May 27, 2006

Miami Beach Memories

Book Review


Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden, Lives Seen Through the Prism of Family and Place
Michele Oka Doner and Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.
Introduction by Alastair Gordon
288 pages, over 450 images

Miami Beach is a product of the 20th century. Back in 1918, scrub covered the land adjacent to Indian Creek, an image that is today hard to fathom, but is nonetheless documented in a beautiful new book produced by two prominent figures whose roots are thoroughly local. Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden, Lives Seen Through the Prism of Family and Place is a feast of sepia-tone photographs, drawings and documents that tell the tale of Miami Beach's rise from such raw landscape to a sophisticated environment filled with the titans of business, entertainment and politics, all in less than a half-century.

The book is the brainchild of Michele Oka Doner and Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., individuals who are today best known for their contributions to art and culture in the public realm. Oka Doner is an artist focused on the natural world who has garnered acclaim with her public commissions; locals will be familiar with her installation at Miami International Airport. Wolfson is the man who gave Miami Beach the celebrated Wolfsonian, unique in its commitment to the art of propaganda. Oka Doner and Wolfson grew up during Miami Beach's mid-century heyday and had the good fortune to view the panoply of glittering activity from enviable perches; both came from families of vast accomplishment and public service. Oka Doner and Wolfson share the experience of having fathers who served as mayors of Miami Beach (Mitchell Wolfson, Sr. in 1943; Kenneth Oka in 1957-59 and 1961-63.)

Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden is in a sense a shared scrapbook of these two families. However, it reaches beyond the familial and gives the reader a greater sense of the wealth of opportunity and creativity that spawned not only a thriving city, but a new expression of American culture. Where else could you find a world that combined the sea-themed Carib Theater, a smiling Anita Ekberg seated at a table with Bob Hope, the ladies of the horticulture society, and the wild mix of architecture that included Art Deco, Mediterranean Revival, and streamlined modern?

From bathing beauties to Hollywood stars, Miami Beach became a magnet for the rich, beautiful and flamboyant. This did not arise spontaneously; it was the product of the industriousness of its early denizens mixed with the allure of palm-lined beaches. The Okas and Wolfsons are part of that story. This volume only touches on their details, because the book is more visual than text-oriented. Like a rich documentary film, Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden lets the pictures narrate. Development during the Depression, the World War II years and the eventual economic boom during the 1950s are all there. Celebrities, from Jean Seberg receiving the key to the city in 1957 to Joan Crawford celebrating the Caribbean Bottling Company's new plant in 1962, are frequent stars of the book, but so are the members of these two families, including the authors' elegant mothers, who graced many a public event in stylish attire.

There is also the story of architecture and design. We see the Wolfson home, an exquisite Mediterranean Revival house designed by Carlos B. Schoeppi in 1937 with interiors by Fred Rank of Chicago. The Okas lived in a 1934 home by Russell T. Pancoast, architect of the Bass Museum. As part of their real estate portfolio, the Okas would purchase the Neptune, designed by J.C. Gault in the Mediterranean style in 1925. The Wolfsons, who owned theaters, not only commissioned the Carib Theater from Michael J. DeAngelis in 1950, but also owned the 1935 Lincoln Theatre, designed by Robert E. Collins and T.W. Lamb. (It turns out that over 1000 pounds of satin finish aluminum was removed from the Lincoln's marquee by the Wolfsons as part of the war effort. The war was also the cause that cut short Wolfson Sr.’s term as mayor.)

The photography is often sumptuous. In the case of the Okas, this is hardly surprising -- Kenneth Oka had an office in the then-new Albion, designed by Igor Polevitzky and T. Russell in 1939. In 1941, Oka hired a photographer who happened to have a studio in the same building -- none other than Arnold Newman, one of the great portrait photographers at mid-century. Other fine photographers have contributed work to this volume and are celebrated in a special section at the end of the book.

Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden is in essence a handsome first volume of Miami Beach's tale. Part personal memoir, part introduction to a great city's early decades, it reminds us that a place as young as Miami Beach nonetheless has a history, both social and architectural. We can only hope that the next volume looks as good.

This article first appeared in HOME Miami and HOME Fort Lauderdale.

Copyright 2006 Hilary Lewis. All rights reserved.

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