Kenn Finkel stands in the lobby of the Essex House, a 1938 art deco masterpiece, and tells the small group around him that most Miami Beach hotels harbored gambling casinos in the 1930s, but no one spoke of them, of course, because gambling was illegal. Each desk clerk had a special way of letting customers know how to find the casino.
At the Essex House, three arrows in the design of the gleaming terrazzo floor, which pointed to a closed door, provided the clue.
"If you asked, 'Where's the casino?' The person behind the desk would look you in the eye and say, 'Look down,' " Finkel says.
A retired Miami Herald editor, Finkel tells a good story in two hours and six square blocks. He's one of 40 volunteer guides who conduct the daily walking tours of the art deco district of South Beach. All are experts in their realms and have their own ways of explaining the rise, near demise and eventual rebirth of what's known as the world's largest collection of art deco architecture. Most of the buildings were designed by just four architects.
On Ocean Drive, as muscular roller-bladers glide along and bikini-clad visitors lounge at sidewalk cafes, Finkel leads his eager students from hotel to hotel, stopping in front of each to explain.
"The Clevelander was by architect Albert Anis, one of the big four that I mentioned, and that is a typical art deco building of the mid-1930s," he says. "Notice that it's four stories – almost all those buildings were either three or four stories. Three sections, and the two outside sections are dominated by the middle section."
In addition to movie marquee facades, rounded corners and "racing stripes" in sets of three, the hotels have concrete "eyebrows" over the windows. Now considered a signature of the art deco style, Finkel tells the tourists, they were put there for practical reasons – to shield the rooms from the morning sun.
He shows how the eyebrows start curving around corners in later buildings, as the style evolved. An inspiration for the later evolution was the 1934 Beach Patrol Headquarters, which looks like a cruise ship, portholes and all. And it's still afloat – still serving as Beach Patrol Headquarters.
Finkel's grandmother lived in one of the hotels during the 1960s, when the district became a retirement haven for pensioners. Later, it decayed into a dangerous slum. But he grew interested in the enclave through a colleague at The Herald, Michael Kinerk, one of the original activists who, led by the late Barbara Capitman, helped save the buildings from destruction and got the district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Developers wanted to build high rises, like the towering condominiums going up to the north of the district, "and the plan almost went through," Finkel says. Then, Capitman got involved.
"She was a visionary," Finkel says. "She didn't see this as an area of deteriorating buildings and deteriorating people. She saw this as an area of history."
The four main architects – Anis, Henry Hohauser, L. Murray Dixon and Roy France – also designed most of the Mediterranean-style hotels of the 1920s, meant to appeal to a wealthier clientele with old-world tastes. The middle class came in the 1930s.
Finkel points to the decorative columns and arched windows of the Edison Hotel, one of the last Mediterranean-style buildings by Hohauser. It's a few doors down from the Congress, one of the architect's earlier art deco designs.
By the way, filmdom's Rhett Butler once stayed at the Edison. Gone with the Wind star Clark Gable was billeted there during World War II, when, as Finkel notes, nearly a third of "the entire United States Army Air Corps trained right here."
The enthusiastic guide, educator and art deco cheerleader tosses in a number of celebrity tales along the way. Finkel points to the coral rock wall across Ocean Drive from the Cardozo Hotel. There, Frank Sinatra and Eddie Hodges sat and sang High Hopes, the Academy Award-winning song from the 1959 movie, A Hole in the Head.
Don Johnson leaned against that wall over there, near the entrance to the Carlyle, to open the 1980s TV show that did much to boost the district's popularity, Miami Vice.
And the Casa Casuarina is the third most photographed home entrance in the country, after the White House and Graceland, according to Finkel. Now a luxury boutique hotel and restaurant, the mansion belonged to world-famous fashion designer Gianni Versace, who was gunned down on the front steps one summer morning in 1997 by a lunatic he didn't know.
"I'm willing to bet – my back is turned – I'm willing to bet someone's taking a picture of it right now," Finkel says. "Right?"
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.