The Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach: How a century of design came to define Florida's coolest city

Rachel Cranshaw
The Cardozo was one of Miami Beach's first hotels, designed in 1939 by Henry Hohauser, one of the principal architects of South Beach Deco along with L Murray Dixon, set on Ocean Drive - MAURIZIO LEONI

To think of the skylines of America’s big cities is to think of skyscrapers. From tourist attractions to financial districts, the American dream tends to be bound up in all that is neck-cricking – which is partly what makes Miami such a remarkable city architecturally.

This cosmopolitan hub in south Florida, known affectionately as the capital of Latin America, has some high-rise buildings – but it’s its art deco Historic District, preserved time capsule-like on the seafront of South Beach, that makes it so unique.

The aesthetic allure of this area, which has the highest concentration of art deco architecture in the world, where bright, boxy low-rise buildings are bathed in sunshine and fringed with palm trees, is no accident. Miami Beach (officially established in 1915) was built as a holiday destination from the ashes of the Great Depression, and nowhere is this narrative more apparent than in its hotels.

A century after art deco’s Twenties birth, I headed stateside to see for myself how 100 years of design had come to define Florida’s coolest city.

Mid Beach’s Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club towers resplendent after a $47 million revamp in 2018, and features a vast, impressively landscaped pool area

My first stop was the Art Deco Museum, home to the Miami Design Preservation League, which was established, a passionate and knowledgeable guide named Melissa explained to me, in 1976 by activist Barbara Baer Capitman, in response to the threat posed by developers in the Seventies.

As I was led around the district by Melissa, I quickly came to realise that Miami’s art deco is not a singular style, but rather an amalgamation of influences and variations – from ornate Mediterranean revival (think decorative columns, wrought iron and cute courtyards) to blended Med deco and softer tropical deco (often incorporating flora and fauna). In the heat of the day, longing for the cool of the Atlantic Ocean just a block or so away, I marvelled at the prevalence of nautical deco, particularly in hotels; hulking curved, usually white, buildings (The Albion is a particularly salient example) designed to look like ships in a simulation of the status and affluence equated with the very earliest days of cruising.

The Cardozo's small, leafy garden terrace has daybeds that offer a perfect vantage point for admiring the property’s keystone trim Credit: MAURIZIO LEONI/AMBIENTES VISUALES SAS

I stayed at one of the Design League’s first projects – and one of Miami Beach’s first hotels – the Cardozo South Beach, designed in 1939 by Henry Hohauser, one of the principal architects of South Beach Deco along with L Murray Dixon, set on Ocean Drive. It was bought by Gloria and Emilio Estefan in the early Nineties; Miami was a somewhat different city then; still reeling from the race riots of the Eighties, and in the early days of a renaissance that saw Gianni Versace move into his Mediterranean revival mansion just a few minutes’ walk down the road.

In 2020, I found it fresh from a $15 million (£11.5 million), four-year refurb that has elevated its interiors to a sleek, contemporary all-white aesthetic while still letting the building’s heritage do the talking. Marble and gold accents give a contemporary taste of the elegance art deco has always aspired to offer. The small, leafy garden terrace has daybeds that offer a perfect vantage point for admiring the property’s keystone trim, one of its more subtle historic design details, while on the ground floor a series of framed artefacts, from photographs to a bill dated 1947, offer fascinating insight to the hotel’s early years.

Today the Cardozo is fresh from a refurb that has elevated its interiors to a sleek, contemporary all-white aesthetic while still letting the building’s heritage do the talking Credit: MAURIZIO LEONI/AMBIENTES VISUALES SAS

I spoke to Emilio Estefan about his and Gloria’s love for the Cardozo, which began for her as a child on family trips to the beach (apparently she once proclaimed that one day she “was going to buy that hotel”), and continued into adulthood, when the couple would go jogging along the front and lament the state of disrepair it had fallen into.

The legalities of renovating a historic building such as this has its challenges, Emilio explained, from maintaining original floors to sourcing that same keystone used on the exterior. But despite the money and patience required, they feel lucky to be able to make such a contribution: “It’s wonderful to be able to give back.”

Interiors at the Cadillac are reminiscent of the European Riviera-chic that was so aspirational during the Golden Age of Hollywood Credit: JAMES BAIGRIE

The introduction of genuine luxury to Miami’s art deco hotel scene is something of a retrospective completion of what originally existed mainly as reproduction – for while art deco tends to conjure images of the opulence associated with arguably the best known literary work of that era, The Great Gatsby, its rapid proliferation in Miami took place largely amid the bust of the Thirties.

With the boom of the Roaring Twenties long gone, and economies desperate to recover, hotels were built fast and cheap: faux marble, glass block, and even the terrazzo floors of hotels such as the Essex House; many of what have come to be regarded as signature tropes were designed as such at least in part to keep costs down.

The Cadillac's rooms feature curved lines and tones of blue and grey against a backdrop of sky and sea

The reopening of the Cardozo is part of a new revival wave of Miami’s art deco greats, with the Thirties Lennox hotel also back in business from 2019 after a nine-year hiatus and $71 million investment, and the Greystone set to reopen imminently. The Forties Raleigh and its pool – dubbed the most beautiful in America by Life magazine in 1947 – is also in the midst of a major makeover.

The Raleigh is located a little further up from the Historic District; those early three-storey hotels (because any building higher than that was required to have a lift, which was expensive), give way to taller properties that arrived slightly later, such as the Delano, built in 1947, when larger, flashier resort-style hotels were becoming in demand. I stayed at one of these, Mid Beach’s Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club, which towers resplendent after a $47 million revamp in 2018, its interiors now reminiscent of the European Riviera-chic that was so aspirational during the Golden Age of Hollywood: think curved lines and tones of blue and grey against a backdrop of sky, sea and a vast, impressively landscaped pool area.

Hollywood arrived in Miami eventually, and 1959 saw the release of A Hole in the Head, featuring Frank Sinatra and filmed at the Cardozo. As I lay amid the Cadillac’s striped cabanas, this cementing of allure seemed a fitting reward for a city which, by design, had courted glamour and promoted escapism since its inception. The current restoration resurgence will, I hope, ensure the buildings that make Miami Beach what it is evolve, just like the city around them.

Virgin Atlantic flies to Miami from London Heathrow twice daily from £295 return. The Miami Design Preservation League runs art deco walking tours daily at 10.30am ($30). Doubles at Cardozo South Beach from $299; and from $309 at the Cadillac.