South Beach Florida - The Art Deco Scene
Timothy J. Steiner - June 21st, 2005
There are still a few places in this great country of ours where a man might wear his fedora proudly and without anyone taking much notice. Certainly one of these is the tropical paradise, the American Riviera in the South of Florida known as Miami Beach. This is especially true on Miami Beach’s southern end, known as South Beach. Strolling down Collins Avenue, Espanola Way, and especially Ocean Drive, you are likely to encounter other hat wearers, some with the humble, but often stylish, straw golf-style hats, some with swanky Panama hat Montecristis, still more with Aussie-style outback hats, and still others with fur-felt fedoras, usually in lighter weight varieties. With so many hats perched atop so many men’s heads, you will hardly hear the sort of snickers we must endure such places as Newbury Street in Boston, Sixth Avenue in New York City, or Philadelphia’s South Street. South Beach is a hat man’s paradise.
Four years ago, a younger, thinner me flew into Miami International airport with an Optimo block style Montecristi Panama hat of dubious quality. This was before I knew about weave counts, quality blocking, and vintage ribbons. In those days before hats became an obsession for me, I had purchased mine in a hat shop in Boston’s most exclusive shopping district: Newbury Street. I had paid too much for too little hat, and it was safe atop my head for the three and a half hour flight from Boston’s Logan Airport to Miami International.
My lovely companion and I landed, rented the obligatory convertible Chrysler Sebring, and threw my bags in the back seat. My reservations were for The Clevelander Hotel right in the heart of Ocean Drive. The Clevelander is an Art Deco jewel built in 1937. At night a stage is erected over the swimming pool and the party lasts well after midnight and often into the early morning. If you decide to stay there and you are not interested in the thumping bass of rap and European trance music, be sure to ask for a room as far away from the party as possible.
Still, even if you’re not interested in partying the night away, the thumping beat and relentless energy of South Beach is infectious. So infused with Latin rhythms and brimming with a café society, South Beach hardly seems like part of the United States.
Heightening this sense of being out of the country is the setting. South Beach is home to the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the country; more than Chicago, more than New York City. And South Beach’s buildings are more than the typical Art Deco Structures. Featuring bleached concrete, pastel colors, neon lights, and rounded corners, South Beaches buildings embody the subgroup of Art Deco edifices known as Nautical Moderne; easily defined as buildings taking their styling cues from Ocean liners: round windows like portholes, decks like those on ships, rounded towers like the bridges on 1930s era ships, and curved rails.
In this setting, you feel like Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, or Humphrey
Bogart. It wasn’t long ago when they strolled theses streets and sands,
but that was before South Beach’s renaissance, before all of these structures
turned derelict and served as backdrops for urban horror stories like “Scarface”
and “Miami Vice.” But that was a lifetime ago.
This area has been rediscovered, re-consecrated. Now you can have a drink in The Waldorf Towers bar, which looks like a set piece from “Key Largo.”
You almost expect Edgar G. Robinson to stroll in and wave his gun around. Each hotel has a deco style bar: stainless steel, gleaming chrome, polished glass. It is a place for kissing the thin edges of a martini glass and tasting the blunt edge of gin; for placing your hand on your companion’s bare shoulders and brushing the hair out of her eyes; and for whispering, leaning in close and pushing your hat to the back of your head. South Beach is for romance, and not just any romance, this is “Casablanca” style, “To Have and Have Not” style romance, and you are the star. Who you share it with is up to you. It’s your movie this time.
A four hour drive to the bottom corner of the United States and the end of US 1, lies Key West. No Hemingway aficionado would visit South Florida without a stop at Ernest Hemingway’s beautiful tropical home on Whitehead Street or his favorite bar Sloppy Joe’s on Duvall Street.
You could stroll Duvall Street all night and I would be surprised if anyone would make a disparaging remark about your hat. Duvall Street may be one of the most laissez-faire places in America.
Driving back to Miami, the top down on the Sebring and my hat pushed down far on my head, I reflected back on a trip that took me from Boston to Miami, nights in South Beach, lunch in “Little Cuba,” side trips to Coconut Grove, Islamorada and .... posing for pictures with “The African Queen” at a Holiday Inn in Key Largo (yes, the real African Queen), and spending a few days at the southernmost point of the United States: Key West (well, if you forget about Hawaii).
I have shared rum with modern pirates in a local bar, “The Green Parrot” in Key West (at least they said they were pirates), helped change a tire in Key Largo, and pretended I didn’t notice the fashion models at the cafés lining South Beach (except for the ones who said ‘nice hat’ and meant it). I did as much as any man could in seven days, all the while enjoying the view from beneath my hat’s wide brim.
And what happened to that cheap, maybe imitation Montecristi? The crown cracked in half in the overhead storage on the way home. So, I returned, hatless, to Boston with fond memories of when I was the leading man.
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