During a recent visit to Miami, I drove up and down a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard that features many of the original Art Deco motels. Many are closed, others have been turned into inexpensive, gritty-looking transient joints, with rooms rented by young, adventurous Europeans on a tight budget, or by local street walkers who bring johns into the dreary rooms, the windows covered by thick curtains to keep out the harsh sunlight and peering eyes of, let’s say, architecture fans.
In 2006, Miami’s Historic Preservation Board voted to create a historic district along one of the city’s most iconic thoroughfares. Twenty-seven blocks of Biscayne Boulevard, including 115 historic buildings, would become known as MiMo, aka the Miami Modern-Biscayne Boulevard Historic District.
The MiMo Historic District runs along Biscayne Boulevard between Northeast 50th Street to Northeast 77th Street.
The two main architectural styles of the district are Mediterranean Revival, which includes most of the residences and commercial buildings between 55th and 60th Streets, in the Bayshore subdivision, and Art Deco, represented mostly by a cluster of two and three-story motels and mixed-use buildings, between NE 71st and 74th Streets.
About 16 Art Deco-style motels have survived demolition along the highly trafficked corridor of Biscayne Boulevard. Some of these structures maintain their multi-colored neon signs, on high pylons or building facades, which constitute the most memorable architectural component of early Miami tourist facilities in this part of the city. One, the 1953 Vagabond, recently re-opened after a multimillion restoration.
There were hundreds of such motels built in the Miami area from the 1920s to the early 1940s. During this period, even Miami gas stations imitated the Art Deco look of the motels, although only one, the Gulf Station at 17th Avenue and Coral Way, has survived. It’s still a working gas station!
Many of Miami’s 1920s Mediterranean-Revival buildings were swept away during the hurricane of 1926, and more were demolished by developers during post WWII-urban renewal efforts. Others succumbed to the heat, moisture, humidity and salt that has plagued Miami structures of all types since the earliest settlements in the 1800s.
Thanks to the recent historic designation of this formerly overlooked section of NE Miami, two strip mall shopping centers have opened nearby — Antiques Plaza and 20th Century Row — with shops specializing in Miami Modern furnishings from the 1940s, 5’s and 60s. Savvy shoppers can find authentic T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings furniture; Tommi Parzinger lacquered cabinets from the 1950s; and Milo Baughman steel-framed leather lounge chairs from the 1960’s, often at lower prices than in New York or Los Angeles.
Historic midcentury residential houses on the blocks just off Biscayne were in better shape, and many of the smaller cottage homes have been restored into lovely, bougainvillea-covered bungalows.
Certainly, MiMo is not yet South Beach, where formerly decrepit Art Deco buildings were transformed more than two decades ago into trendy and expensive hotels and restaurants. It is also far, in development terms, from the midcentury buildings of upper Collins Avenue, where the 1954 Fontainebleau Hotel, designed by Morris Lapidus, was awarded the “Best Building in Florida 2012” by the American Institute of Architects.
Those areas have Atlantic Ocean beaches and cooling breezes. MiMo is landlocked, and Biscayne Boulevard is a hot and noisy commercial stretch that drivers use to get from North Miami Beach to downtown, without paying much attention to the faded pastel motels lining the road.
Miami, however, has had great success with revitalizing historic sections of the City, most recently the resurgence of the Wynwood and Design District neighborhoods. Architectural restorations and new business ventures are slowly, but steadily, giving the MiMo Historic District a chance to both preserve its history and obtain a measure of economic prosperity.