Updated: Jul 20, 2021
The hotel in the summer of 2020
Miami Beach is America's favorite oceanfront resort city, home to miles upon miles of white sandy beaches, the beautiful blue water of the Atlantic, and year-round stunning sunshine that is interrupted only by the brief but frequent torrential downpours that keep South Florida's vegetation perennially green and lush.
For architecture enthusiasts though, Miami Beach is more than just a place to relax on the beach. It's the Art Deco capital of the world, home to the planet's largest collection of buildings in that style, most concentrated in the city's famed Miami Beach Architectural District, which roughly corresponds with the South Beach neighborhood that is a tourist mecca packed with restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels, centered on the world-famous Ocean Drive.
Just north of this often chaotic district lies the Mid-Beach neighborhood and its main artery, Collins Avenue. This area is also historic in its own right, encompassed by the Collins Waterfront Architectural District. The collection of buildings here is a bit more eclectic but includes a true gem of the Art Deco style: The Cadillac Hotel.
While situated within the registered Architectural District, the Cadillac Hotel is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places (its designation date predates that of the district) and is significant for its "notable place in the evolution of Miami Beach resort architecture" and of course its beautiful and "distinct Art Deco/Streamline Moderne style" of architecture.
Miami Beach pioneer John S. Collins in 1912 at age 74
Image source: City of Miami Beach, Florida, City Clerk's Office
1896 proved to be a pivotal year for South Florida. That year, the East Coast Railway, funded by the millionaire industrialist Henry Flagler, reached the site of present-day Miami, the city was incorporated, and area founding father John S. Collins, for whom Collins Avenue is named, arrived in town as well.
A practicing Quaker from New Jersey, Collins didn't start out interested in real estate and resort hotels. Instead, he crossed the bay from the main city of Miami to the peninsula of what is now Miami Beach, where he cleared away the island's mangrove swamps and started practicing agriculture. He grew mangos, avocados, tomatoes, and potatoes on his land, all cultivated by his mainly Black workforce. Agriculture was so close to Collins' heart that he had founded the New Jersey Horticultural Society, and that's where his focus remained until after the turn of the century when he realized his crops weren't getting to market fast enough. Collins envisioned a canal that would allow him to ship the produce straight from the fields across the Bay and onto the railroad, but he didn't have enough money to pay for the project himself, so he asked his adult children to join in on the venture.
The younger Collinses had a much different vision for the region and apparently a lot more foresight as well. Together with their dad, they formed the Miami Beach Improvement Company, which marked the first official use of the term “Miami Beach.” The kids agreed to help finance the canal construction, (the Collins Canal now runs alongside Dade Boulevard in in heart of Miami Beach, passing the city's Convention Center and Collins Park) but they also wanted something else built: a bridge to the mainland.
Construction began on the Collins Bridge in 1912. The 2.5-mile-long wooden bridge would become the longest such bridge in the world when it opened, but construction proved even more expensive and difficult than the Collins family had imagined. Running out of funds, they had to bring in another partner. Enter Carl Fisher, the Indianapolis auto parts and racing magnate, whose firm manufactured almost every car headlight in America at that time. Fisher was already a successful developer who had built the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, Miami to Michigan Dixie Highway, and the sacred Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He loaned Collins $50,000 in exchange for 200 acres of land in Miami Beach, and the Collins Bridge opened to the public to great fanfare on June 12, 1913.
From that moment on, thanks in no small part to Fisher's relentless promotion of the area, Miami Beach was synonymous with real estate and recreation. In 1916, the Miami Beach Improvement Company platted out the area containing what is now the Collins Waterfront Architectural District, naming it the "Oceanfront Subdivision". The population of Miami Beach exploded a full 440 percent between 1920 and 1925. A massive hurricane then hit the region in 1926 and put a halt to the exponential growth. The Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 kept the region economically subdued for a full ten years.
By the end of the 1930s however, the boom was back. The number of hotels in the area increased from 60 to 250. But this boom was different. While the chaos of the Roaring 20s had catered primarily to the wealthy, Miami Beach was now attracting the attention of the middle class, who flocked to the sunshine on the new highways and rail lines leading there. Hotels like the Cadillac, built in 1940, catered to these new masses and were usually built a bit north of the city's core. The new hotels were also generally less architecturally pretentious and less expensive.
Yet, the middle-class leisure boom proved fleeting, interrupted by the outbreak of WWII. When the nation mobilized to fight and win the war, Miami Beach was no exception. The United States Army Air Corps leased about 300 structures throughout the City for use as barracks, mess halls, hospitals, and training facilities, including 31 in what is now the Collins Waterfront Historic District. Soldiers and airmen trained on South Beach, but the Cadillac and its neighboring properties greeted the men returning from war, rather than those shipping out. They were used as Army Air Corps Redistribution Station #2, where returning GIs spent two weeks recuperating from their tours of duty while their records were finalized. Soldiers staying at the Cadillac received their final evaluation before returning home.
It wasn't the last that many of those war-weary men would see of Miami Beach, though. After the nation's victory, many came back as tourists, and by the 1950s, the area was as in demand as ever. Dozens of new hotels and apartment complexes were constructed to keep up with the demand, and existing properties like the Cadillac were upgraded from mere hotels into modern resorts, with air conditioning, pools, restaurants, bars, beach cabanas, retail stores, and all the modern amenities and conveniences expected today.
The Cadillac itself added essential air conditioning in 1953 and a new wing of rooms and facilities 3 years later. It continued to operate as a hotel until late into the 1990s when growth and interest in Miami Beach waned. A renovation was completed in 2004, after which the property joined the Mariott brand as the Courtyard Cadillac Miami Beach/Oceanfront. A year-long renovation in 2017-18 upgraded the hotel once again to its current status as a luxury property in the Marriott Autograph Collection, its modern amenities and historic value wrapped in a beautiful and distinctive Art Deco exterior.
Art Deco and Streamline Moderne
Art Deco Architecture on Miami Beach's famed Ocean Drive
Art Deco may be among America's favorite architectural styles, but it is also notoriously hard to define. What is known is that the style grew out of the world's art and architecture capital of the time: Paris, France (which was supplanted in that role by New York City after WWII) and its 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, put on by the French government to highlight, as the name suggests, the modern styles of decorative and industrial arts then being developed in Europe.
Like many styles, Art Deco was a blend of the past and present, though it took that idea to its extreme by combining the ancient history of Mayan, Egyptian, and Indigenous American design with the cutting-edge modern technology of the era. In Miami Beach, the style also took on a nautical theme given the city's proximity to the ocean. Palm trees, flamingos, ocean liners, and other symbols of the sea found their way into the Art Deco architecture of the city, which was built and ornamented with "bas-relief stucco, keystone, and etched glass, a variety of metals, cast concrete, and patterned terrazzo," according to the Cadillac's NRHP Nomination form.
The popular 11th Street Diner in Miami Beach, built by a New Jersey company in 1948, is an example of the streamlined design style of vehicles and machines that inspired the Streamline Moderne subgenre of Art Deco
Miami Beach also took a specific liking to the Streamline Moderne subgenre of Art Deco architecture, inspired by the aerodynamic character of the era's trains, ships, cars, and buses. As seen in the diner above, one characteristic of this style was rounded corners. Others included racing stripe banding, radio tower-like spires, portholes and deck railings like those found on grand ocean liners, and generally anything reminiscent of the machines that were changing the world.
The Streamline Moderne style still made use of stucco, glass blocks, keystone, and metal accents like the older Art Deco buildings, but did so in a far more plain and simple way. That simplicity came for both stylistic and cost reasons, as the new hotels and residences built in the style catered to a less wealthy but far broader audience. Gone were the days of the elaborate Mediterranean revival, red tile-roofed spectacles like The Breakers or Mar A Lago in Palm Beach. Miami was all in on reflecting modernity and embracing the technology of the era, and the Cadillac was at the forefront of that push, taking even the name of a modern brand of machine.
France also designed the National Hotel, located further south on Collins Avenue
Roy F. France is considered the father of the Miami Beach skyline, so it seems appropriate that his architecture career began in Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper. He also had hotels in his blood. Born in Hawley, Minnesota in 1888 France and his parents moved the family moved to Fargo, North Dakota soon after to own and operate the Gardner Hotel. They later moved to Chicago, where, as a young man Roy worked as a draftsman in an architect's office and studied architecture. He soon passed the state board exams to become a licensed architect of his own right and was later able to transfer that license to Florida.
In 1931, France and his wife Edith took an extended, leisurely golf trip, traveling by train from place to place until they reached Miami. France recounted in a 1968 interview with the Miami Herald that he played golf at the Biltmore Country Club and got so sunburned that he had to spend a full day in bed recovering. Nevertheless, he was sold on the area, so much so that the couple "just couldn't think about living in Chicago any longer." The Frances packed up and moved to Miami full time, where Roy launched the architectural firm Roy France and Son.
His specialty in Chicago had been hotel architecture, so it was a natural transition when a noted industrialist of that city, William Whitman, asked him to design a hotel tower in Miami Beach. France designed the now-demolished Whitman Hotel, which was finished in 1935 as the first major new hotel built in Miami during the depression, and went on to design dozens of hotel towers in the city, of which some 20 are still standing today. He also designed apartment buildings, private homes, and churches.
In ten years from 1938-1949, France designed nine buildings along Collins Avenue between 30th and 40th streets, including the Cadillac, Sea Isle (now the Palms), Saxony (now the Faena), and Versailles hotels, in doing so essentially singlehandedly creating the modern Mid Beach skyline. Many of the buildings followed a similar design pattern, including the Cadillac, and the National Hotel seen above: seven window bays wide, 12 or 14 stories tall, and topped with a tapered tower or other finial element that emphasizes the verticality of the structure. The point of it all, France said, was to "let in the air and the sun. That's what people come to Florida for."
France's influence on the architecture of Miami is unmistakable. He retired in 1969 after designing the North Hialeah Baptist Church and passed away in 1972 at the age of 83.
The hotel's boxy 1956 addition was designed by Melvin Grossman, a talented hotel architect in his own right who designed both new hotels and additions to historic properties like this one. Its design is simple: an L-shaped structure with horizontal window bays.