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Miami Swank—and Its Opposite

By Thomas Hine | HUMANITIES, November/December 2007 | Volume 28, Number 6

In the 1947 promotional photo, a woman in a swimsuit—a bathing beauty, the caption said—reclines beneath her umbrella on Miami Beach, seemingly oblivious to the bulldozer about to crush her or, at least, carry her away. The image would be scary if it weren’t so silly; certainly, it was sufficiently engaging to catch the eyes of the shivering wintertime audience to whom the city had been exporting visions of sex and sunshine ever since the 1920s. The bathing beauty was to Miami what the automobile was to Detroit: an object of fantasy, a focus of local pride, the engine that transformed a metropolis.

Thus, the bulldozer is not an intruder in the promised paradise of Miami. Rather, it is the tool that makes the dream into a reality. Miami was a swamp, not an Eden; building lots had always been created by filling and draining.

The bulldozers were busy during the post-World War II decades. In 1945, Miami was a marginal place, a resort at the end of a railroad line. By 1965, it could claim to be the hub of the Western Hemisphere, and it was on the cusp of becoming a place where Latin and Anglo cultures mix as they do nowhere else.

Miami reigned during these two decades as a showcase for the affluent society—a world capital of swank. Its hotels turned their air conditioners on high so that women could show off their minks. The biggest, grandest hotels were dreamscapes designed as a fantasia of everything their guests had seen in the movies. And they featured closets big enough to hold several dozen wardrobes for women on long visits who needed several costume changes a day.

Miami offered a new kind of glamour—modern, exciting, informal. It was a place for undressing as well as for dressing. It was the city that gave birth to cabanawear and Coppertone.

Still, postwar Miami aspired to far more. With its population surging as many who had discovered South Florida during military service decided to live there full-time, it sought to make itself into a great city defined by a vacation lifestyle. That meant a city defined not just by great hotels, motels, and attractions, but also by new institutions, new industries, and houses that pioneered better ways to live in what Miamians invariably call “the tropics.”

In recent years, Miamians, after many years of going gaga over deco, are moving beyond the streamlined styles of the 1930s and 1940s and beginning to appreciate what people built, made, did, and wore during the period when the city first reached world prominence. The period even has a name of its own—MiMo, short for Miami Modern—and people dedicated to celebrating and trying to preserve, so far with limited success, the landmarks of this era. “Promises of Paradise: Staging Midcentury Miami,” which opens December 5 at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach and runs till April 13, is the first exhibition to display, chronicle, and analyze Miami’s postwar decades.

Those who expect to find over-the-top artifacts won’t be disappointed: One of its centerpieces is the clear plastic dining-room set designed by Morris Lapidus, the architect whose Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, and (about to be razed) Americana, as it was originally known, set new standards for excess among hotels. His living-room coffee table, whose clear plastic top sits atop a winged ram with a planter in its posterior, is amazing too. There are also hard plastic handbags from Patricia of Miami and Charles S. Kahn that glitter on the outside and feature secret compartments within. An iridescent Alix of Miami cocktail dress conjures the confidence and magic women sought to radiate in the theatrical settings of the great hotels.

And, as some of the promotional brochures that the show features proclaim, there is much, much more. Furniture, textiles, architecture, and decorative arts on view at the Bass prove the city was not the creative backwater even locals assume it was. At least some Miamians were working to create a better, more modern, and in contemporary terms, greener approach to living.

Miami has always promoted itself as a city of the future, and has been a center for modern styles, from deco onward. It showed during the postwar era that there is more than one way to be modern.

I had visited Miami in the mid-1980s—the Miami Vice era—to look at the Lapidus hotels. A year or two later, I was back, appearing on a local television interview program arguing that it was important to preserve the city’s postwar heritage. The host, flustered at hearing such an outlandish opinion, hustled me off the air and introduced a roller-skating parrot, which was really good.

When the Bass, seeking outside advisors, asked me to come down for a weekend to consult on the show, I was expecting, indeed looking forward to, a glitz and glamour exhibition.

But Ruth Grim, the Bass curator who organized the show, and Allan T. Shulman, the local architect and University of Miami professor who was advising her, were looking for something far more ambitious, an exhibition that would represent the breadth of the post-World War II experience, even if it didn’t scream “MiMo!” Eventually, because Grim felt the show needed an outsider’s eye, along with more background in the pop culture and design of the period, they asked me to be the third member of the curatorial team.

The first step was to unlearn some of what I thought I knew. Miami was part of the postwar American dream, but in many ways, its experiences were atypical. Miami was building huge hotels when other cities were building almost none. The city sought an international character, and began to accommodate immigrants, at a time when immigration elsewhere was at historically low levels. Like other Southern cities, it gradually, often reluctantly, cast off the enforced racial segregation of the Jim Crow era, but it did so while pretending to welcome the world.

Even though it was a place renowned for luxurious display, Miami had fewer signs of the everyday affluence that was filling America with split-level and sprawling ranch houses. The quintessential Miami home was—and remains—a small bungalow, a little house in the tropics.

The postwar story of Miami actually begins during the war, when it was an important staging and transport center, especially for the North African campaign. Some who served there decided to return after the war. “It seemed like a place where there weren’t so many rules, and you could try new things that made sense,” the late architect Rufus Nims recalled in a 2004 interview. Nims relocated to Miami after the war and designed many houses that have a direct, pragmatic beauty, shaped mostly by the goal of being comfortable in Miami’s hot, humid climate.

When he was still in the Navy during the war, Alfred Browning Parker designed and built a house for himself, using materials salvaged from buildings that were being razed to make way for the vastly expanded airport that would play such a large role in the city’s postwar growth. In an interview in February, he said that the entire house cost him $250, though fifty years earlier, he told an interviewer, it cost $1,218.61. Whatever the final bill, it was inexpensive, and the three years he spent building it gave Parker plenty of time to reflect on what buildings in South Florida should be like. A house needs to be habitable despite the mold, dampness, intense sun, fierce storms, swarming insects, voracious termites, violent winds, and blinding glare—hardly a description of paradise.

For Parker, the Mediterranean style which had become traditional in Florida was precisely wrong, derived as it was from the architecture of a fairly dry climate. Parker often used stone in his houses, but their overall feeling is light and airy, welcoming breezes from all directions and permitting the incorporation of clerestory windows high on the walls, which provide multidirectional light and reduce glare. Like Nims, Parker used a lot of built-in furniture to reduce the number of nooks and crannies in the house, and even the design or choice of furniture encouraged air flow. Parker’s houses often featured persianas, heavy mahogany doors imported from Cuba that featured well-oiled louvers that move as a unit to capture breezes but snap shut in heavy winds and provide hurricane protection. When Parker built another, widely publicized, house for himself a few years later, he provided air-conditioning in the kitchen and in a sort of hot-weather refuge on the roof. The goal, however, was for the house to embrace its surroundings, rather than to seal itself off. The “birdcage” houses of Igor Polevitzky, essentially screened porches with houses inside, won worldwide attention in the early 1950s and reached the practical limit of indoor-outdoor architecture.  And in such residences as the Bevilacqua house, which featured adults’ and children’s swimming pools linked by a canal spanned by an arched bridge, architect Kenneth Treister made outdoor space the focus of entertaining and family life.

Although Parker and others incorporated similar elements into small houses that could be built in large numbers, these were not built. The greatest concentration of such houses was built in the junglelike Coconut Grove neighborhood that has long been one of Miami’s artistic centers. Unfortunately, these houses are now threatened because they are relatively small and stand on very valuable lots.

The universal acceptance of air-conditioning from the mid-Fifties brought an end to this experimental moment in architecture. Now the houses aimed at making summer bearable seem bizarre, even though they have much to teach about how to live comfortably while using less energy.

Another, very different way in which postwar Miamians responded to their climate was to use aluminum widely. Because it doesn’t rust, it is a great material for the climate, and so made its way into window frames, screens, and other building elements. It is a perfect material for indoor-outdoor furniture because it is relatively light in weight and easy to move. Local industries made aluminum mesh-topped patio tables, dinette sets, web-seated lounge chairs, and other pieces, most of which were the creations of little-known local talent.

Interior designer George Farkas, who may be the exhibition’s chief rediscovery, trained in his native Hungary before arriving in the United States. Once in Miami, he made very minimal yet elegant furniture out of aluminum. In one series of prototypes, which will be in the show, he used a simple boxlike form, with legs offset from the edges, that could be webbed for use as benches or covered with glass for use as tables. His most striking aluminum piece, though, is a round coffee table whose structure is made from three intersecting L-shaped polished aluminum members. Through its glass top, one sees a six-armed structure, but the table actually has only three legs.

These pieces show Farkas adapting international style and minimalist structure to the environment of Miami. Yet, while it is tempting to see Farkas as the anti-Lapidus, he designed Miami Beach’s Ciro’s nightclub, which was said to be Walter Winchell’s favorite, in a decidedly swanky manner. Unfortunately, nothing from the Ciro’s design could be found for the exhibition. But an amazing cache of Farkas’s fabric designs, some of which were produced by Scalamadré and other firms, has survived, and they show that, like so many others, Farkas was engaged and overwhelmed by the lush vegetation of his adopted city.

Farkas’s furniture designs were mostly done as part of his interior design commissions. For example, he had worked on the interiors of the new, entirely modernist campus of the University of Miami and designed a combination bed, desk, and storage unit for the dorms. Hundreds of these were made, though none appears to have survived.

The interior designer Frederick Rank similarly designed furniture for particular jobs, which tended in his case to be lavish home interiors for the wealthy. A lot of his furniture seems generic and anonymous, though he left behind hundreds of quirky drawings. These sheets of a dozen different stools, twenty possible andirons, and furniture pieces that incorporate television sets, book cases, and massive planters show him to be an ingenious and versatile designer trying to adapt to the technology and lifestyles emerging at the time.

Then we found the puzzle-like table Rank designed in the mid-1950s for an atypical client—a middle-class couple who had built a two-bedroom house in Miami Beach and were open to experimental ideas. The table, though huge, was intended as a space saver. It can be pushed up against the wall and used as a shallow, two-shelf display piece. But when the need arises, it can be pulled out, its legs turned, and its two shelves placed on top to make a dining table that easily seats twelve.

And if that weren’t a dramatic enough transformation, Rank added one further twist that allows the table to adapt not just to taste, but to mood. One side of the table top is teak; the other side is painted red with gold flecks. Today, the table can look chastely Scandinavian. Tomorrow, it’s shamelessly Miami Beach.

Transformation like this has always been at the heart of Miami’s appeal: Go to Miami, and you can be a bathing beauty. Move to Miami and your career will become a vacation. Make your home in Miami and life will be free and easy.

For Miamians, such hype is as much a part of the climate as the humidity, and everyone learns to live with it. Yet somehow Miami has become a unique city, an American place unlike any other. The Bass show documents ways, both well remembered and long forgotten, in which Miami developed and expressed its special character. Miami is no paradise, to be sure, but the exhibition celebrates the city’s promises—some of which have actually been kept.

About the Author

Thomas Hine is a writer on history, culture, and design. From 1973 to 1996 he was the architecture and design critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His book Populuxe has just been reissued by Overlook Press, and its companion volume, The Great Funk, is coming this fall from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Funding Information

The Bass Museum of Art recieved $314,695 in NEH funding for "Promises of Paradise: Staging Midcentury Miami," which will open on December 5, 2007.