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What's Happened to Miami?

The fact that this debate is going on at all shows how far Miami has come on the preservation department. Twenty years ago, people were concerned with saving the city's historic properties from demolition any way they could. Now they argue about the best way to save them. A current favorite among the preservation community is the Delano's next-door neighbor, the 160-room National, which has just undergone a very faithful restoration. The public rooms at the National evoke the glamour of 1940's Hollywood films. The lobby, with Deco railings and chandeliers, dark-wood paneling, and heavy club chairs looks like a first-class waiting room in some long-lost train station.

The setting is ultimately more Rosalind Russell than Madonna, however, and the question is whether the National will find an audience. As the debate continues, Whorisky, who moved to Miami from Cambridge, Massachusetts, a decade ago, is clear about one thing. "Right now Miami is the best possible place to be for an architect," he says. "Not to mention an architecture critic."

Thirty-five-year-old Whorisky is one of a whole new breed of bright young creative people who have been attracted to the possibilities offered by a resurgent South Beach. For New York­based artist Michelle Oka Doner, who grew up on the Beach in the 1950's and whose father was the city's mayor from 1957 to 1962, what is most exciting about her former hometown today is that it offers "the possibility of a great creative community." Comparing it to New York City's SoHo in the late 1960's and early 1970's, Doner, who now keeps an apartment in South Beach and has just done a half-mile-long bronze and terrazzo installation at the Miami International Airport called A Walk on the Beach, says Miami is attracting "a new layer of settlers who can still find a place to live at reasonable prices and find people on the same creative wave-length."

Doner also points out that Miami's "Latin-ness" is part of its appeal. "After 500 years, there is a real resurgence of Latin culture," she says. "And a lot of this is based in Miami. It has energy—it's still fertile, still connected to the earth. It's something we've lost in the rest of America, but Miami has it now." And happily, Miamians, not just Latinos but other ethnic groups as well, are embracing the city's Spanish past and present.

It was the stirrings of this fresh energy that struck 35-year-old actor-director John Rodaz when he was cast 10 years ago out of New York to appear in a Miami theater production. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami since the age of two, Rodaz had headed to New York right after high school to study theater at NYU. After graduating, he'd spent the next five years as a Manhattan-based actor. "I rediscovered my hometown," Rodaz says of his return to Miami. "The city was not the one I grew up in—it was going through changes, cultural changes—there was a pioneer feeling." Back in New York after the close of the show, Rodaz abandoned his dream of starting an off-off-Broadway theater in the East Village. Instead, he moved back to Miami and founded AREA, a lively little company based in a 50-seat storefront theater on Lincoln Road.

Today, Rodaz and his Ecuadoran wife, Maria—whom he met during a preview of AREA's first production, back in 1989—run one of the city's most successful small theaters. With some 50 productions behind it, AREA has offered audiences an eclectic mix of plays and playwrights—from established names like Sam Shephard, David Mamet, and Harold Pinter to rising talents like Jose Riviera, Loretto Greco, and Nicky Silver. AREA's productions—even Latin American plays—are done in English, although the group recently experimented with an English and a Spanish version of Peruvian playwright Mario Vargas Llasa's La Chunga.

Although AREA's audience tends to be young—ranging from 25 to 45 years of age—and largely made up of locals, Rodaz points out that he doesn't "cater to an audience . . . we just try to do work that is challenging to us—and we hope other people feel the same way. We're not careless, but we do like to take risks." For an artist, it's almost too good to be true. Indeed, according to Maria Banda-Rodaz, one of the biggest problems AREA faces is its success. "We're outgrowing our space," she says. "We're limited to plays with small casts—even five or six actors put a strain on our small stage and our small budgets." So AREA has begun to search for larger quarters. Where?"South Beach. Where else!"

Another South Beach cultural institution experiencing growing pains is the Bass Museum of Art, housed in a landmark Art Deco palazzo in a park not far from Lincoln Road. With a lavish permanent collection of old masters and Flemish tapestries, as well as a growing number of contemporary works (including many by Latin American artists), the museum also hosts as many as 10 temporary exhibitions each year.

"We are bursting at the seams," says Bass executive director Diane Camber, who was one of the original prime movers in the late 1970's battle to get South Beach's Art Deco district placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Mrs. Camber is smiling because the Bass is about to break ground for an $8 million addition that "will take us into the 21st century." Designed by heavyweight Japanese architect Irata Isosaki, the new structure will double the museum's space and will be followed by a second wing of equal size in the early 2000's.

For Camber, the runaway success of the Bass—especially with South Beach tourists, who now account for 60 to 70 percent of the museum's visitors—is particularly sweet, since it vindicates her initial faith in the city some two decades ago, when many officials thought the best way for Miami Beach to stage a comeback was to demolish the old Deco buildings and replace them with high-rise casino hotels. "We have shown that art and culture can draw tourists just as much as sun and fun," she says.

Meanwhile, two other South Beach museums, both less than two years old, are wooing visitors away from the beach. At Washington Avenue and Third Street, an enchanting Art Deco synagogue that was Miami Beach's first Jewish house of worship is now the Sanforld L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida. Inside this beautifully restored 1936 structure, the saga of Jewish life in Florida—from 1763 to the present—unfolds through well-mounted displays of historic religious objects, family heirlooms, and photos, newspaper clippings, and video clips. The museum is full of surprises.

In 1846, for instance, when Florida was admitted into the Union, its first senator was David Levy Yulee, who was also the first person of the Jewish faith to serve in the U.S. Congress. During the middle of the19th century, the Florida city of Fort Myers was named for a Jewish West Point graduate, Colonel Abraham Myers. And in 1885, the first Miss Florida, Mena Willam, was Jewish.

A few blocks north of the Ziff museum, at Washington Avenue and 10th Street, the imposing Wolfsonian museum takes over an exotic 1926 furniture warehouse inspired by the 16th-century library of Salamanca, in Spain. The Wolfsonian now showcases one of the world's most extensive collections—some 70,000 objects—of decorative, architectural, graphic, and propaganda art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pet project of millionaire, bon vivant, and patron of the arts Mitchell (Mickey) Wolfson Jr., the museum that bears his name scored a major hit with its inaugural exhibit, "The Arts of Reform and Persuasion 1885­1945," which focused on how design was used to carry messages—from selling products to promoting controversial ideas such as Nazism and communism. Lifting South Beach to a whole new level as an important exporter of culture, this award-winning exhibit is currently on an international tour that will end in Japan in the summer of the year 2000.

Indeed, Mickey Wolfson compares South Beach today to Paris at the end of the 19th century. "It had a booming economy and was very liberal," he says. "The city welcomed Argentines, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Romanians, Americans. . . . We have the same exiles here. They come from all over the world, and they are allowed to express themselves—in literature, architecture, painting, music, or food. There's something unique here, something ineffable that has to do with people not being judgmental. Rules were always meant to be broken in Miami."

No wonder Gianni Versace loved it.

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