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A battle over the soul of Miami Beach: Will developers destroy or save Art Deco?

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Veronica Zaragovia
Miami Beach's Art Deco dominates the skyline on Collins Avenue

Miami Beach is known for its colorful Art Deco buildings. But more and more, only real estate developers are willing to spend the money it takes to preserve them — if they can build a tall, high-end residential tower on the property. This strategy saves at least part of the old buildings but changes the skyline forever.

WLRN's Verónica Zaragovia reports on the simmering tensions over historic preservation in an evolving city — throughout the last century and today.

A conflict over the future of Miami Beach

HistoryMiami Museum
The Raleigh, at 1777 Collins Ave., as photographed in the Miami News on April 21, 1946.

Cities around the world have landmark buildings, like the Sydney Opera House in Australia or the Empire State Building in New York.

Miami Beach doesn’t have just one, but hundreds of Art Deco buildings — so many that they define the look of the city.

This is something LIFE magazine noticed as far back as December of 1947, when it published 12 pages showcasing the glamour of Miami Beach's Art Deco hotels. The spread included an aerial shot of the Raleigh Hotel, at Collins Avenue and 18th Street.

The world-famous hotel has been shuttered since 2017 because of damage from Hurricane Irma. A plan is underway to reopen and save it — by adding a condominium tower near it, close to the beach side.

But preservationists worry this will change the city's picturesque, postcard-like skyline.

The push to redevelop the Raleigh and two other historic hotels nearby became the focus of a September 2020 meeting of the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board.

State Archives of Florida
Close-up view of the South Seas (left) and Marseilles (center) on Collins Ave. in Miami Beach circa 1969.

"This project brings the Raleigh back to its former glory, opening up the cupola, opening the Raleigh pool," said Alfredo J. Gonzalez, an attorney for the real estate development company SHVO, one of the owners of the Raleigh and its two neighboring buildings. "The Richmond and South Seas have an opportunity to have a better development than has been proposed in the past."

The new owners of the Raleigh, the South Seas and Richmond hotels wanted to construct a glass condominium building near it on the property. It was a controversial proposal: to build an angular tower in a city known for its curved lines.

This proposal by a developer to buy a historic but rundown Art Deco building to restore some portion of the original structure and also build a lucrative condo tower alongside it, is happening again and again.

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Matias J. Ocner
The Miami Herald
BEFORE: This is an aerial view (from left to right) of The Raleigh, Richmond Hotel and South Seas Hotel near Collins Avenue and 18th Street on July 29, 2022, in Miami Beach. Developer Michael Shvo has a partial demolition of two of the hotels underway.

Like the Faena House next to the Faena Hotel, which used to be the Saxony, on 3201 Collins Ave., or a restoration project underway at the Versailles Hotel, 3425 Collins Ave., which will include a condo tower alongside it. The Setai, at 20th Street and Collins Avenue, already has a 40-story condo tower by the boutique hotel from 1936.

Historic buildings cost a lot to repair, and if a wealthy developer doesn't do it, possibly no one will.

"The purpose of having this [condo] building is to save the Raleigh," said Nancy Liebman, who was a Historic Preservation Board member at the time.

But others who lined up virtually to speak via Zoom during the meeting warned that development like this would destroy what makes Miami Beach special.

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AFTER: Rendering of the finished project by SHVO to redevelop Miami Beach Art Deco hotels THE Raleigh, The Richmond and South Seas.

"People don’t come here to film big glass towers. They come here to film the historic buildings," said Miami Beach resident and preservationist Herb Sosa. Architect Steven Avdakov, who also lives in the city, put it this way: "It’s not preservation. It's demolition."

Historic preservation offers little common ground between the two sides: Either people stand against modern buildings changing the old skyline, or they support new development. And the opposing views expressed at this meeting represent the conflict over Miami Beach's future.

All three of these hotels were designed by Lawrence Murray Dixon in the 1940s. Under the plan that was being debated at this meeting, the development company SHVO would restore their original facades. The Raleigh would once again open as a hotel, with guest access to the famous pool. Most of the rears of the South Seas and Richmond would be demolished to make room for the new condominium tower.

The board approved the plan, but voted to limit the tower to 175 feet, from the original plan of 200 feet. Two years later, in August 2022, a bulldozer began tearing down the back of the Richmond.

Boom and bust: Art Deco rises in Miami Beach

The world originally became acquainted with Art Deco during the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925.

But at the turn of the 20th century, Miami Beach was a swampy, mangrove-covered jungle boasting mostly deserted, wind-swept beaches.

Enter Carl Fisher, a visionary automobile industrialist from Indianapolis, who saw the potential for a glamorous tourist resort. He had the mangroves cleared out for development after the city was first incorporated in 1915.

A few years later, he paid for a billboard in New York's Times Square advertising Miami Beach as a paradise for the wealthy, as explained in a WLRN documentary about him called The Man Who Built Miami Beach.

HistoryMiami Museum
U.S. soldiers in training on Miami Beach, outside Art Deco buildings that became barracks during World War II.

Tourism began to dry up, though, after a Category 4 hurricane in 1926 killed hundreds of people in greater Miami. Then came the Great Depression in 1929.

Shortly after the Depression, Miami Beach was rebuilt in the popular style at the time: Art Deco.

"After the hurricane and the depression of '29 begins, those owners sell out," said historian Michael Hughes. Property owners on Miami Beach were desperate, and stopped discriminating against Jewish buyers who were restricted in where they could live and buy land.

"So that desperation ended up being a boon for Miami Beach, and it wasn't that people came here rich. They came here, and let's say two or three families came together and started building small hotels," said Hughes, who is also a development director at the Wolfsonian-FIU, a museum in Miami Beach focusing on design and decorative arts.

These small hotels were built on a budget. But the style — and affordability — caught on.

State Archives of Florida
Postcard featuring hotels along Collins Avenue in Miami Beach in1948. From left to right: National Hotel, Sands Hotel, New Yorker Hotel, St. Moritz Hotel, The Shore Crest, and Hotel Bancroft.

"It was a boom and bust town. There wasn't a huge focus on getting quality materials and quality construction," said Debbie Tackett, Miami Beach's architecture and preservation officer.

Elmer Keller
State Archives of Florida
View of Art Deco hotels on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach in June of 1966.

In the late 1930s, the tourists showed up, although they were not the ones Fisher envisioned.

"These were very modest travelers. It was their one vacation a year," said Hughes, the Art Deco historian. "They were leaving a rough and tumble New York City just to have two weeks in the sun."

During World War II, Clark Gable was already an actor when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He and other soldiers were stationed in Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels, which were converted to army barracks, during training.

Then, from the 1950s to the '70s, the small Art Deco buildings became homes for mostly Jewish retirees.

But when political activist and preservationist Barbara Capitman moved here from New York, she was appalled by the rundown state of the buildings. She started the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976 alongside other activists, including Leonard Horowitz.

Capitman and her peers worked to get one square mile of Art Deco buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 — a designation that helped incentivize building owners to restore them with a 20% tax credit from the federal government.

Horowitz got dozens of these drab buildings painted in pastel colors in the 1980s.

But efforts to save these buildings didn’t always work. The New Yorker hotel, for instance, came down in 1982. "One can never forgive somebody who tears down a building like the New Yorker," Capitman said in a short film about her called Barbara's Crusade.

End of the century: Pop culture takes note

Andy Warhol
Kathy Willens/AP
Andy Warhol snaps a photo in the courtyard of the Amsterdam Palace hotel (later the Versace Mansion) during a tour of Miami Beach's Art Deco District, Sept. 6, 1980.

Capitman used her vast connections to gain nationwide attention for Miami Beach's Art Deco buildings. She gave a tour of the historic district to Andy Warhol in 1980. In 1985, the Art Deco Breakwater Hotel was used in a Calvin Klein campaign.

The hit TV show Miami Vice filmed many scenes with Art Deco buildings in the backdrop. In one episode, the heartthrob undercover detectives played by actors Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson ran into the Senator Hotel, which was located at Collins Avenue and 12th Street. They were on their way to a drug bust.

In 1988, though, the building’s owners decided to demolish the Senator and put a parking lot in its place.

One high profile attempt to stop its complete demise was similar to what developers propose nowadays — minus the glass tower.

"Barbara pushed me. I was one one of her foot soldiers," said Thorn Grafton, an architect whose expertise includes preservation and sustainable design. He helped Capitman try to stop the total destruction of the Senator.

He remembers that after the demolition had begun, they had to pause to inspect for asbestos. Capitman saw the fragment of the Senator that remained and asked Grafton to do a rendering that proposed keeping the exterior walls of the hotel and putting the parking lot behind it. He worked on it and took it into the owner's office, he said, as television news reporters waited outside.

It was unsuccessful. "So I went back to Barbara and the cameras and said, 'They're not going to do it,'" he said.

But even as some of the buildings started to come down, Art Deco continued to show up on screen — like in a 1988 music video for Elton John's "A Word in Spanish," movies like Miami Rhapsody and The Birdcage in the mid-1990s, and the video for Will Smith's 1997 song, "Welcome to Miami."

Preservationists hoped the attention through pop culture would build support for maintaining the buildings — but that fame also attracted developers. In the 1990s, condo towers started going up on Miami Beach.

Today: 'Hardcore' preservationists vs. developers

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Wilfredo Lee
An antique car is parked next to the Avalon hotel on Ocean Drive's Art Deco strip in Miami Beach, on March 25, 2020.

"How can you have a historic district when you're knocking down buildings?" said George Neary, a longtime Art Deco preservationist who compares these unique buildings to the pyramids in Egypt.

"One of the developers comes up and says: 'You're not making enough money off of this. So what I suggest is that we pull out the back, where no one can see. We'll save the bricks because we're preservationists. We'll put them over here and take care of them. And we'll open Cleopatra's restaurant. That way, no one's the wiser. You're using the pyramids for its most use, and that way will make money. Everyone will be happy while you're desecrating a UNESCO treasure.'"

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Veronica Zaragovia
The Leslie Hotel on Ocean Drive, built in the Miami Beach Art Deco style.

During this interview, Neary wore a black cap with the word “cool" spelled out in multicolored rhinestones. He's worn a lot of hats in Miami Beach.

In the 1990s, he led the Miami Design Preservation League, the organization that Capitman started to fight for Miami Beach's historic buildings. Neary has also worked as the associate vice president of cultural tourism for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"People don't come here to see Fort Lauderdale high rises," he said. "They don't come here to see Daytona high rises. They don't come here to go to Orlando."

Neary is part of a group of preservationists who are inspired to continue Capitman's legacy.

Preservationist Matti Bower credits Capitman with motivating her to see how important these buildings are for Miami Beach. Bower was a city commissioner and later served three terms as mayor until 2013. "I learned through her eyes and through her knowledge, and became a preservationist," Bower told WLRN.

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Veronica Zaragovia
Art Deco hotels on Miami Beach's Ocean Drive.

To her, developers are "destroying the goose that lays the golden egg."

She said: "The whole point is not to stop development. The whole point is to keep the historic district unique, to keep something of the beach that people will want to come and visit."

The city's position is that Miami Beach has to keep evolving, rather than become a museum city.

Alyssa Ramos
The Breakwater Hotel, on Miami Beach's Ocean Drive.

Debbie Tackett, the city's architecture and preservation officer, puts the onus on owners to do their part to save the Art Deco buildings.

"We don't see needed repairs being done to a lot of the historic buildings, so that should be a concern to everyone who doesn't want it to change," Tackett said.

"The historic buildings that we have on the beach, especially the ones built in the '30s, are expensive to maintain. They’re expensive to repair," she said. "A lot of times, you have to go in the inside and completely restructure buildings. You need to have new columns, you have to reinforce the foundation — for it to be robust for the future."

When buildings are allowed to fall into disrepair, it creates an opportunity for developers to propose a partial restoration effort coupled with a lucrative residential tower.

"[Developers] could never squeeze out enough money from the little historic buildings. That's why they say they have to have this new big glass and steel tower next to it," said Jack Finglass, a past chair of the city’s historic preservation board and a self-described "hardcore" preservationist.

"I can see their point, but the city is not helping the situation any by not giving them relief to keep what we've got the way we have it," he said.

'Once it's gone, you can't bring it back'

On a recent sunny day Melinda Berman, a volunteer Art Deco tour guide with the Miami Design Preservation League, gathered a group of tourists near the nonprofit's office on Ocean Drive to show off some of the most famous buildings still around.

She explained that architects in Miami Beach had taken the Art Deco style that originated in Europe and added their own twists.

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Lynne Sladky
Art deco design hotels are bathed in neon light on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Fla.

"The rule of threes — the two symmetrical sides and the center rising taller in the middle — we’re gonna see that over and over again in Art Deco," Berman said during the tour. "See those little shelves over the windows? We call those 'eyebrows,' to shade the rooms from the sun."

She was thrilled to spread the word to visitors who came from all over the country and the globe, including France, Ireland and Singapore.

"During COVID, it was just local people. People didn't travel very far. And so this was exciting today to have people from outside the country," Berman told WLRN.

She herself moved to Miami Beach from the Boston area some 20 years ago and continues as entranced by the city and its iconic buildings as the visitors. "I love the vibrancy of it," she said. "I love obviously the history of it. And it's just an amazing place to be."

At this crucial juncture, architect Thorn Grafton — the great grandson of Miami Beach pioneer John S. Collins, after whom Collins Avenue is named — hopes that any new buildings that go up help preserve Miami Beach's sense of place.

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Miami Herald Archive
Welcome to Miami Beach sign

Grafton has worked on various restoration projects of art deco buildings, after helping Barbara Capitman's efforts to save many of the beach's iconic buildings.

"That’s the skyline of Miami Beach," Grafton said. "You see the Delano and the National and all these great hotels with their little towers and turrets and domes, and each one a slightly different height — it’s just so picturesque."

It looks like like a postcard, he added — and he doesn't want it to fade.

Neither does Finglass.

"Once any historic area goes, it's gone, and you can't bring it back," Finglass said. "That's the sad part of it. You either win what you win or you lose pretty much everything. It's a slippery slope."

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Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station.