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Historical photos reprinted from Miami Beach: A History by Howard Kleinberg, with permission from Centennial Press, Miami


A Trip up Collins Avenue is an Architectural Trip Down Memory Lane

 

 

By Helen Hill

Way back when Miami Beach was
first developing, a new road, Collins
Avenue, was carved out parallel
to the beach. The road meandered north
alongside fine mansions set in
oceanfront estates. Today Collins Avenue,
also known as State Road A1A is the main artery of Miami Beach stretching almost to the Broward County line. A journey along its dozen miles crossing numbered streets from 1st to 192nd, offers a potted history of this tropical playground.
The Beginning of the Road

Elephants were pressed into
service to help with the
construction of Miami Beach.
Above, a publicity photo
from the 1920s.

Way back in the 1880s when Miami Beach was little more than a tangle of mangroves and swampland, John Collins, a Quaker businessman from New Jersey, joined a group of investors in a coconut farming venture at the southern end of the island.

The plantations failed and Collins bought out his partners leaving him the sole owner of a strip of land known as Ocean Beach. Collins still fancied fruit-growing, so this time he planted avocado groves, protecting them from the ocean winds by a windbreak of Australian pines, which still sand today along Pine Tree Drive.

When Collins' son Arthur and son-in-law Thomas Pancoast arrived from New Jersey they brought with a new idea for using the land; sell waterfront lots for homes and develop the tropical island into a classy winter resort - and so the Miami Beach Improvement Company was born. With financing from two Miami banks, (each headed by a Lummus brother) Collins bought and platted 580 acres at the southern tip of Miami Beach. Lots were offered for sale and the land rush was underway.

At that time Miami Beach was a virtual island, accessible only by ferry from Miami. In 1912, John Collins decide to building a bridge linking Miami Beach to the mainland. When money ran out before the bridge was finished, auto parts magnate Carl Fisher loaned Collins $50,000 to complete the bridge. He also acquired a strip of land ... and then bought more land which he cleared with the help of elephants laboring alongside the workmen. Slowly they hacked their way through the mangroves and swamps and despite the mosquitoes, snakes and horseflies, roads were marked out and the first coral rock houses began to sprout among the newly planted palm trees and tropical vegetation.

Excitement reached new heights in February 1913 with the Dammers auction. Showman Doc Dammers turned the land auction into an entertaining and highly successful event with hot air balloons, parachute drops and gifts of silver and china. In three days $66,000 worth of lots were bought for development. On June 12, 1913, dozens of cars chugged across the wooden Collins bridge from Miami marking the beginning of a new era for Miami Beach. Today the historic Venetian Causeway follows the route of that first bridge.

In 1915 the city of Miami Beach incorporated, combining Collins' and Pancoast's Miami Beach Corpo
ration; the Lummus brothers' Ocean Beach and Carl Fisher's Alton Beach company. In 1920 there were only 644 permanent residents of Miami Beach with just 80 phones listed on one page of the Miami telephone directory. John Collins and the other founding fathers continued to spark interest in Florida real estate by advertising in northern newspapers. At the same time railroads were trying to attract passengers and hotels wanted guests. 1920 Carl Fisher took publicity to a new level when he purchased a huge illuminated sign proclaiming "It's June in Miami" in Times Square, New York. Billboards of bathing beauties enjoying white beaches and blue ocean waters appeared around the country. Now Miami Beach was as "hot" as its temperatures. Down came the ‘tin can tourists' piled into Model T cars or by train, all eager to buy a piece of Florida real estate. In 1923 Carl Fisher sold $6 million worth of lots that had been scooped out of Biscayne Bay.

After boom came the bust in 1925. The following year a killer hurricane devastated South Florida. It took nearly a decade for Miami Beach to overcome the Depression years. In the mid ‘30 Miami Beach regained its luster with hundreds of new buildings constructed in the new Art Moderne style architecture -- or, as we know it today Art Deco!


Let's start our northward drive at the tip of Miami Beach where Collins Avenue begins at the junction withSouth Pointe Drive. To the east is Ocean Drive and the hub of SoBe excitement, to the west, Alton Road andthe MiamiBeach Marina. Behind us the towering condos of South Pointe Towers and Yacht Club at Portofino condominiums. Beyond them, South Pointe Park borders Governor's Cut, a deep water channel that marks the "front door" to the Port of Miami for cargo vessels and cruise ships. Across the channel rise the Mediterranean style buildings of tony Fisher Island, accessible only by ferry.

Collins meets Biscayne Street at the landmark Joe's Stone Crab Restaurant. Here in 1914 Joe and Jennie Weiss started the first restaurant in Miami Beach in a wooden house among the mangroves. Business boomed along with the town and adding stone crabs to the menu in 1921 really put Joe's on the map. Over the years the restaurant has hosted politicians and celebrities galore and nowadays, in high season, guests can anticipate a two-hour wait to get a table indoors or on the tropical garden terrace.

At this first few blocks of Collins an island of chic spills over from neighboring Ocean Drive with clubs and restaurants housed in old low-rise buildings. At night, born-again sophistication appears as Collins Avenue comes alive with crowds dressed in party casual chic heading for the action. One distinctive building just southwest of 2nd street was once a synagogue, now it has gone through various incarnations as night clubs, most recently Amnesia. Rumor has it that a movie studio/ production center will appear on the site.

At 3rd Street a short block away on Washington Avenue the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida is housed in a former synagogue designed by noted Deco era architect Henry Hohauser in 1934 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Heading north, a faded ‘50s look of low-rise apartment buildings and little grocery stores along Collins south of 5th Street evoke an area that has passed its heyday. But not for long!

Redevelopment, renewal and gentrification are about to change this. The area is beginning to blossom with condominium buildings, time-share hotels and town houses. Cascada, a new European-style community, has homes inspired by the Mediterranean architecture of a Tuscan villagio. 5th Street cuts a swathe across South Beach from Ocean Drive on the east to Alton Road on the west where it becomes the Mac Arthur Causeway, the main link with downtown Miami. North of 5th begins the official Art Deco district stretching northto 23rd Street and concentrated in three parallel streets, Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue. After years of neglect and plans for the wholesale demolition of buildings, the fanciful architecture of the ‘30s and ‘40 was given a new lease of life in 1979. Led by Barbara Capitman and Miami Design Preservation League, a square mile of South Beach was granted a listing in National Register of Historic Places and Art Deco District was born. Now South Beach is on the cutting edge of cultural and nightlife and rated on the Travel Channel's list of the world's top 10 beaches. It earned high marks for its wide sandy beach; its clear, clean water; good-size waves that are not dangerous; the sunny weather; the nightlife and the Art Deco architecture.

Shopping becomes the focus at the intersection of Collins Avenue and 8th Street. This is the center of the South Beach designer district, actually two still-evolving retail districts of designer boutiques and interesting, locally-owned shops. From 6th to 9th street you will find stores such as A/X Armani Exchange, Nicole Miller, Benneton, Nike, the Gap, Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic. 8th street between Washington Avenue and Ocean Drive, where Versace, Todd Oldham, Kenneth Cole, Cynthia Rowley, Hugo Boss and Betsey Johnson are located. The stores are comparatively new arrivals, the hotels lining the street date back to the heyday of the 1930s and ‘40s. Most were built as perfect examples of Art Moderne or Mediterranean Revival style and have been sensitively remodele

The Eden Roc, the venue
of choice for many big acts
of the '50s and '60s, still
attracts thousands for business and pleasure.
d into boutique hotels.

The Chesterfield at 855 Collins


You'll find the hippest renovations in town at The Hotel, formerly the Tiffany. 801 Collins Avenue, That name was dropped after protests from a certain jewelry company ( though it was left on the hotel's spire). Two blocks away, the tower on the Essex House Hotel at 1001 Collins points to an original 1938 Art Deco hotel now authentically restored. The Essex House is an excellent example of nautical moderne, with porthole windows and sleek racing stripes along its sides. Its finial tower spells out ESSEX in neon. In its first heyday the lighted tower gleamed across Biscayne Bay, luring many to The Essex House - including notorious gangster Al Capone and his buddies who used to play cards in a game room off the lobby.

The Tudor Hotel at 1111 is a historic landmark designed in 1939 by noted architect L. Murray Dixon, listed on the Unites States National Register.

On the east side of Collins Avenue a new landmark Loews Miami Beach Hotel opened in 1998 at 1565 Collins. The first major hotel to be constructed here in 30 years, the convention-ready Loews combines a brand-new 17-story, 700-room tower with the 60-year-old St. Moritz hotel, fully restored to original Art Deco splendor. Everything, from the lobbies to the vast ballrooms, is on a grand scale. Luxury hotel amenities include a fitness center and a whale of a free-form swimming pool fronting an expanse of wide, sandy beach. And, if you don't like toughing it out on the beach, you can rent poolside cabanas that come complete with butler service!


The National Hotel at 1677 Collins, a classic ‘40s hotel with a distinctive tower topped by a cupola, is considered one of the Beach's best-restored Art Deco gem.

Next door at 1685 Collins, the 1947 Delano is classed as the epitome of cool chic designed by world renowned designer Phillippe Starck with outrageous decor within a revamped exterior.

Upscale eateries line the neighboring streets, Washington Ave, Lincoln Rd., and Ocean Drive. Washington Avenue is known for its bars, lounges and clubs.

Collins Avenue crosses Lincoln Road just south of 17th street. just north of Lincoln Road, the Theater of Performing Arts (TOPA) and Convention Center. attract world-class entertainment and conventions.

North of 41st St. Collins Avenue is at its most majestic - a wide palm-lined boulevard between the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Creek. Here are two of Miami Beach's venerable hotels, The Fontainbleau Hilton and Eden Roc - made famous in the '50s and '60s as the venue of choice for acts such as Liberace, The Tonight Show, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Across the street, the Miami International Boat Show comes to town each February. This stretch of waterfront is transformed into a vast marina crammed with eye-popping yachts. The famous houseboat, the hiding place of Gianni Versace's killer, was moored on this stretch of the Creek, the subsequent siege was captured live on TV across the globe.

Across on dry land, more hotels and luxury condominium buildings line the street, here dubbed Millionaires Row. Two new towering buildings, the Green Diamond and Blue Diamond are nearing completion. The Wyndham Miami Beach Resort, formerly known as Westin Resort, formerly known as the Doral Miami Beach Resort, has a new incarnation after many million dollars have worked their magic on the decor and amenities. The myriad lights of the famed ‘60 s rooftop nightclub, The Starlight Room, still twinkle against the night sky.

Another hotel that recalls past glories is the Castillo del Mar Resort at 5445 Collins. This pink curving building with a semi-circular nightclub, has had several names, most recently the Castle Beach Resort. It started out as the glorious Playboy Resort, and now boasts Turkish baths. Soon Collins Avenue narrows into Condo Canyon lined with elegant condominiums on both sides of the road. Most, like the vast Seacoast Towers were built in the real estate boom of the late ‘70s and early ‘80 but new blocks are still going up wherever there is space. When this stretch was still sand dunes, the low red-roofed buildings of the venerable Bath Club were a landmark for Miami Beach society in the 1920s. The club is slated for preservation as a historic building.

Collins continues past the 63rd Street bridge over Indian Creek that connects to Alton Road, Miami Beach's west artery. The former St. Francis Hospital guards the south-west side of the bridge, on the north-east, the pocket-size Brittany Park curves in a green ribbon along the Creek. Back on Collins Avenue where it again becomes a northbound one-way street, you can't miss the white streamlined curves of the Casablanca Hotel, with sculpted goddesses supporting the porch. This is the beginning of North Beach, an older area of hotels, condos and small stores. Building and renovation are happening all along this stretch of beachfront.


North Beach's Radisson Deauville, home to many
events and conventions,
has been remodeled.
Nostalgia reigns at the Radisson Deauville Resort, on Collins Avenue and 67th recently renovated but still basking int he glory days of ‘50s and ‘60s celebrity guests such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and the Beatles. 71st Street sweeps west from Collins across Normandy Isle (home to Absolutely Florida), where the streets are named for French towns, to become the 79th Street Causeway. (Official name John F. Kennedy Causeway) on its way past North Bay Village to mainland Miami.

Back on Collins heading through the North Shore, the years fall away at the 74th Street shopping area, a perfect example of a 1950s' main street, gussied up with new sidewalks and palm trees. Woolworths and the two movie houses are closed but the butcher, baker and drug stores together with a branch public library, make it a busy neighborhood oasis. Behind Collins along the sand dunes, Ocean Terrace evokes South Beach's Ocean Drive in miniature.

Now Collins passes through the Altos del Mar area, an shady enclave with the only beachfront private houses in Miami Beach. North Shore park starting around 85th street, is a pristine treasure of shade trees and greenery stretching to the dunes along the beach. Rustic shelters with picnic tables and chairs are the only signs of civilization here.

Miami Beach segues into the township of Surfside as Collins reaches 88th street. At 8701 Collins Dezerland Hotel, guarded by a 1959 Cadillac at the front door, is a 1950s automobile wonderland. A dozen mint-condition classics site around the grounds and lobby, and a mosaic of pink Caddy is worked on the bottom of the swimming pool. Until recently Surfside was a sleepy town but now new condos are springing up on both sides of Collins Avenue. The Surf Club's low white buildings take up a whole oceanfront block . Like the Bath Club it was the epitome of high society in its day. It still resounds to the sounds of parties and charity galas, but the threat of redevelopment is never far away.

Collins crosses 96th Street which goes west to Bay Harbor Islands and the Broad Causeway to Miami. This street is also the boundary between Surfside and Bal Harbour and although they have the same zip code, the ambiance is very different. Bal Harbour is Upscale. The landscaped median between the now two-way Collins Avenue and manicured grounds and fountains in front of exclusive high-rise condominiums, set the scene for a definitely high-income area. Bal Harbour Shops, called Florida answer to Rodeo Drive, is an outdoor, flower-festooned mall of designer stores and boutiques. Across the way, the Sheraton Bal Harbour Beach Resort, built as the Americana in the early ‘60s, is President Clinton's favorite Florida watering hole. The hotel was redesigned and redecorated three years ago.
Historical photos reprinted
from Miami Beach: A History
by Howard Kleinberg,
with permission from
Centennial Press, Miami

Click here to order
this book from
Amazon.com


Bal Harbour beach has an exercise course and shady jogging path leading to a fishing pier. Collins Avenue leaves Bal Harbour as it soars over the Baker's Haulover bridge. Before the channel deepened and the bridge was built, a Mr. Baker used to haul-over goods across the spit of land. Drivers going north on Collins avenue tend to do a double take as they cross the bridge and see flying cows and pencils. Not to worry, they are kites marking the only outdoor kite shop in South Florida. The breezes blowing from the Atlantic Ocean across the grass to the bay make this a perfect site for kite-flying.

On the east at the equivalent of 105th street, (there are no numbered streets here) Haulover Beach has great surf casting fishing (although the old fishing pier was damaged in Hurricane Andrew), jogging paths, a secluded nude beach, and a popular picnic area along the road. On the west, deep sea fishing boats and private charter boats are moored at Haulover Marina on the Intracoastal. Every afternoon when the boats come in, the fisherman sell their fresh catch on the dock. Haulover Park features public tennis courts and a par 3 public golf course with very affordable greens fees. The longest hole is 125 yards in a pretty bayside location with a view to

The delightful pool at the New Casablanca on the Beach.
mangroves and Florida International University across the bay.

Beyond Haulover, more condominium towers and motels, Three white towers mark Oceania on the beach side. Across the road on Oceania Island, the fourth Tower is on site of the Castaways motel, with its subterranean Wreck Bar, a favorite haunt of the Beatles celebrities and tourists in the 1960s. At 163rd Street the road arches into a bridge that takes traffic west to North Miami Beach and the Golden Glades intersection of Florida's Turnpike, I-95, Route 441, and The Palmetto Expressway (836).

On Collins Avenue the traffic is more leisurely, this is the start of Sunny Isles Beach, a traditional tourist-focused area. Gilbert Samson Park gives entry to the beach and the Newport Pier. Fishermen pay $3, other pays $1 to watch them or walk out to sea and admire the view of the shoreline The Lighthouse lends a nice nautical touch to a Seven Seas restaurant next to The Newport Beachside Resort.

Sunny Isles Beach is changing fast as the old mom and pop beachfront motels give way to luxury apartment towers. The motels were fun with names like Tahiti, Dunes, Driftwood, Blue Seas and hokey, marzipan-style decorations to advertise their theme. A few of the old places are still there. Look for the Sahara, marked by two stuffed camels and the figure of an Arab in full flowing robes and the Suez with its Sphinx; The Thunderbird has a southwestern motif; the Desert Inn sports concrete horses and a wagon while the Chateau has a two-part roof, white steeply pitched on one half and half-timbered pink stucco on the other.

Another old time landmark is alive and well. Lines still wind around the Rascal House Deli Restaurant, waiting to sample their mile-high deli sandwiches and home-made matzo-ball and chicken soup. Shopping centers line the west side of Collins throughout Sunny Isles Beach but new luxury towers are changing the skyline on the east. The Pinnacle's five towers of descending heights can be seen for miles. New condo-hotels, Williams Island Resort, Ocean Grande and Ocean Pointe are going up in this stretch and more are planned.

Just past the turnoff to the Aventura-bound Lehman Causeway (192nd St.), Collins Avenue leads to ritzy residential Golden Beach. The storied avenue which links the past and present of Miami Beach now changes into Ocean Boulevard and then plain old Highway A1A.


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