With the energy of the sun and colors to rival a rainbow, Miami Beach architecture is happiness wrapped in doodads.

OK, I know. These are not the analytic words of a serious architecture buff. Honestly, I don’t know a doodad from a hole in the wall.

It’s just that you don’t have to be an architect to appreciate the city’s Art Deco and Miami Modern sensibility. Real, curvy and a little zany, most buildings are in a condition that would make their original architects proud.

“Before I moved to Miami Beach I thought it was just a party town, and it took me a little while to connect to the history and culture,” says Amanda McMaster, marketing manager for the Miami Design Preservation League.


“Sometimes, it almost seems like it is its own country.”

Today, Miami Beach glows with vitality. Artists, designers, celebrities, several variations of rich people, hotel developers, spring breakers and South American visitors all play here.

While some renovations remain, the city has come a long way from the dumpy shape it was in 30 years ago. Billions have been poured into this beachside city since the 1970s. That was when a handful of Miami Beach citizens ran to the rescue of teetering old buildings built between 1915 and the 1950s. They successfully argued that the one single thing that made the city special was the architecture.

They were right. Miami Beach’s Art Deco District is not only on the National Register of Historic Places, it arguably has evolved into one of the most delightful tourist spots in the world.

New arrivals may not exactly grasp what makes Miami Beach so appealing, other than picking up a sort of happy, comfortable feeling when they arrive. But one key is that everything is human scale here.

Among the clever architectural details of the bright Art Deco hotels and businesses built between the 1920s and ’30s are ship-like railings, port holes, eyebrow window overhangs, odd-stepped ziggurat roofs and terrazzo floors.

Farther north in the Miami Modern area, where the buildings date from the 1940s to 1960, hotels and other buildings sport wild details such as huge expanses of plate glass, mosaic tile, fin walls, woggles and cheese holes.

Cheese what? Huh?

Obviously, you need more education.

Deco destinations

So between your trendy al fresco dinners, bar hopping and beach sunning, here are a few suggestions of how to spend your Miami Beach moments.

• The whimsical, vivid lifeguard stations dotting the wide beach for miles have recently been updated to hark back to Miami style. And if you want to see a real tropical Art Deco gem, try the Beach Patrol Headquarters (1001 Ocean Dr.). It dates from 1936.

• Drop into the Miami Historic Preservation League Visitors Center and its two-year-old museum (1001 Ocean Dr., open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun., mdpl.org). There you can see the history of Miami Beach’s boom-bust-boom days.

• Have your picture taken in front of some of the sweetest cinematic hotels, the Breakwater (1936) and the Park Central (1937).

• Take an organized or self-guided architecture tour. There are independent walking tours (such as artdecowalks.com or artdecotours.com) or seek out a tour through the Miami Design Preservation League (mdpl.org). League tours include self-guided audio tours, a guided 90-minute Art Deco tour, a MiMo (Miami Modern) tour, Miami Beach culinary-history tour, a Jewish Miami Beach tour, and a gay and lesbian Miami Beach tour. During the annual Art Deco weekend each January, there are 40 different tours involving everything from cocktails to the Mob.

The hotels

When in Miami Beach, of course, you must stay at a historic hotel. This is harder than it seems. Even new buildings look vintage. And some buildings that say “hotel” on the outside actually aren’t.

For example, the Raleigh Hotel on Collins Avenue was recently bought by fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and will close in May, to be turned into a private club. On Ocean Drive, walk by the cute McAlpin Hotel — but don’t try to stay there unless you are a member of Hilton Vacation Club.

Another thing. Don’t be surprised if your hotel has two names on the building. Because of historic preservation rules, “some hotels can’t change names because it was part of the original hotel,” McMaster says. A new Hampton Inn on Collins Avenue still says “The Claremont” on one side. The Ritz Carlton stills says “DiLido Beach” on one tower. The spire of The Hotel says “Tiffany” because it was once called the Tiffany Hotel.

“The owners wanted to be the Tiffany Hotel again, but Tiffany, the brand, wouldn’t let them,” McMaster says.

To confuse the issue further, hotels keep changing hands, changing names and reinventing themselves. This spring, for example, Hyatt bought South Beach’s Thompson hotel, formerly known as the Crown, originally known as the Lord Tarleton. Hyatt, for reasons known only to its marketers, plans to rename it the Confidente.