Lookout Grandma! the Art World's New Wave Has Crashed Onto Miami Beach

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The old Jewish couples sunning on the boardwalk in South Miami Beach can tell a story or two about their adopted home. Some remember the 1940s, when all the right people booked into the Art Deco hotels and lines wound around the block for the early-bird dinner special at the Roney Pub. Many recall the horrible '60s and '70s, when the Roney Pub closed, the hotels were abandoned and all the truly right people went to Palm Beach. Feh. Who even wants to remember?

But, when asked to recount their wildest tales, the old-timers don't have to search their memories. They just look around at the strangest mix of humanity that anyone has seen beneath these palms in 50 years. Strolling the boardwalk every day are money-dropping yuppies, struggling artists, Hispanic teens, Hasidic rabbis, models in sequined bustiers, Ukrainian babushkas, beachboys, punkers, scar-faced drug dealers—even screen stars.

Don Johnson regularly dines at the renovated Carlyle hotel, whose guests have included Fawn Hall and Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer. Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood hangs out on the portico of his new club, Woody's-on-the-Beach. Julio Iglesias and Donna Summer have joined the throngs at the superlavish disco Club Nu. Lauren Hutton and Whoopi Goldberg like to eat at the Strand.

Even the Art Deco buildings, now brighter than ever in new coats of seafoam green, canary yellow and flamingo pink, seem to be young again in the newly playful South Miami Beach. "I was skeptical at first about Miami," says dance star Edward Villella, who runs the two-year-old Miami Ballet out of a South Beach studio, "until I became smitten with the constant resort life-style. It's a cross-cultural atmosphere within an endless summer." Rehearsing the troupe in his glass-walled studio, he says, "When I see a young child's nose glued to the window for two hours watching my dancers, I feel the greatest happiness I've ever known." In two years the Miami Ballet has enlisted 10,000 subscribers and performs to packed houses.

Villella and other former New Yorkers have helped change Miami Beach from a threadbare Riviera to Paradise Found. Partly because they don't have to suffer jet lag to get there, throngs of New Yorkers now get a jump on summer in South Beach, which they fondly liken to Manhattan's SoHo, the renovated art district that inspired South Beach's new nickname, SoBe. Enticed by low rents, many onetime visitors have decided to stay year-round, and upscale attractions have sprouted around them: boutiques, cafés, Cuban coffee houses, an experimental theater, a gourmet grocery.

No such allures were in place when industrial designer Leonard Horowitz and free-lance writer Barbara Capitman left New York City to hit the beach in the 70s, but they were enthralled by the spectacular 1930s-era Art Deco buildings, and they resolved to preserve them. Though a one-mile stretch of beach property was designated in 1979 as the country's largest Art Deco historic district, many of the then-decrepit buildings were still in danger of destruction by developers. Horowitz and Capitman formed the South Beach Preservation Committee, which now has 400 members and encouraged the renovation of 120 of the area's 400 Art Deco buildings. Their efforts have saved angular machine-age filigree and whimsical seaside designs—porthole windows, cruise ship railings, plaster mermaid reliefs—that are unique to Miami.

For some developers, the path to preservation has been paved with gold. "I'm a visionary," says Gerald Sanchez, 46, who has spent $22 million to renovate nearly a dozen SoBe hotels. A Cuban emigré whose New York construction company helped restore the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Capitol dome, the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York Stock Exchange, Sanchez proudly points out the historical integrity of his renovations as he cruises down South Ocean Drive in his Rolls-Royce Silver Spur. (In a rare departure from period authenticity, he did put a likeness of himself on the bottom of the pool between his Breakwater and Edison hotels.) "Columbus is my hero," says Sanchez. "I plan to build a statue of him on South Beach that's one foot taller than the Statue of Liberty. He was a risk taker who built the largest real estate development in the world."

Like SoHo's, SoBe's rebirth owes a lot to the artists who came there in search of good light and cheap working space. Now about 80 artists work in the 22 storefronts on Lincoln Road that potter Ellie Schneiderman converted into the South Florida Art Center in 1984 with the help of a $62,000 city grant. There are a dozen new galleries, and Rolling Stone Wood, who published a book of his own drawings last year, has added an exhibition space to his nightclub. SoBe now shines with its own constellation of art stars, including two pairs of Cuban twins. Nelson and Ronald Curras, 47, opened SoBe's first gallery in 1980; their utilitarian ceramic lamps, plates and tile murals now sell for $15 to $1,000. The 40ish Haydee and Sahara Scull caricature SoBe's street crowds in glaringly bright paintings that bring from $1,000 to $10,000.

SoBe culture skitters between extremes. Those with refined taste frequent the Carlyle hotel, where jazz pianist Sally Baily performs in a room decorated with mauve wall sconces, molded mirror glass and fluted chairs. "The Carlyle is such a civilized spot," says Paul Maslansky, producer of Police Academy Five, who recently finished shooting scenes on SoBe. Nearby, in the former home of the Embers Restaurant, rocks Club Nu, where according to co-owner Tommy Turchin, 33, "you see everything from sleaze to the sublime." Redecorated periodically to stave off that club killer, boredom, Nu is crammed with about 10,000 people on weekends and takes in $145,000 on a good night. Go-go dancers and late-night strippers on the bar set a tone that allegedly inspired one young couple to make love in an open tomb when the club was decorated Egyptian-style six months ago. The scene is only slightly more tame at Club Deuce, a workingman's bar that converts to a hip watering hole after dark. "The mixture of people is a 10,000-degree change thanks to the renaissance on South Beach," says owner Mac Klein. "I'm having a ball."

There remains, of course, some trouble in paradise. "There are still break-ins, drugs and prostitutes," says Gary Farmer, 38, owner of the Strand, a hot dining spot, "and places where I wouldn't walk around at night." At the swank Tropics International nightclub, owner Arthur Barron, 46, employs a formidable team of security guards to expel hooligans. "Those who have the idea that South Beach is a place to raise hell or sell crack must leave," he says. "This is a sophisticated club. We intend to keep it that way." Then there are the traffic jams, the displacement of poor residents and renewed threats of demolition. Outside the still-decayed Senator Hotel, preservationist Capitman finds an empty Mad Dog 20-20 wine bottle and tosses it into an overflowing trash barrel. "We simply can't afford to lose this building," she says, lamenting a conglomerate's plans to turn it into a parking lot. "Everything we've worked for could go down the drain."

For now, at least, SoBe's denizens are thriving on its strange stew of sea slime and glamour, seasoned by the presence of old-timers. Says restaurateur Farmer: "Watching old people do calisthenics on the beach gives me the energy to do more, to take more chances." If this latest renewal of Miami Beach is one day swept away in the tides, it won't be for lack of effort by its pioneers. "I have to fight every inch of the way," says Capitman. "I can't believe it—every street is colorful and exciting. Every building has potential. I intend to impede every vulgar developer. There is so much more to do."

Written by Michael Small, with Linda Marx in Miami Beach

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