Visual Art

World Congress on Art Deco returns to where it began

Written By Karen-Janine Cohen
April 17, 2023 at 9:50 AM

A detail of The Wolfsonian–FIU, located in the heart of the Art Deco District of Miami Beach, one of the featured excursions during the 16th World Congress on Art Deco, coming to Miami and Miami Beach from Thursday, April 20 to Thursday, April 27. (Photo courtesy of Miami Design Preservation League)

Awake, O Miami! The 16th World Congress on Art Deco is coming to Miami, a chance for visitors and residents alike to discover, or rediscover, South Florida’s Deco treasures. Deco experts, including architects, designers, and aficionados, will see and learn about the hotel, theater, and residential structures built in the Deco Modern Art style, which swept the world in the early 20th century.

“Modernism – Florida’s Hidden Treasures” begins with a pre-congress in Orlando, on Tuesday, April 18, then the congress’ main event is in Miami Beach and Miami from Thursday, April 20 to Thursday, April 27, and closes with a post-congress in Palm Beach, where World Art Deco Day will be celebrated on Friday, April 28 with a costumed ball. Events end there on Sunday, April 30.

While the 13-day event takes in different locales throughout the state with its full slate — everything from lectures to tours of some of the area’s top Deco sites, Jack Johnson, board chair of the Miami Design Preservation League, says the World Congress is returning to where it all began.

Lectures during the World Congress will be on site at the Jewish Museum-FIU. The main museum building, at 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, was built in 1936, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has many Art Deco features. (Photo courtesy of Miami Design Preservation League)

The first World Congress happened on Miami Beach in 1991. “It was the idea of Barbara Baer Capitman but she didn’t live to see it happen,” says Johnson. Capitman, a legendary force for South Florida historic preservation, who died in 1990, was instrumental in starting the preservation league. She also led efforts to create Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District, which runs from 5th Street to 23rd Street and is home to more than 800 Deco structures.

Johnson, who helped organize the congress, along with other members of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies, says that while the roster is designed to showcase South Florida Art Deco, organizers hope the event will highlight the need to preserve all of the region’s historic architecture.

Art Deco takes its name from the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, highlighting the avant-garde architecture and design movement. It was soon taken up worldwide by forward-thinking architects and designers, who each put a local spin on the style. For example, Napier, New Zealand, has a significant number of Deco structures, built after a 1931 earthquake leveled much of the city. A number boast Māori motifs.

Included in the itinerary of the 16th World Congress on Art Deco will be a walking tour through the Flamingo Park historic Art Deco district in Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Miami Design Preservation League)

Similarly, South Florida blended in vernacular elements, says Johnson, noting that Miami Deco, sometimes called Tropical Deco, or Marine Deco, often incorporates native animals, plants, and wave forms. Most were built post-Depression as Deco became streamlined and geometric.

“Here in Miami Beach, we tend to have the simpler buildings, not built by corporate entities, but by small investors,” says Johnson, contrasting Miami buildings to grand icons, such as New York’s Chrysler and Empire State buildings.

In an email exchange, noted Miami architect Allan Shulman described Art Deco as belonging to the ” ‘evolutionary’ strand of modern architecture, contrasting to the ‘revolutionary’ ideas of Le Corbusier and other early 20th century modernists.”

Shulman, founding principal of Miami-based firm Shulman + Associates, who is also a professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture, author and researcher, says that Deco architects were trained in the classically oriented Beaux Arts method and aesthetics, which they brought to their structures.

In reconciling modernism with traditional classical architecture, Miami practitioners found a certain opportunity and freedom.

Designed in 1936 by Yugoslavian architect Anton Skiskewicz, the Breakwater Hotel on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach remains one of Miami’s most iconic Art Deco buildings. (Photo courtesy of Miami Design Preservation League)

“Far from the principal American academic and professional centers, Miami architects worked in the frontier context of an emerging leisure city, and attempted to bring a regional sensibility to their work,” says Shulman. “Art Deco helped codify the ‘cosmology’ of Miami as a singular resort city, reflecting a world of values, meanings and intentions.”

Shulman will headline a talk titled “Tropical Stucco: Miami’s Art Deco and its Architects” on Friday, April 21, at 2 p.m. at the Jewish Museum-FIU. Andrew Capitman, Barbara Baer Capitman’s son, will present: “Barbara Baer Capitman, the Early Years of Art Deco Preservation” on Saturday, April 23 at 3:30 p.m. Other speakers will address topics such as Art Deco in Mumbai, Chinese Art Deco, and Deco in Havana.

Silvia Barisione, chief curator at the Wolfsonian-FIU museum, will discuss architect Igor Polevitzky, behind such icons as the Collins Avenue Shelborne South Beach hotel.

Barisione wants the congress to raise greater awareness about the need for historic preservation in South Florida – not just Deco, but MiMo, Mediterranean revival and other threatened styles. The Wolfsonian-FIU is also making available archives for those undertaking restorations in their own cities. They include records from John and Drew Eberson, credited with creating the “atmospheric” style movie palaces, such as Miami’s opulently decorated Olympia Theater on East Flagler Street.

Tours of Casa Casuarina, built in 1930 by Alden Freeman and bought by fashion designer Gianni Versace in 1992, are part of the World Congress on Art Deco. (Photo courtesy of Miami Design Preservation League)

Sharon Koskoff, president of the Art Deco Society of the Palm Beaches, says area structures may be a revelation for some. “Our Art Deco is rarer, more significant, and so few and far between,” says Koskoff, who worked with Capitman on the first Miami Beach-based world congress and has been advocating for preservation ever since. A mural artist herself, Koskoff hopes the 16th World Congress on Art Deco will raise the profile of South Florida architecture.

“We are highlighting our hidden gems,” she says, noting that designers and photographers who attend the events will go home, and share. “It creates awareness, and all the global awareness trickles out.”

WHAT:  The 16th World Congress on Art Deco: Modernism– Florida’s Hidden Treasures

WHEN: April 18-30

WHERE: Orlando, Miami Beach, Miami, Palm Beach

COST: $35 to $429 (day passes for Miami and Miami Beach events available here.)

INFORMATION: is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. 

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