure paint accents and neon lighting, the Park Central Hotel is a Magic City icon that opened its doors in 1937. Another Hohauser creation, the hotel was a favorite among celebrities like Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth during its heyday. Seven stories tall and with 135 rooms, the Blue Jewel is set up with Old Florida–style rooms and also offers a sculpture garden, rooftop deck, small pool, and classy terrazzo flooring throughout. After switching hands a few times over the years, the Park Central Hotel was sold to hotelier Richard Tabet in 2013; he sunk money into major renovations for the property in 2018 as well as several surrounding properties. Sadly, the Park Central Hotel closed during the pandemic and it’s unclear if and when it will reopen again for business.
6. The Webster
1220 Collins Ave.
Completed in 1939, the Webster is a great example of Hohauser’s adherence to the rule of three—the building is equally divided into thirds horizontally and vertically and a trio of windows can be found on each of its three floors. Though it was originally designed as a hotel, it now functions as the flagship storefront of a high-end clothing boutique, also known as the Webster. Inside, visitors can find eye-catching terrazzo flooring, pastel decor, and modern, warehouse-style beamed ceilings.
7. Hoffman’s Cafeteria Building
1450 Collins Ave.
This cute little building on the corner of Collins Avenue and Española Way has seen quite a few businesses come and go since it opened its doors in 1940. Yet another construction designed by Hohauser, the gloriously curvaceous property (a welcome change from the ultra-line obsessed creations early in the art deco movement) was originally built to house the popular Hoffman’s Cafeteria, a favorite haunt among Army Air Force cadets training in the area during World War II. Then, in 1942, it temporarily became an army mess hall before once again transforming—this time into a Jewish deli. It would then cycle through a series of dance clubs (including a Chinese discotheque with a 2,500-gallon shark tank) before it was acquired by Jerry’s Famous Deli in 2000. In 2015, Jerry’s sold the place to Señor Frogs who (sadly) closed its Miami location in 2020 due to COVID-19. Rumor has it that Miami Beach investor Yossi Lipkin, who bought it this year for $10 million, has plans to turn it into a “beautiful, upper-scale resort-wear store.”
8. The Bass
2100 Collins Ave.
The Bass is probably the most subtle example of art deco on this list, but it’s also one of the most attractive. Originally constructed in 1930 to house the Miami Beach Public Library and Arts Center, the building was the very first place to publicly exhibit art in South Florida. Architect Russell Pancoast, grandson of John Collins, an early land developer in the area, designed it. Perhaps the most entrancing aspect of the building are its walls, which consist of oolitic limestone and fossilized Paleolithic coral. As an added finish, the walls are also decorated with bas reliefs carved by sculptor Gustav Boland—some highlights include a pelican eating a fish and a depiction of the Spanish conquest. The structure became the Bass Museum in 1964 and was placed on the National Register of Historic places in 1978. You can visit the Bass and its impressive collection of contemporary art from Wednesday through Sunday from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.