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Postcards America By Car Deco Miami Beach

Miami Beach Today

If Carl Fisher were alive today, he might find it difficult to recognize Miami Beach. Gone are the grand hotels and opulent mansions he envisioned and built. Today, decidedly less-ornate high-rise condominiums tower over much of the landscape. Fisher would also notice that Miami Beach is no longer the exclusive domain of the privileged class. The population of today's Miami is both culturally and economically diverse. Nearly half of the city's 90,000 residents are Hispanic, and Jews, whom Fisher tried to exclude from his paradise, comprise a significant part of the city's population. Today, Miami Beach, which has weathered booms and busts dating back to Fisher's time, is on a decided upswing.

When Carl Fisher died in 1939, Miami Beach had already recovered from the devastating effects of the hurricane of 1926 and the Great Depression. By train, plane, and automobile, Americans, both rich and not-so-rich came to gawk at the fur coats and diamond necklaces displayed in the exclusive boutiques on Carl Fisher's Lincoln Road, Photograph of a couple by the seato dine at posh restaurants and make scandalous forays to strip clubs, to mingle poolside with a coterie of the nation's rich and famous, and to enjoy a respite from the cold northern winters.

The boom continued into the 1950's and 1960's. Architect Morris Lapidus' monuments to excess, the Fontainbleu and Eden Roc hotels, sparked a competition for the biggest, most glamorous tourist lodgings. Nightclubs featured entertainers such as Frank Sinatra and Lenny Bruce. Jackie Gleason broadcast his television variety show live from Miami Beach. Local police turned a blind eye to gambling, and mobsters such as Meyer Lansky made fortunes from technically illegal casinos. The beach that Carl Fisher built became the epicenter of American Glitz.

Then the decline began. Competition from other resort areas such as Orlando's Walt Disney World and the Caribbean drew tourists away. Huge condominiums built in Middle Beach competed with hotels for clientele. Many hotels began to attract a lower class patron or fell to the wrecking ball.

In South Beach, elderly Jewish retirees rented rooms in the small Art-Deco style hotels built during the thirties and forties. The sobriquet "God's Waiting Room," belied a South Beach that housed a hospitable and culturally vibrant community. Still, hoteliers and club owners bemoaned the graying of the beach and wondered how it could be reversed.

The early 1980's proved to be difficult and challenging days for South Beach. The area was rife with poverty and drug-related crime. Recent Cuban refugees, many of whom arrived during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, were, in part, blamed for the unsavory conditions. Many of those same exiles, however, worked diligently to build productive businesses and secure homes for their families, thereby contributing to South Beach's later renaissance.

Fortunately, the year before Mariel, an act of government had assured the revival of Miami Beach. Preservation activists led by Barbara Capitman and Leonard Horowitz of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) won National Register Designation of a one-square mile area of South Beach that became known as the Art Deco District. Horowitz began to repaint the exteriors of the hotels with a striking pastel palette. As building after building put on a stunning new face, the young and moneyed began to return.

Popularized by its exposure in the television series Miami Vice, the Deco District became a center for fashion photo shoots. By the late 1980's, supermodels such as Naomi Campbell were a common sight. Soon, boutiques and trendy restaurants opened, some owned by popular entertainers such as Sean Penn and Prince. The area became a magnet for chic young hipsters from the United States, Europe, and Latin America, and the annual Art Deco Weekend began drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Once again Carl Fisher's Lincoln Road flourished. The trendy thoroughfare, formerly known as the Fifth Avenue of the South, reemerged as a cultural mecca with a sophisticated, laid-back ambiance. New tenants included the South Florida Art Center, the Miami City Ballet, and the New World Symphony. Sony Music opened its Latin American headquarters on Lincoln Road, as did MTV, the Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Ironically, South Beach is now threatened by its own success. Nightclubs and high-capacity hotels have begun to compromise the architectural integrity of the area. Developers are pushing for newer, more capacious buildings. Many former South Beach residents and businesses have moved to North Beach and Miami's Design District to escape tourist pressure and rising costs. The hope among preservationists is that a groundswell of affection for Miami Beach's unique architecture will once again save the area from ruin.

Illustration of the Floridian HotelAccording to Randall Robinson of the MDPL, Miami Beach as a whole represents a veritable catalogue of 20th century American architectural styles, from the pre-1920's structures and Deco buildings of South Beach to the 50's fantasies of Morris Lapidus in Middle Beach. Preservationists believe that turning attention toward the equally interesting Middle and North Beach neighborhoods can ease the strain on the Deco District. Meanwhile, development pressure continues throughout Miami beach, with 11 applications for buildings of 30 stories or higher filed in September of 1997 alone.

While Carl Fisher might not recognize the Miami Beach of today, bits and pieces of his legacy remain. Fisher's second home, a waterfront Mediterranean Revival mansion, still stands, as does his office building on Lincoln Road. The Carl Fisher Monument on Alton Road pays tribute to the raw force and promotional genius that transformed much of Miami Beach from a mangrove swamp into one of the great playgrounds of the Western World. And the spirit of Carl Fisher -- that which constantly demanded bigger, faster, flashier, and more luxurious -- lives on.

Postcards | America By Car | Miami Beach Today | Deco Miami Beach

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