Barbara Baer Capitman was a force to be reckoned with. Her political involvement began in the successful opposition to the South Shore Redevelopment Agency’s plan to demolish and reconfigure 230 blocks in South Beach. She saw the potential in historic preservation as the key to revitalization, and an opportunity to keep the more than six thousand residents intact. The impetus was not only aesthetic preservation, but as M. Barron Stofik wrote, “…by recreating the Art Deco glamour of the 1930s, [South Beach] could become a national paradigm for the needy elderly, talented artists, young professionals, and moneyed visitors to live together respectfully and enjoy the kinds of lives that each of them wanted.”Capitman was determined and understood the power of media. Articles about “Old Miami Beach” were published in the Sunday Review, Preservation News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, airline magazines, and European publications.
Capitman’s minimal Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) group embarked on a project to locate hotels that, in their opinion, were well designed. She realized that a focused group would need to be created to make an impact. Designers, not seasoned preservationists, made up her grassroots organization, and the focus was on the “design and time period of the buildings and the people who lived there.” On May 6, 1977, the MDPL was incorporated by the State of Florida. With support of her sons, Leonard Howoritz, and a Board of Directors, Capitman proposed the preservation of South Beach by creating a historic district called “Old Miami Beach.” In January 1978, the MDPL received a ten-thousand-dollar grant for the survey.
In order to accomplish this, a building survey was compiled to assess the concentration of historic architecture within the district. Capitman spoke with foresight: “We believe that tourism would benefit if some of these old hotels which are real treasures were restored. Most seasoned travelers prefer to stay in a hotel that has some history or attractive design to recommend it.” She emphasized that contemporary hotels could qualify, but her focus was on the existing, historic resources. “Instead of tearing down the old hotels,” she challenged,” why not put money into interior improvements, paint, landscaping, promenades? Why not use some of the small hotels primarily as restaurants, some as dormitories for older people?” This was an uphill battle, even among others in the preservation community. Though the examination of American vernacular architecture was becoming increasingly researched, this was one of the first instances that twentieth-century middle-class architecture was seen as worthy of preservation.
An important addition was Diane Camber. As a Miami Beach native, she provided an impressive pedigree including an art history degree from Barnard. Her ability to provide a scholary framework to the largely volunteer organization was necessary. At the same time, Miami-Dade County was completing a comprehensive survey of all historic buildings. Preservation was gaining momentum in planning departments nationwide, and Ernie Martin set up a division of historic preservation within the county’s Office of Community and Economic Development. Ivan Rodriguez was hired to complete Miami Beach’s survey. He had a master’s degree in architectural history and historic preservation from the University of Florida and trained staff to evaluate structures based on the Historic American Building Survey standards. Even with increased local expertise, Capitman grasped the importance of federal recognition to educate and apply political pressure to local leaders.
An important figure in judgments of significance was Carl Weinhardt Jr., an experienced Miami preservationist, director of Miami’s Villa Vizcaya, and a Harvard graduate. His expertise confirmed the prodigious inventory of Art Deco architecture. In addition, notable Mediterranean Revival, Mission, Moorish and Florida vernacular styles contributed to the evolution of 1920s Miami Beach through the 1940s. The concentrations of these properties were remarkable for their collective assembly, rather than any individual structure. With this, MDPL was armed with volunteers, a goal, and the data to solidify their claims.
The pro-development ethos ingrained in Miami Beach’s identity from the beginning needed to be counterbalanced. Demolitions throughout the 1950s and 1960s erased Miami Beach’s history for the sake of clearing more developabe land and keeping up with the demands for cutting-edge, luxurious condominiums and hotels. Public education and widespread support were critical to advance the values associated with Miami Beach’s cultural resources.
Upon invitation, Capitman persuaded the chief of planning for the National Register of Historic Places and representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to visit. One caution was the 50-year rule, whereby a structure or district would need to prove exceptionality to be considered appropriate within the national criteria. In order to achieve these aims, only the architecture was qualified, rather than Miami Beach’s cultural history, and a federal job training grant program provided the MDPL with funds to work on the proposed historic district. Two Columbia University graduate students in the Historic Preservation program, Elan Zingman and Everett Scott, used their internships to examine the architects of the Art Deco period and completed comparative analyses of historic photos and existing conditions. Assisted by a staff of fifteen, guidance from Capitman, and a roster of volunteers, the research began in May 1978 and was submitted to the state historic preservation office just a few months later in August 1978.
The boundaries of the designation extended from the ocean to an irregular line near the bay on the west, and from Sixth Street north to Dade Boulevard. Assemblies of recent construction were omitted, as well as the South Shore redevelopment area, which was considered to be too politically charged. Everything west of Washington Avenue, north of Lincoln Road and to the south of Sixth Street was included. The statement of significance highlighted the importance of the area to capture a particular period, environment, and approach in architecture that was unique to America. The designation report had no mention of the area’s cultural history or individual landmarks, rather it highlighted the ensemble of contiguous contributing structures. Increasing pressure from the South Shore Redevelopment Agency prompted the urgency of this nomination. The sooner the district gained approval, the more likely local politicians were to halt further demolition and protect historic resources.
Capitman knew that in order to promote success she must link the designation with one of Miami Beach’s long-held values: architecture as a background to it’s successful tourism campaigns. Cultural tourism was the answer. The first “Art Deco Week” was planned for October 1978 to garner further local support and prove to elected officials and the community that the historic architectural district could be a driver for tourism. This was also the start of an annual event that would celebrate Miami Beach’s Art Deco. In 2017, the event celebrated its 40th anniversary, welcoming over 150,000 people to over 85 educational events held during its 3-day festival.
In spite of swelling support from an international community and local residents, the National Register nomination was rejected twice. The third draft submission was accepted. Time was of the essence and in these delays, local businesses began to speak out in opposition of the district, seeing it as a threat to future development. As Stofik wrote, “City officials and developers were appalled at the prospect of having almost fifteen percent of the city frozen in time. If every old building was saved, where could anyone build?” Miami Beach was historically future-oriented. Residents began to question the validity of a nationally significant nomination based on buildings that were constructed after their own children were born.
In November 1978, the state preservation office held a meeting on Miami Beach to hear public support for both sides. MDPL had mustered enough local and national support to overwhelm their detractors, using the sentiments around Economic Benefits of Historic Preservation from Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS) to herald the district as a “solution to problems of unemployment, inflation, poor housing, dying inner cities, and depressed small towns.” Revitalization was seen as an alternative to urban renewal, but the economic results that cultural tourism had the potential to generate were the most successful arguments from the commission’s perspective.
Finally, on May 14, 1979, the Department of the Interior officially designated one square mile of South Beach as the Miami Beach Architectural District to the National Register. It was the “largest concentration of 1920s and 1930s era resort architecture in the United States,” and the first 20th century historic district to join more fifteen hundred other historic districts already honored on the National Register.
- “A Brief History of MDPL,” Miami Design Preservation League. http://www.mdpl.org/about-us/about-miami-design-preservation-league/a-brief-history/. Accessed January 23, 2017.
- Capitman, Barbara Deco Delights: Preserving the beauty and joy of Miami Beach architecture (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988).
- Raley, Michael H., Linda G. Polansky, Aristides J. Millas, “Old Miami Beach”: a case study in history preservation (Miami Beach, FL: Miami Design Preservation League, 1994).
- Stofik, M. Barron, Saving South Beach (Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 2006).