Miami: Life is more than a beach

Jenni Frazer goes back in time with Miami’s Art Deco architecture

By Jenni Frazer, June 12, 2012
The Betsy’s colonial frontage on Ocean Drive

The Betsy’s colonial frontage on Ocean Drive

On January 1 1927, excited fans crowded into Miami’s Coconut Grove Theatre to see The Sorrows of Satan, the new “moving picture” by D W Griffith. Eighty-five years later the film scene has mainly moved to Hollywood but the fans, some of the actors, and, yes, the Coconut Grove Theatre are all still in Miami, whose extraordinary architecture makes the city the jewel of Florida’s south coast.

Strictly speaking, Miami is most famous for its Art Deco buildings, particularly its hotels, and its Historic National District only extends between 5th and 10th Streets at its southernmost finger. But the influence extends far, with fantastic buildings in rich ice-cream pistachio greens and sugared almond pinks, or vivid turquoises with matching balconies. There is attention to detail, from stunning typography as the hotel names clamour to be noticed, to glorious interior design, with bars just dripping in 1930s glamour.

The city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance is tough and vigilant. Developers can’t simply turn up in Miami Beach and knock down a property. The HPO insists facades are rescued, original features saved, and new buildings have to be dramatic to blend effortlessly with the general gorgeousness on display elsewhere.

Given the strong Jewish involvement in the city’s hotel and leisure industry, it comes as something of a shock to learn that in the 1920s, Jews were not allowed to live north of Miami Beach’s 5th Street. Instead, in 1936 Temple Beth Israel on Washington Avenue, close to the seafront, became the first synagogue built on Miami Beach. Seven years later, a second was built next door and the pair have been renovated and restored to become the Jewish Museum of Florida, a fun destination to look up Miami Jewish history.

One of the most prolific architects in Miami was Lawrence Murray Dixon, a jazz musician, who designed several of the most iconic Art Deco hotels. They include the Victor, all lush oriental greens and golds, dating from 1937; the Raleigh, with its chocolate and cream lobby seating and a dinky but well-stocked bar; the eve-of-war-opened Hotel Marlin; the majestic 10-storey high Tides hotel; the Kent, the Senator and the Tudor, and the Ritz Plaza, which opened in 1946 as the Grossinger Beach hotel, the companion to the legendary Grossinger’s Resort in the Catskills, in New York.

The Jewish connections in Miami Beach run back and forth: for a time, the owner of the Kent and the Tides was the chief executive of Island Records, the white Jewish Jamaican Chris Blackwell. And among all this sea of Art Deco, which forms one of the most delightful evening promenade pastimes imaginable for tourists — lurching gently from Art Deco hotel to another, sipping at a Sea Breeze or a margarita as you go — is one of Dixon’s more extraordinary achievements, the South Beach glory of the Betsy Hotel.

Once managed by the Lipman family from the 1940s, when it was known as the Betsy Ross Hotel, it honoured the 18th century Philadelphia seamstress who, legend has it was asked by George Washington to sew the first American flag. True or not, Betsy Ross’s name became a byword for American patriotism and during the Second World War, when the American army brought recruits to Miami Beach for basic training, some of the lucky soldiers were put up at the Betsy.

The Betsy today is not exactly an instantly recognisable building in the Deco style. An all-white edifice at the quieter end of Ocean Drive, it was designed, apparently, to recall gracious southern plantations and the colonial style, with a two-tier columned porch and handsome window shutters. Like so many Miami Beach hotels it fell into a gentle decline until it was bought in a bankruptcy sale by entrepreneur Jonathan Plutzik, who renovated it in 2009. (He even kept the original Murray Dixon reception desk, which now sits beneath the modern version.)

A one-time whizz-kid on Wall Street, he quit in 2002 to concentrate on philanthropy. And philanthropy, and particularly arts and culture, infuses every fibre of the Betsy. It is once again a family endeavour, headed by Jonathan, his sister, Deborah Briggs, and his wife, Zimbabwe-born Lesley Goldwasser. The Plutzik siblings are the children of the Pulitzer Prize-nominee poet Hyam Plutzik, who spoke only Yiddish until he was seven, and died tragically young in 1962. Jonathan, Deborah and Lesley have turned the Betsy into an arts hub, with the spirit of the poet Hyam informing all the programmes they have put in place.

Each of the 62 rooms and suites has a small library and a poetry bookmark is placed on pillows every night. In the basement, casually next to the ATM machine, is a wall of poems submitted by professional and amateur poets alike.

This year the Betsy opened a Writer’s Room, setting aside a place for writers or artists in residence — the quid pro quo is that they present an event or art salon, showcasing their work. In May, writer Ted Merwin presided over an evening about New York Jews in the Jazz Age, complete with L’Chaim vodka and guava rugelach; the hotel walls are covered in fantastic rock archive photographs, including Jill Furmanovsky’s wonderful picture of Amy Winehouse and the photographer Robert Zuckerman’s supercool portrait of Leonard Cohen.

The Betsy has hosted two serious conferences on Holocaust literature and Lesley Goldwasser, drawing on her Zimbabwe roots, has ensured that it supports that country’s Zara Centre for AIDS Impacted Children.

In other words, this is a seriously cool place to see and be seen. During Happy Hour, khaki-uniformed staff spring to attention and open the double fronted doors as you enter. You might be en route to the Wellness Spa on the roof, with Dead Sea treatments; or just sinking into one of the way-too comfortable lobby chairs, while live jazz plays next to the bar. Either way, this is a southern belle with attitude.

STAY: The Betsy Hotel. Double from £172 per night
FLY: For direct economy flightsfrom the UK to Miami International expect to pay between £800-£1300
British Airways:
Virgin Atlantic:

Last updated: 12:19pm, June 13 2012