The luxurious loft-style condominiums at 8800Collins in Surfside, FL, have been designed with every conceivable modern touch, from the contemporary open spaces to the Italianate kitchens. But just a five minute-drive away lies the famous Art Deco district in South Beach, a trip that will take you back nearly 100 years.

National Geographic magazine says Miami Beach’s Art Deco district was the first 20th Century neighborhood to be recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, with 800 structures of historical significance, most built between 1923 and 1943.

The Art Deco movement originated in Paris in 1901, when the Société des Artistes Décorateurs was formed to fuse the industrial technology then coming into vogue with the decorative arts, and the style was first featured in a 1925 Paris exposition. Thus, it sports a marriage of the sleek geometric designs of the then-new aeroplanes and automobiles with a more rococo style of neoclassical touches, such as flora, fauna and fountains. Such influences as Art Nouveau and Cubism also appear in the style.

After Henry Flagler built his railroad that opened up South Florida to development, the intricacies and craftsmanship of Art Deco followed in his tracks, though modified by the influence of the hot Florida climate and nearby seaside. Thus was born the uniquely Miami-style of Tropical Deco, with its smoother lines and cooling, sherbet colors. Unfortunately, after many years of neglect, these gems had fallen into disrepair, and plans were made to tear them down.

In 1979, a champion arose in the form of Barbara Capitman who, along with five friends, established the Miami Design Preservation League. They spurred restoration of the old buildings, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Largely concentrated along the parallel streets of Ocean Drive, Collins Avenue, and Washington Avenue, from 6th to 23rd streets, the buildings were designed to raise the spirits of Americans during the Great Depression, and they continue to do so today. As you wander past the neon-decked facades, you’ll be deep in the heart of “Miami Vice” country.

Start your tour at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive, which is run by the Miami Design Preservation League. The center, located in the only beachside building across from the Clevelander Hotel and bar, provides such informational material as maps and pamphlets, and offers such paraphernalia as Art Deco books, postcards, mugs and T-shirts. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., it runs guided tours around the neighborhood. The tour costs $25.

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