Miami Beach

The 100-year story of Miami Beach

Ocean Drive Art Deco District on Miami Beach.
Ocean Drive Art Deco District on Miami Beach. Herald staff

In the beginning there was a slender sandspit of mangroves and swamp, mosquitoes and crocodiles, palmetto scrub and sea-stroked beach.

And Carl Fisher said, “let dry ground appear.” So he spent a good part of his fortune to put fearsome machines to work for 15 years pumping up muck from Biscayne Bay, and it was so. Carl Fisher called the dry ground “Miami Beach” and saw it was good, and so did millions of people after him.

So thoroughly did founding father Fisher and his crews erase most traces of nature from what writer Polly Redford dubbed the Billion-Dollar Sandbar that it’s easy to forget today, as Miami Beach marks its centennial as an incorporated city in characteristically hyped-up fashion, just how completely a manufactured place it is.

Even the famed wide sandy beach is artificial, barged in from offshore in a latter-day echo of Fisher’s land-making. The one nature put there washed away years ago, its erosion accelerated by construction of the endless parade of hotels that made Miami Beach Miami Beach.

Yet as human inventions go, the Beach has been an outlandishly successful one, having turned itself in a century of compressed but eventful history from millionaire’s caprice to global darling after rising Lazarus-like from near death.

In its former peak, a period from from the late 1940s to the early ’60s in which it devised and perfected the modern resort hotel and mass tourism, Miami Beach was America’s Playground. It is now the world’s — a dynamic magnet for people and their money, a sparkling showcase of architecture old and new, an international shopping bazaar, a gourmandizer’s paradise and, much to the amazement of its natives, a cultural standard-bearer.

In short, Miami Beach on its 100th birthday has completed its most miraculous transformation: “It’s a real place,” said Beach native Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson Jr., founder of its Wolfsonian-FIU museum, a gem in a crown that includes the New World Symphony and its Frank-Gehry designed home, Miami City Ballet’s headquarters, a reinvigorated and soon-to-expand Bass Museum, and the annual Art Basel/Miami Beach extravaganza.

“It’s not just the beach anymore. We have cultural stimulation, and the arts and gastronomy,” Wolfson, 75, said. “No one could have believed or imagined the town would have become a full, year-round destination and a place where people are making their lives. It has gone from a small-town resort to a great city.”

Sea rise threat

And, without question, one facing some very real challenges, the greatest being the rising seas that threaten to overwhelm the low-lying city within the lifetime of today’s young clubgoers. Nature’s revenge is forcing Miami Beach to reinvent itself once more as the city again finds itself at the forefront of something entirely new.

Mayor Philip Levine has convened a special committee to draw up a response plan to sea-level rise that looks at everything from raising streets and creating protective berms to building more pumps to draw water out, while raising buildings and their plumbing, electrical and mechanical equipment in the air to make them less vulnerable to flooding.

It might even require, some experts say, artificial beaches along the bayside that Fisher had built up, which lies lower than the natural beachfront, as a barrier against flooding. Fire up the dredges!

Then there are the consequences of untrammeled popularity on a narrow, built-out peninsula: the automobile traffic that chokes the city’s streets and causeways at all hours; the speculators demolishing the trove of unprotected 1920 Mediterranean manses that defined its neighborhoods, to be replaced by mega-mansions for mega-millionaires; and the increasing development pressures in historic commercial districts like Lincoln Road and Washington Avenue that preservationists fear could doom the human scale and unique sense of place they fought so hard to protect.

“It was the preservation movement that made this all happen, the realization of what a beautiful place it was and that the buildings were outstanding,” said preservationist and former Beach commissioner Nancy Liebman. “But some people say we created a monster. Now we have people jumping in to take advantage of the success and the worldwide attention, and the sustainability of the city is questionable, between the flooding, the congestion and the overdevelopment.”

Just look at the numbers compiled by the city: After losing population for years, the Beach has rebounded some of the way back to just over 90,000 full-time residents. Once you add in seasonal residents, tourists, day trippers and workers, the number of people in the city on any given day more than doubles to around 203,000 — nearly all of them hunting for a place to park.

That’s a problem many cities wish they had, Beach boosters note. But, to be sure, the noise and vitality of the Beach today is nothing like what Fisher, his contemporary J.N. Lummus or even Barbara Capitman, the preservationist who led the campaign in the ’70s and ’80s that saved South Beach and thus the city itself, ever envisioned, one historian says.

“Over 100 years, it’s gone from a swamp to a madhouse,” Howard Kleinberg, author of Miami Beach: A History, said — only half in jest. “Now it’s going in another direction. It gets glitzier and glitzier every day.

“Any history written about Miami Beach should be placed in a loose-leaf binder, because it changes all the time. You would have to tear out the pages and start over again. Miami Beach is so temporary. Yet it’s still there. I don’t know how you go about explaining that.”

Quakers hit the beach

And to think it all started with sober Quakers.

Around the turn of the last century, John Collins, a prosperous Quaker farmer from New Jersey, and his son-in-law Thomas Pancoast took over a failing coconut plantation that Henry Lum and his Quaker partners, Elnathan Field and Ezra Osborne, had established on the sandbar in the 1880s. It was the first attempt at building something permanent on the overlooked wilderness across Biscayne Bay from the fledgling city of Miami.

Collins and Pancoast converted the plantation to an avocado grove. When that venture stalled, they pivoted anew. By then entrepreneurs had built two bathing “casinos” on what is now South Beach, bringing in Miamians by ferry. Collins devised the idea of building a wooden bridge, the longest in the world, to connect to the mainland as a way to begin developing their land.

By 1912, with the bridge halfway done, they ran short of money and turned to Fisher, a manically energetic automobile entrepreneur and founder of the Indianapolis 500 race, who was wintering on Miami’s Brickell Avenue. Fisher put up $50,000 to finish the bridge, located where the Venetian Causeway stands today, and got 200 acres of their beach land. From that base, Fisher began building an empire of grand hotels and oceanfront estates, fueled by his millions, boundless ambition and a knack for promotional stunts that would grab America’s attention.

Fisher also built the Dixie Highway to bring people from Michigan to Miami Beach’s doorstep — but only the right people. Adhering to the legal and social discrimination of the day, none of the early Beach developers sold to blacks, and big “Gentiles Only” signs on the hotels and apartment houses kept Jews out. Only the Lummus brothers, who developed an area south and just north of Fifth Street, welcomed Jews.

Fisher made exceptions for wealthy Jews, some of whom were close friends.

“Fisher saw two kinds of Jews,” Kleinberg said. “With Fisher it was money.”

Development of the Beach exploded after the end of World War I, brought completion of the County Causeway (now the MacArthur) in 1920, the dawn of the Roaring ’20s and Miami and Miami Beach’s infamous boom. As America discovered Miami Beach, hotels would be jammed full as soon as they opened.

It wouldn’t last. Fisher lost his fortune on an ill-fated attempt to create another Miami Beach on Long Island, and then the 1926 hurricane put an abrupt stop to the boom. The subsequent stock market crash of 1929 had one beneficial effect: Restrictions on Jews began easing as developers became increasingly desperate for sales, though they would not be legally lifted until after World War II, and some persisted until a landmark 1959 Florida Supreme Court decision.

For blacks it was another matter. For years the city required all Beach hotel workers to carry I.D. cards, but black workers were subject to a curfew that required them to be off streets in white areas after dark. Locals still recall black workers walking across the Venetian Causeway at dusk on their way home to Overtown well into the 1960s. Even famed entertainers like Nat King Cole left the Beach after performing to sleep in Overtown and later Liberty City.

But Beach authorities were happy to overlook other rules. By the time Chicago mobster Al Capone came to town in 1928, in the middle of Prohibition, the Beach was a wide-open town for gambling and illegal booze. Fisher himself loaded his yachts with liquor in Bimini. Gangsters and bookies operated mostly unmolested until hearings by the Kefauver Commission in 1950 prompted a crackdown, scattering figures such as Meyer Lansky south to Havana.

The Beach did recover early from the Great Crash, however. Americans’ appetite for Beach getaways survived the Depression only somewhat diminished, leading to the construction in the 1930s of the hundreds of small yet distinctive Streamline Moderne apartment houses and hotels that today make up the city’s signature Art Deco District, the heart of South Beach.

Only the advent of World War II, and the merchant ships that burned and sank in full view of the beach after being torpedoed by German U-Boats in the Gulf Stream, stalled the city’s tourist trade. Blackouts were imposed on the Beach, and nearly every hotel room was turned over to the government to house thousands of military recruits brought to the Beach for training. Those recruits helped fuel a new boom when they came back for good to the seductive subtropics they had discovered in Miami and the Beach.

What was likely the Beach’s Golden Age arrived with the opening in 1948 of the Modernist Saxony Hotel by architect Roy France, followed a year later by the Sans Souci, started by France and finished by the architect who would indelibly stamp the Beach with his brash brand of extravagant Modernism, Morris Lapidus.

Air-conditioning, cheap airline packages and the age of mass travel again transformed the city. Now came ever-bigger, ever more lavish hotels like Lapidus’ Fontainebleau and Eden Roc, the nightclubs, Sinatra and the Rat Pack, and the Jackie Gleason Show. The Beach now sat squarely in America’s front lobe.

Away from the glitz and glamour, on the west side of Indian Creek and north of Dade Boulevard, and south of Fifth, was a different Beach — a close-knit residential community made up of people who worked in tourism, or lawyers and doctors, and centered in small-town fashion around schools, churches and synagogues. Those who grew up in it recall it with nostalgia and affection.

“Growing up on the Beach was wonderful, particularly when the tourists left and we had it all to ourselves,” said JoAnn Bass, granddaughter of Joe Weiss, founder of Joe’s Stone Crab restaurant, which is the lone surviving link to the Beach’s pioneering days. “We were free to ride our bicycles up and down Lincoln Road. It was joy.”

That the Beach by then had become a Jewish paradise might have shocked Fisher. Jews vacationed on the Beach, built its new hotels and stayed for good after retiring.

Then it all collapsed. Tourism dried up amid competition from new Caribbean resorts, the dawn of the ’60s and the coming of age of the Baby Boomers, who wouldn’t be caught dead in their parents’ kitschy Miami Beach. South Beach hotels turned into retirement homes for elderly Jews surviving on Social Security.

By 1970 the average age on the Beach was 62. Miami Beach became a cliche, a punchline to jokes about early-bird specials and “God’s Waiting Room.” The Fountainebleau went into bankruptcy. In 1980, refugees from the Mariel boatlift, some of them hardened criminals, flooded South Beach. Everyone else avoided it. Crime soared. Ocean Drive and Lincoln Road were desolate. Many wrote the neighborhood off. City leaders wanted to tear it all down.

Deco movement to the rescue

Amid fierce resistance, Capitman led an improbably successful movement to preserve South Beach’s Deco district that slowly began attracting investors, artists, gays and a wildly popular TV show called Miami Vice. It made the city hip again, across the nation and around the world.

The relentless wave of renovations and ever-more deluxe additions the South Beach revival engendered has now spread south of Fifth Street, which the Lummus brothers would hardly recognize. An expanded Joe’s thrives amid the towers of the 1990s and new low-rise, glass-enclosed condos that sell for millions. The Beach’s very first hotel, the wood-framed Brown’s, has come back as Prime 112, where NBA stars sup on Kobe beef.

It’s also spreading north to sleepy mid-Collins. The long-shuttered Saxony, which launched the Golden Age, is coming back as part of Argentinian Alan Faena’s ultra-luxurious multi-block, mixed-use, arts-centered redevelopment. North of it the Fontainebleau, renovated to the tune of $1 billion, is jampacked again.

The elegant Mediterranean mansion that Micky Wolfson grew up in and lived in most of his adult life, and which he sold a decade ago, just fetched $22 million. He got less than half that. “That amused me,” Wolfson said from Paris, where he now lives.

But as the Beach increasingly becomes a landing spot for billionaires and the merely very wealthy, some fear there will be no place on it for anyone else. The risk that success will spoil Miami Beach is real, they say.

“Was it ever realistic to think you could freeze it in amber?” said Neisen Kasdin, a Beach native, preservationist and former mayor who admires the sophisticated place his hometown has become. “You can’t stop the evolution. People are going to come. But my concern is there is no place for the middle class and the working professionals.”

But still they keep on coming, the New Yorkers and the South Americans and the Europeans, the multimillionaires with the multimillion-dollar pied-a-terres and the college kids looking for some action. And no one thinks it’s going to stop anytime soon.

“I don’t think Miami Beach will disappear into the dust,” Kleinberg said. “It’s going to continue to change. I can’t envision what it will be 100 years from now. All these predictions have it under water by then, of course.

“But just not tomorrow.”

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments