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The term Art Deco was coined by historian Bevis Hillier in 1968 to describe early 20th century modern design. The title is French in origin, derived from the celebrated 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Two words in the exposition's title—industrial and modern—define much of what the style is about.

The Paris exposition sought to combine the ambitions of the earlier Arts and Crafts Movement with industrial technology. The result was a new, rich style of ornamentation made up of sharp, angular geometric forms and stylized natural designs. Art Deco also developed as a very "modern" style. As technology and invention sped forward during the decades following World War I, the new century seemed to demand a more modern style.

Architects were encouraged to find their inspiration not from the forms of the past but in the machine-produced designs of the present. Out of this love affair with technology and modernism came the Art Deco architectural style. With their flat roofs, smooth stucco walls and distinctly modern look, most Art Deco buildings are usually easy to spot. But there is some variety in the style, and architectural historians usually divide Art Deco into two major periods: decorated (1926-1936) and Streamline (the 1930s).

The two names give clues for what to look for. In the first period, Art Deco buildings are highly ornamented, especially around entrances, windows and along rooflines, and use the abstract, angular or floral ornament taken from the 1925 Paris exposition. If you see these kind of details, even ifthey're very simple, you're almost certainly looking at a classic early Art Deco building.

In the second, more sober Streamline period popular during the Great Depression, buildings usually have very little ornamentation and have a very flat, machine-like look. Hallmarks of this phase of Art Deco include rounded corners, banded stripes, porthole windows and lots of glass block.

Although Art Deco buildings can be found throughout Florida, no place is as synonymous with the style as South Miami Beach. During the 1930s, while much of the nation suffered through the Great Depression, Miami Beach's new tourist-driven economy boomed. A small number of architects designed hundreds of buildings in the up-to-date Art Deco style that went up during the 1930s, giving this part of the Beach a remarkably uniform appearance.

South Beach's popularity began to decline in the 1960s as tourists moved to newer destinations farther north. By the 1970s, the district teetered on the edge of oblivion. Like some lost, enchanted city, its buildings were badly deteriorating and seemed ripe for demolition. To its rescue came the Miami Design Preservation League.Founded in 1976, the League worked tirelessly to promote the Beach's Art Deco Historic District under the leadership of its indefatigable founder, Barbara Baer Capitman.

George Neary, MDPL's executive director, recalls Capitman's vision for the district: "She helped us to see the invisible so we could do the impossible." Today, the impossible has happened and South Beach is one of the most trendy pieces of real estate in the world.

To help find your way around this international hot spot, visit the Miami Design Preservation League's Welcome Center on Ocean Drive. For a self-guided introduction to the Art Deco Historic District, pick up the League's new audio cassette tour, put on your favorite walking shoes or rollerblades (locals swear it's the best way to getaround), grab the sun tan lotion and go!

Ocean Drive is South Beach's most well-known street and makes the perfect starting point for your tour. The Drive's ten blocks of small, pastel-colored hotels, now brimming with cafes, shops, restaurants and clubs, form a sort of whimsical stage set for the Beach.

Here are the streamlined corners of the Cardozo and Carlyle Hotels, the delicate floral ornament of the Cavalier and the towering modernistic sign of the Breakwater. By night, the hotels dance with neon and colored lights: red and white on the Beacon, orange on the Edison, blue on the Colony and gold on the Leslie.

South Beach's Art Deco treasures go beyond Ocean Drive. There's the Essex House and the Tiffany and Tudor Hotels, with their Buck Rogers rocket-like spires, the nautically-inspired Beach Patrol Station seemingly ready to set sail, the magnificent restored rotunda of the U.S. Post Office and the elegant Bass Museum of Art. Also look for the smaller details that give South Beach its distinctly tropical resort flair: porthole windows and deck-like balconies; "eyebrow" sun shades above exterior windows; and etched glass, relief sculpture and even metal screen doors depicting palm trees, flamingos, pelicans, mermaids and sunbursts.

The efforts to preserve South Beach's Art Deco Historic District continue. As exciting a place as South Beach has become, the Miami Design Preservation League is cautious about the district becoming lost in its new-found notoriety. "The only thing of permanence we really have here is the historic district," says MDPL board member Michael Kinerk. "Obviously we can't remain the hottest or hippest place on earth forever, but if we do our job right, the district will still be here when the Beach comes back down to earth again.

article provided by Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Heritage Magazine, Michael Zimny

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