FINDING MIMO – How The Deco Experience Helped Prepare For Appreciation For Miami Modern Architecture

While the indelible image of South Beach and Miami in general remains firmly affixed in the pastels of the Art Deco Historic District, tropical Deco is not the region’s only distinct style of architecture.

A second, arguably more diverse but less easily identifiable form of design has grown in popularity and recognition: post World War II architecture that is increasingly being known as “MiMo”, Miami Modern architecture.

Yet both preservationists and proponents of the style credit the Art Deco movement for empowering a campaign to increase awareness about these buildings and for paving the way for the creation of a protected MiMo architectural district in North Beach.

Perhaps even more playful than the Art Deco of South Beach, the MiMo of North Beach, Surfside and Bal Harbour, as well as areas of Biscayne Boulevard and elsewhere in Miami-Dade County, balances the infinite and unabashed optimism of its era (1945, 1965) with sleek and elegant styling and daring angles and lines. High-profile examples of MiMo include Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hilton, the Eden Roc, and the Carillon Hotel.

This uniquely American design style was immortalized in hundreds of buildings, ranging from single-family homes to apartment buildings to synagogues and hotels in the North Beach section of Miami Beach and even several New York City buildings, including the Metropolitan and Americana hotels, through the work of such architects as Morris Lapidus and Norman Giller.

Whereas buildings from the early-mid 20th century mirrored the lines of locomotives and ocean liners, MiMo structures benefited from the new, sleek design of high speed jet aircraft.

In 2001, Miami-Dade County’s Urban Arts Council unveiled a photographic exhibition of MiMo architecture, after such an exhibit was requested for display by the Municipal Art Society in New York City. The subsequent acclaim, and continued efforts by preservationists, have earned MiMo wide recognition and growing acceptance as a significant indigenous style that will only increase appreciation of the design of the American epoch of the 1950’s to 1970’s.

Still, neither recognition of MiMo nor the term happened until around 1998.

“I’d always been interested in mid-century modern design,” said Randall Robinson, a preservationist formerly with Miami Beach Development Corporation and now the executive director of the North Beach Development Corporation. “At a certain point, Deco preservation became like motherhood and apple pie. The challenges were elsewhere. We began to focus on post-war architecture and coined the term “MiMo” in 1998.”

That initial recognition stemmed directly from the efforts of and associations made through the Miami Design Preservation League. That is where Robinson said he first worked with local designer and preservationist Teri D’Amico.

“We have a love of beautiful architecture and design in common,” Robinson said. “Our interests were not limited to Miami Beach or to Art Deco, though. Miami Modern was a natural extension of the Art Deco preservation movement. The more I learned about 1930’s tropical Deco, the more I wanted to keep learning and studying the architecture beyond 23rd Street.”

Nancy Liebman, a former Miami Beach commissioner and president of the Urban Environment League, agreed that the emphasis on architecture brought about by the success of the Art Deco preservation movement left people open to other forms.

“I think because there was a preservation ethnic here and people were focused on architecture, it made the whole community pay attention,” Liebman said. She compared Robinson and D’Amico to the “founders” of the Art Deco movement.

However, while books have been authored on the subject (including by Robinson and D’Amico) and exhibits installed, there is not a singular MiMo “District” per se or even a singular representative structure. As a result, recognition of MiMo is not likely to have the same economic and tourism development effects as did Deco. The reason: MiMo treasures are distributed across the county and not concentrated in any one single area.

“That’s the real difference between Deco and MiMo,” said prominent local historian Professor Paul George. “The Art Deco District is in a unique compact space and MiMo is not.”

Robinson also defined the greatest difference between the two movements geographically. “There are many little pockets and even individual examples of MiMo all across South Florida,” Robinson said. “We do have a stretch of hotels on Collins Avenue between 63rd Street and 71st Street that are protected. There are many small MiMo Districts and people want to see similarities between it and Deco, but this is a major difference.”

Using such examples as the Dilido, the Saxony and even Lincoln Road itself, Robinson explained that establishing a contiguous MiMo District “a la the Art Deco District” is simply not practical in most places.

“It was so much the Deco itself that was the economic generator, it was the irresistible scale and sensitivity that’s at the root,” Robinson said. He said such a cohesive “human scale” simply ceased to exist after World War II.

“Places like Kane Concourse, 125th Street in North Miami, and some other places have concentrations [of MiMo], but nowhere is there that density of housing,” Robinson said.

Still, Robinson said he believes MiMo designation is becoming more prevalent.

“It’s already been happening with the North Beach Historic District, the Vagabond Motel in Miami and Bay Harbor appears headed that way as well,” he said. “Just looking at North Miami is impressive. North Miami is a treasure trove of MiMo, they have high style MiMo on 125th Street and low-scale up and down West Dixie Highway. It’s an incredible collection.”

On North Beach, where there is the greatest concentration of MiMo buildings, news ranges from the good (sensitive property owners) to the not so good (demolition by neglect, complete demolition, etc.)

Liebman said that while some structures and areas are protected, others are not.

“If these structures are not protected they will go,” Liebman said. “I am thrilled they preserved the Harding Township and are now talking about other districts. There are absolutely parts that should be preserved.”

Some in North Beach in particular resist MiMo designation for various reasons, Liebman said.

“Some people say they don’t want to be like South Beach and I think they miss the point that historic preservation doesn’t have anything to do with [how it is applied],” she said.

Others simply have the same perspective some property owners, city fathers and developers had. “It’s the same mentality: that more is always better,” she said.

Liebman said that the opening of the under-restoration Carillon would be a step in the right direction.

“Right now it is wide open [on North Beach], but thankfully there is not a lot of development taking place there,” Liebman said. “When the Carillon opens, I think it will jump start things.”

Whatever the similarities between Art Deco and MiMo, advocates universally are dubious that there will ever be one specific MiMo “District” that will lead to the sort of economic benefits that fueled first South Beach’s renaissance and, later, Miami across the bay. Not that they feel the clever style doesn’t warrant it, but, rather, because of its widespread existence throughout the entire region.

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