June Newbauer grew up on a tropical mangrove island that a New Jersey businessman thought would be good for a coconut plantation. The area had just been incorporated as a city — Miami Beach.
Her father, Henri Levy, was the founder and developer of the Normandy Isle neighborhood in North Beach and what is now the town of Surfside. He designed the neighborhood like the towns from his home country of France, with a fountain in the middle of a plaza and street names in French.
“The city maps were my coloring books,” Newbauer said. “He would tell me how to color-code the maps for zoning.”
The city of Miami Beach will celebrate its 100th birthday in March 2015. As part of the festivities, the city has asked local historian and author, Seth Bramson, to write a book about the city’s history. Bramson previewed his material last week at the newly opened Art Deco Museum on Ocean Drive, a project of the Miami Design Preservation League, which will host lectures, tours and panel discussions during the centennial celebration.
The museum, 1001 Ocean Dr., showcases three major historic design styles in the Beach: Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco and Miami Modern (MiMo). The museum also features fashion, models of some of the city’s signature buildings and a Miami Beach Visual Memoirs project, that is, oral histories of people who have played a part in Miami Beach’s history.
Shirley Fraser, who splits her time between Miami Beach and Great Britain, visited the exhibit with her husband and was enthralled.
“I love to get to know the history of my second home,’’ she said.
Bramson is exploring that history, with the help of people like Newbauer and other descendants of the Beach’s early settlers.
“I came to the city in the 1920s,” said Newbauer, who has given Bramson photographs, diaries and other artifacts. “We went to school in our bathing suits. My hair was always wet from swimming.”
Bramson, like Newbauer, grew up in Miami Beach and attended Miami Beach High School. His family moved here from New York in 1946.
An adjunct professor at Barry University, he has built an extensive historical collection over 57 years, which he keeps in his Miami Shores home. He has written about the founding families of the city — people like the Lum brothers, Henry and Charles, who discovered the mangrove island when sailing north from Key West in 1870. They bought the land for 35 cents an acre from the Florida Internal Improvement, a government agency charged with managing the swamp and overflow lands. (They’re not to be confused with the Lummus brothers, for whom Lummus Park in Miami and Miami Beach was named.)
Another key developer Bramson mentions is Carl Fisher, considered Miami Beach’s founder, who began acquiring land and developing Miami Beach in the early part of the 1900s. He helped complete the Collins Bridge, which at the time — 1913 — was the longest wooden bridge in the world, connecting Miami Beach to the mainland. It closed in 1925 and eventually became the Venetian Causeway.
Fisher brought down elephants, both for publicity and to help build major hotels like the Lincoln, Nautilus and Flamingo.
“It’s been a pretty damn good ride,” Bramson said. “It’s such a tight-knit community — you can’t ask for more than that.”
His wife, Myrna, also grew up in the city and remembers its idyllic ways.
“We would have classes outside,” she said. “We never worried about leaving a car door or a house open.”
The city has changed drastically since its incorporation 99 years ago. Its Art Deco and MIMO hotels have become a Hollywood fixture, starring in television shows such as Miami Vice to films like James Bond’s Goldfinger (the opening scene features the Fontainebleau); Robin Williams’ The Birdcage and the bloody Scarface, which was shot in the fictional Sun Ray Apartments on Ocean Drive and 13th Street, the place where the brother of Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino) was dismembered by chainsaw.
The city’s history also included training centers for troops during World War II and accommodating the influx of Cuban exiles in the ’60s after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
The city will have a four-day celebration in the week leading up to the official date of incorporation, March 26. The centennial executive producer, ACT Productions, is planning out the events for the 100-hour celebration, including concerts in March.
The city’s signature annual events — Art Basel, South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and Miami International Boat Show — will celebrate the centennial in their own ways. The Wine & Food Festival, for example, will promote 100 days of free giveaways from Oct. 20 through Jan. 28 and sponsor a cake design contest through December. The winning cake design will be unveiled at the February festival.
“The city is encompassing all cultural institutions in this celebration,” said Judith Frankel, director of programs an outreach for the preservation league.
If you go
The Art Deco Museum, 1001 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
From October to December, the Miami Design Preservation League will host the Art Deco Walking Tour at 10:30 a.m. daily, with an afternoon tour at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. The tour begins at the museum. The tour is $25 per person; $20 for students, seniors and military.