South Beach was a far cry from its present status as one of the world’s most chic, urban, trendy and luxurious resort destinations. South Beach began as a remote Miami Beach sandbar in the mid 1800s. Hardy souls who ventured out to South Beach any time before the 1910s found only sandy beaches, swamp land and mangrove tangles along the coast.
Back in 1868, an investor named John Lum bought all of Miami Beach for 35 cents an acre, intending to create a coconut plantation. Plagued by infertile soil and severe coconut blight, Lum gave Miami Beach back to the mosquitos in 1890.
In the early 1900s, South Beach Miami attracted another early entrepreneur named John Collins. One of the investors in Lum’s failed coconut plantation, Collins decided to grow avocados instead. While crops were fruitful, he was unable to get them to market on the mainland. Therefore, he began building a canal and bridge that would connect South Beach to the mainland. However, Collins went broke before his canal and bridge could be completed.
In 1912, along came John and James Lummus with a new vision for South Beach. They decided to create a “Fairy Land,” featuring a bathhouse that would be reached by tourists via a ferry from the mainland. This was the beginning of South Beach as a resort destination. In fact, the name South Beach was coined by one of the Lummus brothers’ daughters.
Another early Miami pioneer, Carl Fisher, played the most instrumental role in the evolution of South Beach into a true resort destination. Already wealthy with a winter home in Miami, Fisher noticed the unfinished bridge left by Collins, and partnered with him to build a hotel for tourists. Through this partnership, Collins finally got his bridge and Carl Fisher in 1913 completed South Beach’s first luxury hotel. Meanwhile, the island’s thick mangroves were removed and the bay was dredged. Soil from the Everglades was shipped in as fill and trees and shrubbery soon lined the streets of South Beach.
Fisher also created the Lincoln Road shopping district, known as the “Fifth Avenue of the South.” Tourists flocked to South Beach over the bridge or on their yachts by way of the newly dug deep canals, to stay in the hotel and shop at the expensive stores on Lincoln Road.
Seeing all the excitement, more visitors came to South Beach, along with people who wanted to buy land and build more hotels. By 1920, when an unprecedented county-wide land boom began, there were five hotels and lavish mansions owned by wealthy industrial families like the Firestones, J. C. Penny, Albert Champion and many others.
Next came the Art Deco era of the 1930s and 1940s, when many of South Beach’s most architecturally significant hotels, municipal buildings and other structures were completed. While tourism slowed during the World War II years, many aviators and other military personnel trained in South Florida, getting their first taste of life in the sun. As a result, the region’s population began growing in the late 1940s – the start of a boom that lasted for decades.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s. Early TV stars Arthur Godfrey and Jackie Gleason helped put Miami Beach on the national map with their shows taped at landmark hotels like the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc. During the 1960s and 1970s, South Beach became known as a retirement community offering inexpensive accommodations to aging seniors, including a large Jewish contingent from the Northeast. In 1980, the mass exodus from Castro’s Cuba known as the Mariel boatlift added thousands of new refugees to the area’s ethnic mix.
Then, in the mid 1980s, the South Beach renaissance began, sparked by the community’s realization that the pastel-colored, “streamline” architecture of the Art Deco era was a priceless asset. Meanwhile the TV show “Miami Vice” created a new awareness of South Beach throughout the country and around the world. Investors and entrepreneurs poured into the region, and stimulated its revival.
The result is today’s South Beach: a unique blend of past, present and future!