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A Summer Study of Architecture in Miami

August 27, 2011

by Beth Ram

I have had the great pleasure of spending my summer in Miami Beach as a research intern for The Wolfsonian-FIU, a museum dedicated to European and American decorative arts and design from 1885 to 1945. A major project I worked on this summer was researching the jeweler Trabert & Hoeffer-Mauboussin, a New York based company with a shop in Miami Beach from the late 1930s to the mid 1950s, the heyday of this resort town. Through my research of the jeweler, I have uncovered a rich a interesting history of Miami Beach, which is best told through its architecture.

The architecture here is so visually striking that I made it my mission to learn more about it. After countless walks with my camera, and a very informative guided tour, I became versed in the architectural styles of Miami Beach. Most of the original buildings from the early to mid twentieth century are intact, providing a wealth of visual stimulation for a design historian like myself. Three main styles of architecture predominate Miami Beach: Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco, and Mid-Century Modern.

The Mediterranean Revival style was first used in hotels and resorts when Miami Beach first became a winter tourist attraction to wealthy northern visitors in the 1920s. Notable characteristics are columns, arched windows, and decorative iron work. Architects surely used this style to evoke an exotic and fantasy-like vision to appeal to vacationers.   While the style is used throughout South Beach, one street in particular, Espanola Way, is filled with this architecture. Another great Mediterranean Revival building is the famed Versace mansion on Ocean Drive.

The Art Deco style was used from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Architects in Miami Beach used a streamlined, moderne aesthetic in their art deco buildings, with symmetrical facades, and low relief panels with stylized designs of fountains, tropical flora, and fauna. The whimsical buildings are found mostly throughout South Beach, and continue to serve as hotels and apartments.

Mid-century modern came after World War II, and is best characterized by its clean lines and futuristic shapes. One of the best examples of mid-century modern on the beach is the iconic Fontainebleau, designed by Morris Lapidus in the 1950s.

The white sand beaches and nightlife are probably what most visitors will remember after their travels to Miami Beach, but I will look back on my trip with memories of its unparalleled history of architectural design. Next time you are vacationing in South Beach, be sure to look up and around because there is nothing like it anywhere else!

Beth Ram is currently pursuing a Master’s degree is the History of Decorative Arts and Design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum-Parsons The New School for Design where, upon graduating, she will specialize in 20th century American furniture and ceramics.

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