Innovative developers have long made dramatic use of architectural expression to appeal to travelers’ search for extraordinary pleasure grounds. Walt Disney’s theme parks, for example, trade on their embodiment of childlike whimsy. Whole towns from Pueblo-inspired Santa Fe, New Mexico, to the 18th-century fantasy of Colonial Williamsburg offer coherent landscapes for tourists. Likewise, Florida has a long history of creating iconic structures that set the tone in many of its resort areas.
The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, a massive, 1950s modern resort, recently garnered the #1 vote among a list of the top 100 buildings in Florida identified by the Florida division of the American Institute of Architects. The Fontainebleau launched an entire style called “Miami Modern” that proved highly influential in both Miami and on the Las Vegas Strip. Well before the Fontainebleau, modernist sensibilities defined Miami Beach in the 1930s-40s. Stylized pastel Art Deco hotels dotted the famed resort city, as American Tourism contributors Robin F. Bachin and James F. Donnelly explain in their essay on Miami Beach. Four of the city’s Art Deco buildings – Albion Hotel, Delano Hotel, Ritz Plaza, and Lincoln Theater – made the top 100.
If modernism made Miami Beach as we know it, the same could be said of Mediterranean styles like Moorish and Spanish Revival and Italian Renaissance on the rest of the Florida coasts. Like southern California, Florida epitomizes the popularity of eclectic, Mediterraneanized landscapes achieved through evocative architecture. The Florida AIA top 100 reflects the enduring legacy of this unifying vision. Now owned by Donald Trump, the Mediterranean Revival Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach (#5) was built in the 1920s as a winter home for Marjorie Merriweather Post of Post Cereals, who also maintained a rustic “great camp” in the Adirondacks (featured in American Tourism).
The Breakers (#7), also built in Palm Beach in the 1920s boom, is world-famous and has become a much-emulated model for later resort hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton Naples. But it was hardly the first. Even in the 1880s, railroad magnate Henry Flagler imagined extending St. Augustine, Florida’s fame as a Spanish settlement dating to the 16th century. Flagler built the Mediterranean-themed Alcazar and Ponce de Leon Hotels in 1887-88 to entice northern tourists to use his Florida East Coast Railway as a passage to paradise. The latter, now the centerpiece of Flagler College, was absent on the AIA list, leading, as the Huffington Post reported on April 18th, to a determined grassroots movement in St. Augustine to catapult the Ponce de Leon to the top of the write-ins. And, even the Breakers itself was the second rebuild of Flagler’s original 1890s Breakers hotel.
Other Florida AIA top-100 Mediterranean-style hotels and winter homes include the Alhambra knock-off Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, the Moorish-inspired Tampa Bay Hotel (now the Henry Plant Museum at the University of Tampa), the Italian Renaissance Villa Viscaya in Miami Beach, and two Mediterranean Revival gems, Jacksonville’s old San Jose Hotel and St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Park Hotel.
Even as they age, eclectic visions expressed through architectural icons retain their symbolic power, and many of the buildings that comprise them have been either lovingly tended or rescued from threats in recent decades. While Miami Beach preservationists have succeeded in reviving local appreciation for the Art Deco treasures that bespeak the rise of Miami Beach as a world-famous resort, tourists never tire of the Spanish, Italian, and Moorish fantasies that conjure a dreamy Mediterranean seaside holiday.