South Beach's Art Deco District celebrates its rebirth

It was 30 years ago that the proverbial little old lady in tennis shoes, Barbara Capitman, scored the coup that would save Ocean Drive and the rest of South Beach's battered Art Deco hotels and apartment buildings: the inclusion of the district in the National Register of Historic Places.

The federal nod gave Capitman and a ragtag group of dreamers, artists and preservationists the cudgel they needed to beat back uncomprehending developers and politicians who – hard to believe today – would have razed everything to erect high-rises.

That signal 1979 accomplishment – marked Thursday by the Miami Design Preservation League, the group that started it all, with speeches, models in vintage swimsuits and a public celebration – was only the beginning, preservationists say.

But preservationists say the formal birth of the one-square-mile Miami Beach Art Deco District on May 14, 1979, set the ragged heart of old South Beach on the path to becoming, well, South Beach – a tourism super-magnet, a cash engine of formidable proportions, and a shining example of how historic preservation can transform a bedraggled urban district.

"It gave a sense of recognition to the activists who were trying to make the case, mostly to deaf ears," recalled South Beach pioneer Tony Goldman, who joined the battle when he first drove down Ocean Drive five years later and almost immediately began snapping up neglected properties.

"Many people didn't get it, and people in power certainly didn't get it and didn't want to get it. They thought it was an enemy. They thought we were nuts."

Inclusion on the National Register, which honors the country's most significant places, did not by itself safeguard the district's buildings. But preservationists say it strengthened their political hand and set the stage for everything that came after – the worldwide recognition, Miami Vice, the curious visitors, the explosion in renovations, new protection ordinances, and eventually election to City Hall of movement pioneers.

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