Thursday, November 21, 2013

Tropical Art Deco

The Betsy, Miami Beach.
Miami Beach is known for its long sandy beach on the Atlantic Ocean and its long rows of hotels, from funky designer to kitsch conference. But its best attraction is its Tropical Art Deco architecture, much of which has been restored after becoming run down and semi-abandoned. The old queens have been tidied up and turned into pastel-trimmed hotels.

Want to stay in one? Just know that the room will be quite small, the original fittings (if they're still there) will be painted wood or funny old metal-framed windows. There may be a few noises in the night through the thin walls. But the facades and lobbies of these beauties are generally wonderfully tizzied up, often with palms, billowing sheer white curtains, lazy punka-fans, cane chairs on the wooden porches, art, rockers, tropical print fabrics and colour, colour, colour.

Here's the official description of Miami's Art Deco style and its origins:
Miami Beach’s building boom came during the second phase of Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne, which began with the stock market crash and ended in most cases with the outbreak of World War II. It was less decorative—a more sober reflection of the Great Depression. It relied more on machine-inspired forms, and American ideas in industrial design. It was buttressed by the belief that times would get better and was infused with the optimistic futurism extolled at America’s Worlds Fairs of the 1930s.
Stripped Classic or Depression Moderne was a sub-style often used for governmental buildings, the U.S. Post Office being the best example in Miami Beach. Miami Beach architects used local imagery to create what we now call Tropical Deco. These buildings feature relief ornamentation featuring whimsical flora, fauna and ocean-liner motifs to reinforce the image of Miami Beach as a seaside resort. 
What to look for:
Over-all symmetry, ziggurat (stepped) rooflines, glass block, decorative sculptural panels, eyebrows, round porthole windows, terrazzo floors, curved edges and corners, elements in groups of three, neon lighting (used in both exteriors as well as interior spaces).
On my visit to Miami Beach recently, I stayed in one of the grand old ladies, The Besty. She's a fine white wooden building facing the beach, but she's not Tropical Art Deco. Although originally built in the same era, she's in American Colonial style. The hotel website gives the history of the building, originally called "The Betsy Ross", and still displaying that name:
Miami's South Beach is one of the most famous architectural districts in the world, and The Betsy Hotel distinguishes itself from the curvy geometric patterns and clean lines of its Art Deco neighbours by relying on classic formations. With its expansive four-column portico and signature shuttered windows, The Betsy evokes traditional colonial architecture. But it was designed and created by the same man, L. Murray Dixon, responsible for the majority of the most famous hotels in the area built in the Art Deco style. 
Sit on the porch?
The 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in the 1920’s ushered in a period of nostalgia for the early years of the nation. John D Rockefeller’s restoration of Colonial Williamsburg was a prime case in point. Completed in the 1930s, it served as a catalyst for other historic preservation efforts around the country. The past was renovated and gussied up, perhaps to magnify it as a way of renewing the faith of Americans struggling to emerge from the Great Depression. Everything from restaurants to furniture was re-created in a colonial image, and even Hollywood provided its powerful endorsement of colonial style...When Dixon got around to considering how best to embrace the colonial chic of the moment, he turned to Betsy Ross. Opened in South Beach in 1942, The Betsy Ross Hotel stood out all the more for its stark yet graceful contrast to Dixon's Art Deco masterworks. 

Loll in the lobby?
South Beach is home to the famed Art Deco District, an area with over 800 Art Deco buildings from the 1930s and 40s and one which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. As you stroll down Ocean Drive, you’ll recognise Art Deco buildings by their gentle pastel colours, which contrast with architecture that is rigid and cubistic. Enjoy the unique ornaments and decorations too that include nautical motifs, neon lines, and terrazzo floors. (Betsy, too, has a Terrazzo Floor; while the hotel underwent a complete restoration in 2009, the Lobby's hand-laid Terrazzo floor was retained and restored to its original lustre.) 
Today, The Betsy Hotel's exterior stands as the lone surviving example of Florida Georgian architecture on Ocean Drive.  Yet contrary to typical colonial design, the interior design is bright, open and connected: Dixon took liberties with proportions while interpreting the colonial form.  In his re-conception of textbook colonial, he created not an opposite that didn't fit, but rather a counterpoint that did then, and still does now.

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