How Miami is re-embracing its modernist architecture

Florida’s ‘Magic City’ has rediscovered its sparkle, with a crop of new hotels and hangouts re-embracing the city’s 1950s heyday for modern travellers.

Ocean Drive in South Beach.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Jacqui Agate
Published 7 Feb 2023, 06:01 GMT

Biscayne Boulevard stretches out in a swirl of palm trees and pastels. Mid-century motels are painted in apricot, sky blue and ballet-slipper pink, while winking neon signs promise air conditioning and vacancies. Towering above them is the 35-foot Coppertone sign, showing a pigtailed girl and shaggy spaniel. A rainbow flag flies outside Jimmy’s Eastside Diner. 
I’m in the heart of Miami’s MiMo District — ‘MiMo’ being an abbreviation of ‘Miami Modernist’ — and it’s a veritable time warp. The protected cluster of Miami Modern buildings, distinctive for their playful angles, bright colours and patterned railings, swoops along Biscayne Boulevard, extending roughly from 50th to 79th Street. It catapults you right back to the 1950s, and at the heart of it all is the Vagabond Hotel.

“This used to be the centre of the Magic City,” says May Mallouh, general manager at the hotel. “It’s what made Miami, Miami. And this specific hotel was the gem of the boulevard.”

The Vagabond Hotel was built in 1953, when a growing middle class and a post-war car boom meant the road-trip holiday, and the motel, were king. The Biscayne Boulevard stretch in Florida’s sunny south, Mallouh goes on to explain, soon became a holiday hotspot. It was so popular that even the iconic Rat Pack hung out here, according to local legend. It was the place to see and be seen. 

But by the 1970s — following the construction of Interstate 95 and a multitude of hotels on mushrooming Miami Beach — the area fell into decline. And so too did the Vagabond. 

A lifeguard tower in South Pointe Park.

A lifeguard tower in South Pointe Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

When boutique development firm the Vagabond Group bought the hotel in 2012, it was a dilapidated shell. But they set about returning it to its former, retro glory by painstakingly preserving the protected facade, sign and structure, and filling the interior with mid-century-inspired furniture and design cues, from angular wooden dressers to a kaleidoscopic colour palette. The courtyard-style pool deck is true to the original set-up too — down to the mosaic mermaid that smiles knowingly from beneath the water’s surface. 

“We see the value in preserving history,” says Mallouh. “When we opened in 2014, the area was starting to change, but it wasn’t what it is today at all. Now, you have restaurants, cafes and other properties that have been renovated. We have this beautiful district.”

This lesson in faithful architectural regeneration has spurred a flurry of similar activity along Biscayne Boulevard. Selina Hotel Miami Gold Dust is another place that leaned into its 1950s history during recent renovations. Also owned by the Vagabond Group, the building began life as the Gold Dust Motel in 1957 and was reopened by boutique hospitality brand Selina at the end of 2020. 

“There was a real car culture in the 1950s and 1960s,” says Sophia Lykke, area general manager for Selina. “When you see old photos of this property, you’ll see all the vintage cars lined up.” Indeed, cars are still front and centre; the protected motel retains its classic U-shape, its rooms gathered around a fern-dotted pool deck and parking lot. Record players, vintage TVs and rotary dial phones fill the rooms and communal areas.

“People come to this neighbourhood to eat at vintage diners and to see intact retro architecture,” Sophia says, adding that Selina has just opened the 1960s-inspired Don’s 5 Star Dive Bar on site, too. “They want to feel that old fifties Miami vibe that’s disappeared in other parts of the city.”

Outdoor dining along Ocean Drive.

Outdoor dining along Ocean Drive.

Photograph by Getty Images

Another place it hasn’t entirely disappeared either is on Miami Beach. One of America’s most iconic holiday spots, it’s divided into three sections: there’s infamous South Beach, known for its relentless party scene and glittering store of art deco buildings; North Beach, where MiMo architecture reigns supreme; and Mid Beach, which is anchored by the Fontainebleau, a grande dame hotel that’s fresh from recent renovations. Just along the boardwalk is the art deco Confidante Miami Beach — it’s also been refitted to reflect its mid-century heyday, with a riot of pastels, plus black-and-white photos in the sleek on-site bar and restaurant The Lounge. 

“We’re a cyclical culture,” says George Neary, former executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League. “We have cities and areas that come up and down and up again. Miami Beach is a good example.” With any luck, these striking building blocks of American culture will continue to shine, as Miami ploughs into the future with one eye on the past. “Because we’re such a future-driven society, it’s hard for people to realise that buildings are important,” Neary adds. “But the architecture, the design, the style — this is part of American culture.” 

How to do it

Airlines including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly direct between Heathrow and Miami.

George Neary runs bespoke Miami architecture tours for groups and independent travellers. Prices upon request.


Published in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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