MIAMI – Until recently, scene-seeking Miami visitors rarely trod north of 21st Street on oceanfront drag Collins Avenue. The Jimmy Choo-shod set strictly plied South Beach, playground of models, DJs and starlets. North Beach belonged to the sensibly clad, pensioners and early bird diners.
Time to recalibrate your style compass: North Beach is back.
Just as South Beach glammed up when its languishing architectural gems were rediscovered, so is North Beach’s renaissance a matter of preservation. The signature architectural style of the 1920’s and ’30’s, Art Deco influenced the southern tip of the barrier island when small, often square and symmetrical hotels were built with ornamental flourishes and piping, often in metal, that referenced the then-new technology of the age, including fast trains. By the ’80’s they were pass to all but a few fashion photographers who snapped the layouts that launched the revival of South Beach as a stylish enclave of hotels, nightclubs, and eateries tucked into newly refurbished historic buildings.
After World War II, the era of large-scale North Beach building, architects embraced modernism, the design movement of unadorned, often asymmetrical glass and steel buildings epitomized by “less is more” German architect Mies van der Rohe. But in South Florida, that international style was localized to the beach, resulting in curved surfaces rather than straight, sunny colors instead of drabs, and walls with Swiss cheese holes that both allowed in the ocean breezes and exposed a zany streak in the otherwise serious style. Fans here call it “MiMo,” short for Miami Modernism.
“MiMo is more flamboyant than other versions of modernism,” says Don Worth, vice chair of the Urban Arts Committee devoted to saving mid-century buildings characterized by concrete cantilevers, parabolic arches and roofs that seem to fly off their glass bases. “It’s inspired by jet planes and space ships. It was a period of experimental architecture. It was futuristic, optimistic.”
And it’s the talk of the town once again. After a two-year campaign, the volunteer-run Urban Arts Committee just won local historic status for Collins Avenue between roughly 60th and 71st streets, the new North Beach Resort Historic District. Modern landmarks are being readied for a new round of close-ups. Hotel world bigshots including Andre Balasz and Canyon Ranch are moving into MiMo rehabs.
“Miami Beach is experiencing another real-estate boom. If not for the historic designation many buildings would be in line for the wrecking ball,” says Worth.
The prime of Miami Beach resort development coincided with the modernist craze. Post-war prosperity rolled up the shore through the 1950’s and ’60’s, the era of big resort hotels where Rat Pack headliners performed. Marquee architect of the era Morris Lapidus designed both the 1956 Eden Roc Resort and its curvaceous 1954 neighbor the Fontainebleau Hilton, home to circular ceilings, massive chandeliers and dramatic staircases leading to nowhere. Both were recently renovated to take their lobbies back to their original designs.
Northward yet another 20 blocks, the newly designated North Beach Resort Historic District protects the Sherry Frontenac hotel, the kitschy Casablanca fronted by a row of turban-clad genies and the Deauville where the Beatles famously performed on the rooftop in 1964 in their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Arizona-based luxury spa group Canyon Ranch is currently renovating the historic and long-abandoned Carillon Hotel, once famous for its glass facade, as a condo-hotel and spa.
“We designed what we considered contemporary,” says Norman Giller, the original architect of the Carillon. “What makes Miami [architecture] different is we used lots of concrete and stucco, fluid materials that [enabled me to] work like a sculptor with clay, expressing fantasy ideas. We went through a mood of letting go.”
IF YOU GO …
The Miami Design Preservation League offers MiMo tours ($20) by appointment: 305-672-2014. For tours and maps of North Beach contact the North Beach Development Corp.: 305-865-4147.
Even Deco-centric South Beach harbors high-profile examples of the style. Russian migr Lapidus, whose autobiography entitled Too Much is Not Enough epitomizes his exuberant bent, designed the district’s trendy Lincoln Road mall, an outdoor pedestrian shopping concourse of patterned sidewalks, funky fountains and undulating concrete walls. Ironically the Miami Design Preservation League, which led the drive to save Miami’s Art Deco buildings, occupies a MiMo building from 1955.
Not far away, hip hotelier Andre Balazs, who owns the Raleigh here, New York’s Mercer and Standard hotels in Los Angeles, will debut another Standard this September in a resuscitated MiMo landmark, the Lido Spa. At the foot of Lincoln Road the just opened Ritz-Carlton South Beach has incorporated the existing Lapidus-designed 1953 DiLido Hotel, retaining the overall aesthetic, for instance, a curved lobby wall punctuated by 40 sconces, while dressing up the materials by trading stucco and plastic for rich wood and stainless steel.
“MiMo spaces are organic. They’re not symmetrical. It’s a more relaxed style and it’s really perfect for the beach,” says Zeke Fernandez, head designer of the SoBe Ritz.
To see MiMo sites tourists can sign onto by-arrangement-only tours with the MDPL. North Beach Development Corp. just launched its own itineraries in the new historic district and has published a free self-guided tour map to its highlights. MiMo aficionados also recommend taking camera and rental car and cruising mid-century neighborhoods including North Beach, nearby Bay Harbor and Miami’s Biscayne Boulevard.
“MiMo is the defining style of Miami,” says Teri D’Amico, adjunct professor in the architecture department at Florida International University, “and no one knows it.” Consider yourself notified.