Nov 30, 2010

Brooklyn: Retro Authenticity

While staying in Park Slope for a few weeks last summer, I became
intrigued by Brooklyn’s retro culture. It started with the furnished apartment we rented. A veritable retro shrine, the apartment housed everything from grandma’s furniture to 1960s crockery, kitsch 1950s movie posters to a huge collection of vinyl records. Aside from a computer and television, there was scarcely anything new in the place. On the same block as the apartment, there were two second-hand clothing stores. But my Brooklyn retro experience culminated in an afternoon at Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg (around the corner from the Brooklyn Brewery), followed by shopping at Brooklyn Industries, and finally, sharing a growler of Bierkraft beer with friends. Of course, it is impossible to identify a borough as diverse as Brooklyn with a single culture, but retro seems to me to be somehow essential to a particular Brooklyn cultural experience.

Retro clothing store, 5th Avenue, Brooklyn

Retro is the revival, idealization and consumption of the recent past. While antique culture is fixated on fine objects of the distant past, retro is fixated on everyday, often kitsch, objects or experiences of the late twentieth century. However, while “retro embodies a communal memory of the recent past” (Guffey, 2006: 26), this experience is “also implicitly linked with loss of faith in the future” (Guffey, 2006: 22). Retro thus implies identification with a lost era and its (real or imagined) values. As the recent past is consumed as a series of images or discrete objects, history is both celebrated and forgotten: retro is a culture of selective memory.

A more specific analysis of Brooklyn’s retro culture appears in Sharon Zukin’s latest book, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. In her analysis of the cultures of gentrification in New York, Zukin describes both the Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries as part of the 1990s reinvention of Williamsburg (Zukin, 2010: 49-50). Founded in 1987, Brooklyn Brewery began brewing in upstate New York before shifting to an abandoned Williamsburg factory in 1996. Two years later, fashion brand Brooklyn Industries was founded by artists Lexy Funk and Vahap Avsar. After working in design-related industries, they began making messenger bags from recycled vinyl billboard materials in a former Williamsburg factory. And before proceeding any further, it is worth adding a disclaimer at this point: I own both a Brooklyn Industry messenger bag and a t-shirt, and have consumed plenty of Brooklyn Lager.

Brooklyn Brewery's signature beer, Brooklyn Lager

Brooklyn’s recent past is central to the image of both brands. The “B” on the Brooklyn Brewery’s logo and labels, designed by Milton Glaser, references the late Brooklyn Dodgers’ lettering, a suitably retro nod to the borough’s former sporting glory days of the 1940s and 50s (see photo above). The brewery itself is a revival of Williamsburg’s illustrious brewing past that stretched back to the nineteenth century, although the last brewery from that era closed in 1976. Similarly, the Brooklyn Industries logo highlights the neighborhood’s industrial past, through its image of the Manhattan skyline from a Williamsburg perspective. Their respective brand positioning also highlight local character: Brooklyn Industries is a resolutely urban fashion brand, opposed to both suburban mainstream chains and haughty couture, while Brooklyn Brewery’s “local” beer is opposed to both the national mass brands and boutique foreign imports.

Brooklyn’s retro culture, Zukin argues, is closely aligned to the borough’s newest population wave: young, educated professionals. The success of brands like Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries initially rested on the claims to local heritage and character by this new urban middle class. During the 1990s, industrial-era Williamsburg emerged as a retro theme, but remains for the most part a surface aesthetic, without reference to Williamsburg’s German brewers, Polish and Puerto Rican factory workers, or Hassidic population. In the absence of these diverse histories, “Williamsburg’s new entrepreneurs crystallized the neighborhood’s “authenticity” into a product with cultural buzz and shaped their own new beginnings into a powerful story of origin” (Zukin, 2010: 50). Retro culture gives this authenticity material form – from local beer to renovated brownstones, industrial-themed fashion to retrofitted warehouses.

Above: Brooklyn Industries store, 5th Avenue, Brooklyn

Below: Brooklyn Industries bag

While Brooklyn Brewery and Brooklyn Industries continue to market commodities self-consciously branded by Brooklyn, they now distribute nationally (and even internationally). Initially opposed to mainstream brands and chain stores, their particular local identity and authenticity are in danger of becoming mainstream. Presumably, the retro appeal of both brands coincides with a popular, global image of Brooklyn reinforced by cinema and television. However, while these two have already surpassed their Brooklyn base, the other two examples of Brooklyn retro I began this post with, the Brooklyn Bowl and Bierkraft, are experiences that cannot be exported.

Above: entrance to Brooklyn Bowl.

Below: band posters, while not exclusively retro, the Talking Heads tribute fits the bill.

At the Brooklyn Bowl, a somewhat unfashionable pastime has been reinvented with a retro makeover as part of a complete entertainment experience, including nightclub-style lighting and sound system, banks of digital project screens, and loud music. Located in a former iron works, the Bowl features a sixteen-lane bowling alley, a stage for live bands, a restaurant, and two bars. The interior design, by Tristram Steinberg, includes a wealth of retro detailing – from the dark, deep-buttoned Chesterfield couches and hand-painted signage, to the bar inspired by a Coney Island shooting gallery. Even the diner-style menu, featuring Fried Chicken platters and Egg Creams, has a retro flavor. While self-consciously retro, the Bowl also has solid environmental credentials, as its recycled flooring materials, low-impact lighting, and wind-powered electricity have resulted in the country’s first L.E.E.D. certified bowling alley.

A Bierkraft growler

Lastly, the growler of Bierkraft beer topped off my Brooklyn retro afternoon. While Bierkraft is a boutique which stocks literally hundreds of beers, the experience (for me at least) was in purchasing a growler. A growler is a large brown bottle, something like an old-fashioned moonshine jug, 64 ounces in this case, into which beer is poured directly from a tap in the store. After consuming the contents at home, the empty jug is returned to the store and refilled. While I am not convinced that this is a uniquely Brooklyn experience, I suspect the growler revival is particularly strong in the borough. A range of gourmet cheeses and chocolates complements Bierkraft’s beer range, but the particular retro emphasis here is on the locally produced beer brewed using various old-fashioned methods (that staff are keen to converse about in depth). However, like a day at the Brooklyn Bowl, it is not a cheap experience.

As the taste culture of Brooklyn’s new middle classes, retro is available to those with the disposable capital to consume it. At its worst, retro’s romanticisation of the past is a form of collective amnesia in which wealthy newcomers can forget the displacement and ongoing disappearance of diverse neighbourhoods. At its best, retro’s romanticisation of the past might revive lost histories, skills or knowledge, as it did for me with both a new found appreciation of both bowling and beer. Ultimately though, Brooklyn retro’s culture may be simply symptomatic of our age of uncertainty. As Zukin puts it: “Though we think authenticity refers to a neighborhood’s innate qualities, it really expresses our own anxieties about how places change” (Zukin, 2010: 220). A retreat into a comfortable, seemingly stable past may be less fearful than the rapidly changing present.


Elizabeth Guffey, Retro: the Culture of Revival, Reaktion Books, London: 2006.

Sharon Zukin, Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York: 2010.

Brooklyn’s most recent retro contribution: Jacques magazine's retro porn.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz

Update, 15 December: And now, the Brooklyneer, for all things Brooklyn. & it's in ... Manhattan.

Oct 22, 2010

Why Design Now?

In a 2007
blog entry, I compared the last National Design Triennial, Design Life Now, with another exhibition, Design for the Other 90%, also at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum:

“While Design Life Now: The National Design Triennial takes up the former Carnegie mansion's interiors, curator Cynthia Smith's Design for the Other 90% is, fittingly perhaps, situated outside in the garden. Coming out onto the lawn from the Triennial, the first thing that struck me about Design for the Other 90% is that it isn't a particularly aesthetically-pleasing exhibition (though this may be more of a reflection on the Triennial than on this exhibition). It also seems rather small, tucked away in a corner of the garden. But it's a start. The exhibition's premise is simple but confronting: most of what we think of as design is produced for a small fraction of the world's population with large disposable incomes. Indeed, much of the work in the vast Design Life Now falls into this category of design that serves the world's wealthiest 10%, design that Cooper-Hewitt director Barbara Bloemink describes as "design for desires rather than genuine needs" (Design for the Other 90%, exhibition catalogue, p.6), hence both the great volume and the aesthetic overload of Design Life Now.”

Three years later, the most recent National Design Triennial,
Why Design Now?, confirms a significant shift in the way design is popularly perceived and publicly promoted, as projects that were formerly relegated to the garden now occupy center stage at the Cooper-Hewitt (and, not coincidently, Cynthia Smith joined the curatorial team for this Triennial). After the economic bubble finally burst, the designer decades seem to be over and “design for desire” passé. In contrast to the last Triennial, Why Design Now? “celebrates the transformative power of design” (catalogue, p. 11) and the commonsense definition of design as the production of material artefacts has given way to a definition of design as a means to facilitate social and environmental change. Phrases such as “carbon neutral”, “environmental footprint” and “system in crisis” are scattered throughout the exhibition and its associated literature, acknowledging design’s direct engagement with urgent environmental, social, economic, and cultural issues.

In a recent heated discussion with a colleague, we both agreed that Why Design Now? has a retro feel, but whereas she thought the exhibition was simply a throwback to the 1960s and 70s, I thought it was also contemporary. Theoretically, the retro turn evident in the Triennial is best encapsulated by three themes (associated with practice and research of earlier designers and theorists):

Design as interdisciplinary and visionary (Buckminster Fuller).
Design as socially and environmentally engaged (Victor Papanek).
Design as transformative action (Herbert Simon).

Of course, these themes are interconnected, and transformative design that is socially and environmentally engaged is necessarily located at the nexus of interrelated fields (particularly science, technology, ecology, culture, and economics). While on the one hand, the Triennial contained visionary projects which imagined possible sustainable futures (reminiscent of Fuller), on the other, there were also modest interventions based on an action-oriented, pragmatic approach founded on social experience (reminiscent of Papanek). However, these ideas have been adopted and adapted by new generations of designers responding to rapidly changing global conditions.

Why Design Now? was divided into eight sections – Energy, Mobility, Community, Materials, Prosperity, Health, Communication, and Simplicity – and included design projects from the local or geographically specific to large-scale urban planning and mass communication. The familiar figure of an individual designer creating material artefacts for a consumer marketplace was replaced by collaborative teams, often global in membership, co-creating with communities as a means to a more desirable future. In a commitment to environmental principles, even the exhibition design and materials used for display – the furniture and carpet tiles, informational panels and graphics, for example – utilized sustainable materials and/or processes.

The first section, Prosperity, featured design projects that enable local communities to create (and hopefully maintain) “engines of prosperity”. Working with traditional low-tech craft processes and materials in Central Java, for example, Indonesian designer Singgih Kartono’s
Magno wooden radios are produced by local farmers. Having lost their livelihoods to global economic forces, the farmers now confront such forces head on, by exporting a locally made, sustainable product. Similarly bridging the local and global, Nokia’s Open Studio project involves an interdisciplinary team of designers and researchers working with communities in informal settlements in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, and Accra (Ghana) to co-design useful mobile devices.

Energy featured post-petroleum solutions, from reductionist approaches such as improved light bulbs and more efficient solar and wind energy generation systems, to visionary projects such as the
bioWAVE Ocean Wave Energy System, an attempt to harness energy from tidal movements. Mobility also focused on design and engineering innovations for a post-petroleum world, from the French AGV high-speed, energy-efficient train made from 98% recycled material, to innovative bicycles and the new New York City Bike Hoop Racks (see photo above). Both sections contained direct responses, either reductive or innovative, to the looming environmental crisis, with designers working closely with engineers and scientists.

Somewhat predictably, Communication featured the iPhone, Twitter, and Kindle, but less predictably,
Etsy, an online global marketplace that connects producers of hand crafted products directly with consumers, a potential connection with the previous Prosperity section. Less glamorous, Clearview Hwy Typeface, by designers Donald Meeker and James Montalbano, is a further example of collaborative research (particularly psychological and engineering research) where a team has improved upon the 1940s Highway Gothic standard highway signage system. Upstairs, Materials focused on recycled, sustainable (largely renewable, natural) materials for packaging, domestic and commercial furnishings, fashion, and textiles.

Health brought together a diverse range of projects, from a South African condom applicator, to
Healthmap, an accessible, global disease monitoring system. As well as new medical and health-related products, it also featured infrastructure projects such as the water accessibility project, Ripple Effect, by IDEO and the Acumen Fund. Beginning in India and expanding to East Africa, Ripple Effect is a network that connects local communities, NGOs and suppliers in order to provide safe drinking water in such a way that builds local capacity for infrastructure, distribution and purification. Simplicity featured design artefacts that used minimal materials and/or means, the most memorable was surely New Zealander Greg Holdsworth’s biodegradable casket, Return to Sender, a coffin made from sustainable plywood and wool, described by the designer as “an elegant, eco-iconic form that honors the deceased and allows their final footprint to be a small one.” (Why Design Now? catalogue, p.183)

Finally, Community featured mostly architectural and urban design projects, including MVRDV’s intriguing proposal for the
Vertical Village, Taipei, an unbuilt urban village comprising various building typologies drawn from improvised rooftop structures and informal community facilities common in Chinese cities. More concretely, Michael Maltzan’s recently completed New Carver Apartments in Los Angeles integrates medical, social and communal facilities into a new living space for the city’s homeless, while the city of Medellin was displayed as an exemplary site of urban transformation. The formerly violent drug capital of Columbia has been transformed over the past six years by urban projects such as public parks, community facilities, schools and childcare facilities, and a light rail system.

Why Design Now? featured numerous examples of the direct impact of design through social engagement and inter-disciplinary collaboration, and design’s transformative potential in changing behaviour patterns, activating informal economies, and opening up new possibilities. Beyond the production of material artefacts, design’s potential for social innovation and building sustainable communities is necessarily political. But, as
Cameron Tonkinwise recently suggested, “what happens if design-based social innovation is not just a way of avoiding conventional, explicit politics, but a way of undermining politics altogether?” While undermining politics altogether might be wishful thinking, I think Tonkinwise has a point, as many of the projects featured in the Triennial operate pragmatically, building alliances outside (or between) existing institutions and infrastructures in order to try and make a difference. Finally, to bring it back to the personal: I leave many design exhibitions feeling like I want to go out and buy something; I left Why Design Now? feeling like I want to go out and do something.


Ellen Lupton, Cara McCarthy, Matilda McQuaid and Cynthia Smith (eds.), Why Design Now?: National Design Triennial, New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2010.

Cynthia Smith (ed), Design for the Other 90%, New York: Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2007.

Photo of NYC Bike Hoop on 5th Ave, Brooklyn, by D.J. Huppatz

Sep 16, 2010

Two Hotels in St Augustine

At the beginning of the 1888-89 winter season, Henry Flagler opened two opulent hotels in St Augustine, Florida: the Ponce de Leon, and the Alcazar. These hotels represented the beginning of the “Flagler System”, comprising railroad links and resort hotels that would eventually stretch the length of Florida’s East Coast. Rivaled only by Henry Plant’s similar Plant System (based in Tampa and extending down the state’s West Coast), Flagler’s System combined transportation, real estate development, infrastructure development, and marketing, to create Florida’s first luxury resorts – self-contained accommodation, recreation and entertainment complexes, that radiated “an unprecedented aura of conspicuous luxury” (Braden 2002: 77). If Vizcaya, completed in 1916, marked the end of Florida’s Gilded Age culture, Henry Flagler’s St Augustine hotels marked the beginning.

Carrère and Hastings, Hotel Ponce de Leon (above) and Hotel Alcazar (below)

Searching for gold and the fabled fountain of youth, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed near St Augustine in 1513, and a permanent Spanish settlement was founded there in 1565. There are echoes of this first, sixteenth-century colonization of the Florida coast in Flagler’s nineteenth century development, as Northern wealth, culture, new technologies, and industrial systems, combined to produce a particular type of Florida space – the exclusive, autonomous resort (which, in turn, is echoed in today’s luxury condo complexes and lifestyle developments). Flagler made his initial fortune as a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, and in the 1880s began to focus his considerable wealth and energy on Florida. In 1885, the same year he commissioned New York-based architects Carrère and Hastings to build the Ponce de Leon, he bought a railroad from Jacksonville to St Augustine, and within a few years had completed the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar, as well as purchased the existing, adjacent Casa Monica hotel (renamed the Hotel Cordova). But St Augustine’s Gilded Age status was short-lived, as Flagler extended his railroad and hotel system further south in 1894 to Palm Beach, a destination that soon displaced St Augustine’s reputation as the “winter Newport”.

Above: Ponce de Leon, Courtyard Fountain (with frogs and turtles)
Below: Ponce de Leon, main entrance

Both John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings trained at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, then worked for McKim, Mead and White in New York, before establishing their own firm with the dream commission of Flagler’s no-expense-spared St Augustine hotels. Their designs for both hotels followed basic Beaux Arts planning – an orderly arrangement of public spaces, guest rooms, and service spaces along a central axis. The Spanish Renaissance references – including orange terracotta tiles and decorative mouldings, courtyard fountains, and distinctive towers – at once evoked the Spanish heritage of the existing town, but also the Renaissance aspirations of the wealthy. Thomas Graham argues that the architects subtly but self-consciously evoked the old town’s overhanging balconies, while the coquina stone texture of the concrete walls was similar to St Augustine’s 17th century Castillio de San Marcos (see Graham, 1998). In addition to the European historical references (which included Italian Renaissance as well as Spanish Renaissance), the architects incorporated marine motifs such as turtles and frogs in the Ponce de Leon’s central courtyard fountain, and shells and seahorses in the detailed terracotta relief around the main entrance. While the use of concrete for the walls was technologically innovative and modern, and the planning conventionally Beaux Arts, the romantic, escapist experience was produced via the lavish and detailed decoration throughout.

A shell doorhandle at the Ponce de Leon

The Ponce de Leon was the centerpiece of Flagler’s St Augustine and the carefully choreographed arrival sequence began at Flagler’s railroad depot, usually at night, from which guests were taken by carriage to the front gate where they were met with a spectacle of glittering electric lights. While luggage was discreetly taken around the back, guests passed under the grand arched gate and entered into the exotic realm within. Men continued to the lobby’s domed rotunda, while women entered via the ladies’ entrance (so as to avoid the vulgarities of monetary transactions). Inside, the experience was no less spectacular. Wooden columns, decorated with caryatids, held up the large central dome of the entrance rotunda. Four stories above, Spanish-themed murals painted by George Maynard were illuminated by electric light bulbs, while the floor featured mosaics created by Italian artisans. The New York firm Pottier & Stymus decorated the grand parlor, a large space featuring Florentine crystal chandeliers, and an onyx mantlepiece into which was set one of Thomas Edison’s electric clocks. Finally, the magnificent two story, oval-shaped dining room, which doubled as a ballroom, featured a barrel vault ceiling decorated by Maynard, with stained glass and furniture designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Above: Ponce de Leon's rotunda with murals by George Maynard
Below: Ponce de Leon's dining room
Below: the grand parlor, Ponce de Leon, with Edison's electric clock above the fireplace

On completion of the Ponce de Leon, construction began across the square on the Hotel Alcazar. With 300 rooms, the Alcazar was both smaller and cheaper than the Ponce de Leon (with 450 rooms), and its season extended from December to April, while the Ponce de Leon was only open from January through to March. The Hotel Alcazar was similarly constructed from gray concrete with orange roof tiles and terracotta ornaments, but was more eclectic in its decorative inspiration, drawing on Spanish Renaissance, Italian Renaissance, as well as Islamic (Moorish) motifs. While Carrère and Hastings went on to design later Gilded Age classics, including the New York Public Library, the exact contribution of a young Bernard Maybeck, who worked as a draftsman on both St Augustine hotels, is unknown but intriguing in suggesting later possible continuities of Beaux Arts eclecticism.

Above and below: details of the Hotel Alcazar's towers

Beyond its similar appearance, the Alcazar provided a complement to the Ponce de Leon in that it housed most of the recreational facilities for both hotels, including a gymnasium and baths complex, and the casino, which included an indoor swimming pool and a ballroom. The Russian bath, popularly known as “the Senate” because guests wrapped themselves in togas while they sat on marble tiers immersed in steam, featured a curious marble table with levers and switches for controlling the steam, heat and water flows (see images below). The Turkish bath was essentially a sauna, and the ritual for both baths included being sprayed with water before entering, and upon exiting, a dip in a cold bath followed by a massage. Such treatments were promoted as a cure-all for everything from heart and liver disease to obesity. The Alcazar’s indoor swimming pool, measuring 156 by 56 feet, was lit by a skylight four stories above. As per 19th century convention, men’s and women’s time in the baths and gymnasium were kept separate, and the swimming pool area included a smaller women’s only lap pool. However, even though the Alcazar and Ponce de Leon featured conventional 19th century gendered spaces such as men’s wood-panelled billiard rooms and women’s delicately decorated parlors, Susan Braden argues that Flagler’s luxury hotels were progressive in actively reducing the number of gendered spaces and in increasing the number of shared public spaces and recreational activities.

Above: the Russian Bath, Hotel Alcazar
Below: the marble console for controlling heat, steam and water in the Russian Bath
Below: the indoor swimming pool at the Hotel Alcazar
Despite the historical references and European details throughout, both of these St Augustine hotels featured modern American technologies, including Otis elevators, electric lights in every room (with electricity generated by Edison’s dynamos in the on-site boiler room), modern refrigerators, a telegraph room, and modern plumbing (including high-tech flushing toilets). As it extended down the coast, Flagler’s system was also distinguished by its incorporation of modern logistics, such as importing luxury goods from the North via the railroad, establishing central warehousing facilities in Florida, and distributing goods via rail to his various hotels.

Above: Inside the courtyard, Hotel Ponce de Leon
Below: Inside the courtyard, Hotel Alcazar

It was a system that included importing the Gilded Age culture of the Northern elite. Flagler’s St Augustine hotels featured extensive indoor and outdoor recreation facilities, fine dining, personal services from barbers to physicians, and on-site shops selling luxury items imported from the North. Organized cultural events and entertainment included costume balls, musicals, theater performances, and an artist-in-residence program at the Ponce de Leon. Flagler even published the Tatler, a seasonal society newspaper for hotel guests. The St Augustine hotel experience is described by Braden (after Thorstein Veblen) as “conspicuous leisure” – designed for a visibly wealthy leisure class with the money and time to travel and pursue various recreational pursuits from sports to theater. While the wealthy elite traveled to such resorts for both pleasure and health reasons, another important reason was to see and to been seen, as images of Vanderbilts and Astors wintering in St Augustine featured in mass magazines of the era.

Hotel Ponce de Leon, now Flagler College

But St Augustine’s time in the spotlight was short – by 1900 Palm Beach had became the place for wealthy Northerners to spend the winter. The Hotel Alcazar closed as a hotel in 1932, and was purchased by Chicago publisher Otto Lightner in 1947 as the future home for his extensive antique collection (and it finally opened as the Lightner Museum in 1974, while part of the hotel also houses the St Augustine City Hall). Meanwhile, the Ponce de Leon remained open until 1967, after which it was occupied by Flagler College, which continues to operate from the hotel today – the once luxurious hotel rooms are now student accommodation. Finally, it is worth briefly considering the continuity of Flagler’s hotels in later Florida developments. Racial and social difference were carefully reinforced in the design of these hotels – America’s late 19th century elite society excluded Jews, recent immigrants, and African Americans (except in servile roles, of course) – and for the first six seasons, rooms at the Ponce de Leon were available by invitation only. As an exclusive space separate from the existing community (except as a source of cheap labor), Flagler’s St Augustine luxury hotel development could be considered a distant precursor to Florida’s many gated lifestyle communities and luxury condo developments of the 21st century.


Braden, Susan R., The Architecture of Leisure: The Florida Resort Hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, Gainsville: The University Press of Florida, 2002.

Graham, Thomas, “Henry M. Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de León”, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol. 23, 1998.

Photos by D. J. Huppatz

Aug 25, 2010


After a few days in Miami Beach and a brief Atlantis drive by, we continued around Biscayne Bay to Vizcaya, the former estate of James Deering. Originally comprising an opulent mansion (constructed 1914-16), formal garden, and a working farm on 180 acres, Vizcaya remains today as a unique expression of Gilded Age America. While there were more ostentatious, and more expensive mansions commissioned by the ultra-wealthy (like George Washington Vanderbilt’s 255 room Asheville “chateau” Biltmore), Vizcaya’s self-conscious pastiche of historical references was stitched together with remarkable coherence by the unlikely design team of “artistic director” Paul Chaflin, architect Francis Burrell Hoffman, landscape architect Diego Suarez, and patron James Deering. Their juxtaposition of period styles with modern technology and lifestyle accoutrements was not unusual for the era, but their narrative sweep of European architectural and decorative history was. The design team was “performing”, as Witold Rybczynski put it, a repertoire of high design from Renaissance Venice to Beidermeier Vienna.

The banker of this extravagant performance, James Deering, was exceedingly rich. His entrepreneurial father, William Deering, owned the Chicago-based Deering Manufacturing Company, and brought James into the firm in 1880 as treasurer. In 1902, when financiers J.P. Morgan completed the deal that merged Deering Manufacturing with their biggest rival, McCormick Harvesting Machines, the resulting company, the International Harvestor Company, was one of America’s largest (behind only US Steel, Standard Oil and American Tobacco). Within a few years of the merger, James Deering effectively retired from business, a multi-millionaire with time on his hands. The Deering family had always maintained cultural connections, so when James bought a Lake Shore Drive house, he hired society decorator Elise de Wolfe to design its interiors. When she became too busy, she sent her assistant, Paul Chaflin, to complete the project. Impressed with Chaflin’s connoisseurship, Deering proposed they create a winter home near Miami: the future Vizcaya.

Chaflin had studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and later with James McNeill Whistler, before returning to the US in 1904 to take up a position as a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He was a frequent guest at Boston society hostess Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court, home to a circle of cosmopolitan aesthetes including expatriate critic Bernard Berenson, author Henry James and artist John Singer Sargent. Chalfin later worked for Elsie de Wolfe in New York, and thus by the time he met Deering, he was extremely well connected in the small but highly influential world of American taste-makers. This group of aesthetes, critics, and practitioners – including Gardner, de Wolfe, and their friends Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman – had a highly informed knowledge of European historical styles and objects, but, unlike museum curators or academics, were not above mixing decorative and fine arts from different periods in a single space, or blending the antique and modern together, so long as the harmonious whole reflected a refined personal taste. Wharton and Codman’s 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses, proposed a trilogy of suitable historical references: Italian Renaissance, French from the Louis XIV period, and English Neoclassicism (after Inigo Jones). These styles, combined with a sense of classical proportion and touches of exotic Orientalism, comprised the foundation of “good taste” for aspiring Americans at the turn of the century.

Out of this milieu, Chaflin and Deering took the first of many trips to Europe in 1910-11 to collect materials and inspiration for their winter home project. Over the next few years, they collected a vast horde of furniture, tapestries, flooring and ceiling materials, as well as decorative objects and architectural details. For an architect, Deering and Chaflin chose Francis Burrell Hoffman, a relatively young and unknown architect who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and served an apprenticeship with New York firm Carrère and Hastings. However, Hoffman’s first challenge was to design a plan that could integrate the horde of historical loot into some kind of logical whole. Although it was common practice in Gilded Age mansions to incorporate period architectural fragments and antiques into a new home, Deering, Chaflin, and Hoffman took this practice to another level. As Isabella Gardner had done while designing Fenway Court, Chalfin began arranging these objects into ensembles in a New York warehouse before plans for the building were conceived. Rybczynski writes: “… Chalfin created individual room settings in the warehouse, with temporary walls and ceilings supporting the paneling, door frames, tapestries, paintings, and so on. Hoffman’s daunting task was to integrate these predetermined tableaux into his design, without losing an overall sense of coherence.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 33)

Villa Rezzonico, Bassano del Grappa, C17th

Despite this restriction, Hoffman based his design for Vizcaya on Beaux-Arts principles (a balanced composition, though not perfectly symmetrical in this case), with an overall form borrowed from the 17th century Villa Rezzonico in Bassano del Grappa (see photo above). Although the façade is derived from the Italian Baroque, Vizcaya is planned around a Spanish-style central courtyard, and its various parts are held together by the continuity of Spanish-style terracotta tiles (also referencing the locally popular “Mediterranean” style). In a concession to the Florida climate, Hoffman and Deering included partially exposed arcades and loggias as well as the courtyard, both in order to regulate airflow but also to carefully control the relationship between inside and outside. The first floor public spaces were designed in a processional circuit around the central courtyard, while bedrooms for Deering, guests, and servants were located on floors above. The materials used were not, of course, Baroque or Renaissance materials, but included walls of concrete and local stone, as well as modern concrete floors reinforced with steel I-beams.

Ground Floor plan arranged in a processional sequence around the central Spanish-style courtyard. From the entrance at the bottom, guests proceeded to the Entrance Hall, then either into the Library or straight into the Reception Room, before proceeding up to the Renaissance Hall-styled Living Room.

The Entrance Hall includes real marble on the floor but fake "marbling" on the walls.

The Marie Antionette-styled Reception Room.

The interior of Vizcaya was a tour de force of Gilded Age taste – guests proceeded from the French 18th century Neoclassical entrance hall to the 18th century Robert Adam-inspired Library to the French Marie Antoinette-styled Salon (with a Venetian plaster ceiling), to arrive finally in the Renaissance Living Room. The latter space (see image below) embodies Chaflin’s eclectic design ideals – despite central heating throughout, the room’s focus is a massive French Renaissance fireplace (the height of which decided the room’s proportions). Above it, timber ceiling beams from a Venetian palazzo were extended to fit the room, and to one side sits a large (modern) pipe organ with doors made from a 17th century Neapolitan painting (cut in two vertically so the doors can open), while a further unlikely juxtaposition is a pair of electric candelebras mounted onto ancient Roman columns sitting either side of the door. Upstairs, each bedroom is a “themed” space, with Deering’s own an 18th century Neoclassical room, while guests could inhabit a Rococo room, a Chinoiserie room or a Biedermeier room. Of the interiors, Chalfin proudly wrote, “hardly a piece of contemporaneous furniture has found a place in any of its rooms, nor a single commercial lighting fixture; not a material has been purchased from a dealer’s stock, not a fringe, not a tassel.” (Chalfin, article on Vizcaya in Architectural Review, 1917, quoted in Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 91) Not surprisingly perhaps, the interiors of Vizcaya were inward-looking spaces, with little or no emphasis on connection with outside (despite the potential vistas from each room). Instead, guests could test their level of connoisseurship, or simply marvel at the intense colors, profuse textures, sumptuous materials and opulent surfaces.

French Renaissance fireplace in the "Living Room"

Dining Room with electric candelabras set onto antique columns.

James Deering's Napoleonic Neoclassicist bedroom.

While Chalfin, like most Gilded Age decorators, sought out objects with historical or cultural pedigree (wrought-iron gates from the Venetian Palazzo Pisani, or 16th century tapestries that once belonged to Robert Browning), he wasn’t above incorporating recent reproductions too, as well as antiques that were visibly “imperfect” (broken or weathered with age) – in fact, such imperfections added to the desired atmosphere. The exterior façade, for example, was roughly plastered so as to give it a rusticated appearance, and one hundred-year-old, irregular roof tiles imported from Cuba looked suitably old (apparently Chalfin was angry when workers started cleaning them). On the one hand, Vizcaya’s patina of history embodies the anxiety of the newly wealthy – here, appropriating European aristocratic traditions and creating the appearance of an ancestral home filled with objects accumulated over generations – on the other, it also implicitly critiques the strict chronological periodization of history favored by 20th century academics and museums. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, began exhibiting “period rooms” in 1903 with the purchase of a bedroom from Pompeii, while later purchases included a Baroque reception room from a Venetian palazzo, and an Italian Renaissance studiolo. In contrast to Vizcaya, these were “authentic” assemblages of furnishings and decorative details consistent with historical “truth” and supposedly representative of their respective periods. In contrast, Vizcaya represented not simply an appropriation of one particular European historical style, but, as Rybczynski argues, an attempt to “re-create the sweep of history.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 56) In contemporary terms, we might refer to it as a “high style Euro mashup”.

Beyond the villa, the formal garden was Italian in inspiration, but no less eclectic in its historical borrowings. Columbian-born landscape designer, Diego Saurez, was contracted to design the gardens, and was particularly well versed in Italian garden design given he spent some years studying and working in Italy. Beyond the various Italian and other European historical references, Laurie Olin writes that the garden was also a vast modern engineering project, as it “was completely built upon a costly structure of concrete walls, fill, dredging, embankments, revetments, manufactured soils, piping, wiring, bridges, walls, stairs, tanks, and basins.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 179) As well as the extensive garden with its statues, grottoes, rusticated walls, and comprehensive plantings, Saurez also designed a stone “barge” that sat in the bay beside the house, and functioned as both a breakwater and a picturesque picnic spot accessible by a Venetian gondola. Olin argues that Suarez was “working in a Classical language, not looking backward and copying, but looking forward and creating new things with a vocabulary and set of typological motifs ... as with the main house, this is not copying Classical architecture, but rather performing it.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 195)

View from the house of the stone breakwater/barge .

The indoor/outdoor pool. Deering had an Otis elevator installed beside his bedroom which went directly down to the pool level.

The performance was perhaps never truly finished – although the house was complete by 1916 and the formal garden by 1921, there was the larger property, including the working farm and its buildings, and the ongoing maintenance. In 1925, after only a few years enjoying his creation, Deering died, and his nieces inherited the property. Chalfin continued his involvement in the project, overseeing repairs after a hurricane in the 1930s, but unfortunately publicly excluded both Hoffman and Suarez from credit for the design of Vizcaya, and claiming all the credit for himself. After the nieces sold much of the land in 1945, the house and garden was finally sold to Dade County and opened as a museum in 1952. By this time, it was well and truly a relic from a past era, although in many ways it was already an anachronism before it began in 1914. By this time, Art Nouveau designers in Europe and Frank Lloyd Wright in the US, had created integrated interior designs that were stylistically consistent, spatially innovative, and freed from the burden of history, while architects associated with the Deutsche Werkbund in Germany (such as Peter Behrens, Henri Van de Velde, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius) were developing early modernist designs and theories that would soon sweep away earlier historical performances.

With its emphasis on taste, distinction and highly skilled craftsmanship, a project such as Vizcaya could be understood as a belated aesthetic resistance against a bourgeoning industrial culture that included ever-increasing mass production and consumption of household furnishings and decoration. But Vizcaya’s design does not represent simply a rejection of modernity, as Deering insisted that the latest technologies be incorporated into the villa’s design, including an electric telephone exchange, burglar alarm, central heating, an Otis elevator, and a synchronized central clock system. Additionally, Deering’s estate was designed for the modern man of leisure, and thus included a swimming pool, bowling alley, as well as several boats for day trips, fishing and longer journeys. Of course, it was as a space of leisure for the master of the house and his guests, while the servants, who numbered up to thirty for the house alone, were discreetly designed out of sight. Finally, from a contemporary perspective, we could view Vizcaya’s appropriated history and tradition as the logical flipside of modernity, and its ghostly spectre of pleasure and sensual delight a provocative foil to modernism’s ascetic functionalism. Chalfin expressed this sensual provocation in an article on Vizcaya a 1917 issue of Architectural Review, and its melancholic tone seems appropriate, even today: “Someone seems to lurk here, wearing creamy old satin, looking into dim mirrors at strings of pearls and corals upon a narrow and corseted bosom, ready with facile musical sighs.” (Chalfin, quoted in Aslet, 1990: 275)


Aslet, Clive, The American Country House, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

Rybczynski, Witold and Laurie Olin, Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers, University of Pennsylvannia Press, Philadelphia, 2007.

Exterior photographs of Vizcaya by D.J. Huppatz.

Jul 30, 2010

Miami Beach

My image of Miami was already tainted, mostly by episodes of CSI Miami’s mythical paradise of material opulence: a world of private yachts, pristine condo towers and sculpted bodies barely clothed in designer fashion, all rendered in impossibly saturated colors. Given the series is filmed almost entirely in a Los Angeles studio, I was bound to be disappointed when finally encountering the real Miami on my recent southern vacation. Architecturally, I was interested in exploring three distinct yet overlapping moments in Miami’s history – the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1980s – in my mind exemplified by South Beach Art Deco, Morris Lapidus, and Arquitectonica, respectively. The overlap relates to the image of Miami described above: an artificial space constructed like a stage set upon which tourists might comfortably escape their everyday lives.

Henry Hohauser, Studio Apartments, South Beach, 1930s

Robert Taylor, Beach Patrol Headquarters, South Beach, 1934

Miami has long been imagined in American popular consciousness as a utopian space of leisure. The city’s early development as a tourist destination in the 1920s reflected this – grand hotels and villas in a pseudo-Mediterranean style appealed to the northern wealthy elite as appropriate settings for the cosmopolitan pursuit of touristic pleasures. Even the landscape was transformed to reflect the image of a tropical paradise. Among other imported tropical vegetation, coconut palm trees, for example, were imported from Trinidad, and soon became inseparable from the image of Miami Beach as a tropical paradise. After the Depression, South Beach became increasingly established as a middle class tourist destination – Art Deco and streamline design dominated its modest hotels – and the Beach became known as America’s Winter Playground.

Roy F. France, The Cavalier Hotel, 1936

The Art Deco style of South Beach hotels appealed to middle class tourists as it signified modernity, upward mobility, and, not least, it was familiar to northerners. Three of the best-known Miami architects of the 1930s brought Art Deco ideas with them from northern cities: Lawrence Murray Dixon worked for Schultze & Weaver in New York (including work on the Waldorf Astoria) before settling in Miami in 1928; Henry Hohauser, a graduate of Pratt Institute, arrived in Miami from New York in 1932; and Albert Anis worked in Chicago in the 1920s. Along with several others, these three architects designed dozens of hotels and garden apartment complexes in Miami in the 1930s. Stripped of excessive ornament and historical references, their Deco hotels in South Beach were symmetrical, geometric, and machine-like. These miniature skyscrapers were characterized by stepped motifs in the central section, concrete sun shades or “eyebrows” above the windows, and, later in the 1930s, streamlined curves, speed lines and movie theater-style marquee signage.

Henry Hohauser, The Congress Hotel, 1930s: symmetrical facade with stepped central section, prominent eyebrows above the windows, and theater-style marquee signage.

Miami’s Deco architects were also intimately involved in designing the glamorous interiors of these hotels, including built-in furniture, lighting, carpets and terrazzo flooring patterns (see the interiors of the Winter Haven, below). Interior motifs were often nautical, reflecting the romance of ocean liners in their blend of high-tech, modern materials, such as terrazzo flooring, glass blocks, chrome finished railings and neon lighting. These seductive modern spaces suggested the cosmopolitan pleasures of travel yet were usually designed to a tight budget – the realities of the machine age meant that architects and interior designers could create luxurious looking surfaces and fittings that were mass produced.

Above: Albert Anis, Winter Haven Hotel, South Beach, Miami, 1939

Below: Three views of the lobby of the Winter Haven Hotel: the ocean liner-inspired staircase, terrazzo floor, and view towards the street. Below these is the glass block bar in the lobby of Lawrence Murray Dixon's hotel, The Victor, 1937.

While the first phase of South Beach Deco ended with World War Two, the second phase began with Deco’s revival in the 1980s. The famous Art Deco crusader Barbara Baer Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976, and through their efforts, an area of roughly a square mile and comprising an estimated 800 buildings was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Remarkably, whole blocks of 20th century buildings were preserved – the South Beach streetscape has since become a kind of open air Art Deco museum. Miami’s Deco revival was spread by some high-profile cultural characters in the 1980s, including a tour by Andy Warhol, and public support for South Beach Deco from architects such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Philip Johnson. Television played a part too, with the popular series Miami Vice capturing both the lingering decadence of South Beach (which had fallen into disrepair and disrepute) as well as its new-found glamour, a contrast also picked up by fashion photographers who began using the area as a backdrop. Crucial to this 1980s Deco revival was the creation of the South Beach palette, the pastel colors of designer Leonard Horowitz brightened up the formerly white Deco hotels and apartments.

Albert Anis, The Leslie Hotel, South Beach, 1937

A postwar boom in Miami tourism and business saw the construction of ever larger high-rise hotels and apartments, including Morris Lapidus’ luxurious Fontainebleau (1953) and Eden Roc (1955) resorts – tourism began to shift from the small Deco hotels of South Beach to larger, all-inclusive resorts. I didn’t make it inside these remaining Lapidus hotels, which have been altered since the 1950s anyway, but I did spend some time on Lincoln Road. In 1959, Lapidus transformed six blocks of Lincoln Road into an open-air pedestrian mall, with designs that included shade structures, planters, fountains and patterned paving. His pitch to Lincoln Road traders included the memorable motto: “A car never bought anything.” While this was the “Fifth Avenue” of Miami in the 1950s, Lincoln Road isn’t lined with expensive boutiques these days: think Starbucks rather than Saks. But Lapidus’ interventions, since restored I believe, have stood the test of time – curious, eccentric structures that blur the boundary between architecture, landscape design, and public sculpture.

Above and below: Morris Lapidus' Lincoln Road pedestrian mall structures, 1959

Finally, I sought out Arquitectonica’s iconic Atlantis condominiums (1982), now in a row of similarly luxurious and exclusive condominiums on Brickell Avenue. It is difficult to get close to the Atlantis – like its neighbours, it is blocked by an entrance gate at the street – so seeing it really is a drive-by experience. The Atlantis (images below) was featured in the opening sequence of Miami Vice (and briefly in the film Scarface, which also prominently featured a South Beach apartment block in a drug deal-gone-bad scene early in the film). The Miami-based Arquitectonica, now a large firm working internationally, rose to prominence in the 1980s, and seemed to draw from the artificial, stage set aesthetic common to Deco and Lapidus. Though not designed for tourists, the Atlantis still embodies a sense of escapism, wit and playfulness, not to mention a particularly Miami version of glamour and luxury. The central cut-out “sky court” features a distinctive red staircase (an echo of Lapidus’ famous “staircase to nowhere” in the Fountainbleau?), yellow piping and the ubiquitous symbol of tropical paradise, a palm tree. As a tempting metaphor for Miami itself, consider the palm tree up there, framed in a void, far from the ground, kicking back by the pool.

All photographs by D. J. Huppatz. More South Beach Art Deco photographs on my Flickr page (access My Pics on column to the right).


Barbara Baer Capitman, Deco Delights: Preserving the Beauty and Joy of Miami Beach Architecture, New York, EP Dutton, 1988.

Jean-Francois LeJeune, ed., The Making of Miami Beach: 1933-1942: the Architecture of Lawrence Murray Dixon, New York, Rizzoli, 2000.

Morris Lapidus, Too Much is Never Enough, New York, Rizzoli, 1996.