The Americas travel blog

The Breakwater

Off early today as we want to try and reach Miami by 10am to join an Art Deco walking tour. Traffic is bad on the highways but we don't get lost (yay) yet we only scrapeit in and park the car at 9.50. We run to the Essex House Hotel where the tours are due to leave from to find no tour guide or group waiting for a tour. We are directed to a building on the corner which is the Art Deco Welcome centre managed by the Art Deco Preservation Society. Fortunately they have a tour leaving at 10.30. Martin (a volunteer) is our guide and he walks us along the foreshore and explains to us about the 3 types of building construction used since the hurricane in 1926 which destroyed most of what was existing in Miami.

The historic area is awash with Deco 1920-39 , Mimo (Miami modern) and Mediterranean 1950-1965, nothing much was built in the war period (1940’s) and then fortunately a movement was formed to preserve these magnificent buildings. Strict controls were put in place to protect facades and make sure extensions were in keeping with the period but could not fool someone that is was an actual building of the era. Deco buildings came in two sizes, three storeys and under which did not require a lift and those over 3 storeys which had to install a lift. The classic Art Deco features of the buildings are, 3 sections to the facade, two identical on the side with the centre being taller raising the eye upwards. Many have features of transportation, eg portholes or as in The Breakwater the centre piece looks like the bow of a ship, breaking the waves, zigaretes and eyebrows (the lids over the windows to keep the sun out), no balconies and no outside space.

Further down Ocean Drive we pass by Gianni Versace’s house (Mimo). He bought it in the 1980’s and the Hotel next door. He then fought the council to knock down the Hotel so he could build a pool and cabana. He won a court case because the Hotel was built in 1950 and it could only be protected by law if it was built up until 1949. This was fortunate as it brought to light the importance of these buildings and a further 200 were saved. Versace was gunned down outside his house in 1997.

The Hotel Victor has an original 1930’s building that has an extension added in 2006 which includes a swimming pool. We enter the lobby to see the balustrade, typical Deco like the railings on a ship and lights, futuristic because this was when Buzz Light year became popular. There is also a painting of the everglades which was recently restored by the original artist (when he was 91yo) and when he painted it originally, he was not allowed to paint in an alligator but when he restored it, he couldn’t resist painting a small alligator in the right hand corner.

We walk past The Tides the biggest Deco structure of its day which is where Marilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio stayed. Then we see the masculine Deco building The Leslie which has straight lines and a good example of the roof top extension that can barely be seen from the front and the feminine Deco building The Carlyle which is more ornate and has a few curves. The interior of the Carlyle has a curved staircase and a balustrade, similar to that on a ship. All the floors are terrazzo as they helped cool the buildings and the floors showing either a compass or lines with arrows would give an indication to guests if there was gambling on the premises. Illegal gambling (organised crime) funded the construction of these Deco buildings as the Great Depression had meant banks would not lend for such speculative investments.

I love this period of architecture and to see so many buildings in a small area is a real treat. We eat lunch at The Breakwater. A vegetable wrap with chips for me a chicken wrap and chips for Phil. Sitting right on Ocean Drive was a great car watching spot. The locals paraded up and down in all sorts of fancy cars including the 3 wheeled Slingshot.

Time now to get back into the car and get to Key Largo the first key in the Florida keys. We negotiate the traffic quite well and don’t get lost! I guess once you get on Overseas Highway there aren’t too many other options. Key Largo is not the prettiest town. There are tacky shops either side of the highway, nothing nice and cute to see. There’s no time for anything else today so we head to a supermarket for some supplies and decide after having a big lunch we will stay in tonight and get some dip, cheese and biscuits, and beer.

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