Deco Districts and Community Identity: Historic Designation and Preservation of Art Deco Architecture

Centro Cultural Building

Art Deco defines modern America. Throughout the early 20th century, Art Deco remains a constant. Deco blended classic influences, such as Egyptian and Mayan art, with modern, geometric patterns and styles to create opulent works celebrating social and technological advances. The Roaring Twenties and the jazz age are synonymous with Art Deco’s intricate designs and luxury. Streamline Moderne emphasized modernity by stripping Deco to its basics during the Great Depression. Moderne used long horizontal lines and curvatures to appear aerodynamic, speeding towards technological advancements. Art Deco defined luxury, but Streamline Moderne promised the American working class a better future. Both styles remained strong during World War II, but declined in favor towards the 1950s. Americans forgot about Art Deco during the Civil Rights era, preferring postwar modernism. Despite its decline in popularity, however, preservationists fought to restore Art Deco architecture in the last decades of the 20th century, demonstrating the necessity to maintain the remnants of a time that helped define American identity.

Deco style ornamentation emphasizes symmetry. | Image courtesy Wikimedia.

San Antonio and Miami, two cities with distinct identities, have historical districts celebrating the Art Deco style. Rows of Deco-style hotels line Miami’s scenic Ocean Drive. Deco buildings are also scattered along Fredericksburg Road, connecting several tight-knit San Antonio communities. Miami’s Deco District grew in the 1980s and continues to thrive while San Antonio’s district is fairly new and continually enhanced. Despite various differences, both districts exemplify the spirit of early 20th-century Americans by preserving the Deco style through community involvement and preservation. Preservationists’ success with Miami’s Art Deco District exemplifies how the community around San Antonio’s Deco District can enhance the district by preserving its heritage and celebrating its distinct identity.

The tiered structure and curvature is an example of Streamline Moderne. Looking to appear aerodynamic, Streamline strips Deco to clean lines and repetition. | Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Architects built up U.S. cities with Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture during the 1930s and 1940s. Artists first introduced Deco to the world in 1925 at the Exposition internationale de artes décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris.1 Though Americans did not participate, many artists and architects incorporated the style into their work. Deco and its subdued branch of style, Streamline Moderne, sparked creativity and reinvigorated the American economy during the Great Depression as part of the New Deal’s PWA and WPA programs.2 Blue collar workers built a promising future with each Deco building they constructed. As the 20th century progressed, however, postwar modernism replaced Art Deco and Streamline Moderne.

Despite falling out of style, Art Deco continues to inspire communities and preservationists. During the mid-20th century, architects fought to define the future between Modernism and Traditionalism. A mixture of both, Deco didn’t fit into the conversation and quickly fell out of style.3 Many buildings fell into disrepair or were demolished to create modern buildings. Revivalists took notice of the beauty and historic significance of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture during 1970s, paving the way for preservation.4 Barbara Capitman spearheaded the first Art Deco preservation movement by fighting to preserve a row of hotels on Miami’s Ocean Drive in the 1970s. Going against developers and public opinion, Capitman’s fight is a leading example of how preservationists can alter the narrative of a historic district.

Without Capitman’s fight, the Miami Beach Architectural District, more commonly referred to as the Miami Beach Art Deco District, wouldn’t exist today. Located in the neighborhood of South Beach, the one-mile-long Deco District runs down Miami’s famous Ocean Drive and is a popular tourist attraction. The district is home to buildings designed by renowned architects, such as Henry Hohauser, L. Murray Dixon, Anton Skislewicz, and Albert Anis.5 Like other Art Deco and Streamline designs constructed during the Depression, the buildings “embraced technology, symbolized limitless progress, conveyed indomitable optimism, and promised a sleek and smart future.”6 These sleek buildings attracted people from the north during harsh winters and they stayed to live in Miami. As Miami inhabitants grew older and moved further inland, the Deco buildings fell into disrepair.7 By the late 1970s, foreign investors and developers were purchasing land, seeking to demolish the forgotten buildings to create new, luxury high rises. Barbara Capitman, a design writer, moved to Miami in 1973. When she noticed the demolishing of deco buildings, she quickly moved to action.

The Colony Hotel is one of the Hotels that was preserved by Capitman and the League. | Image courtesy Wikimedia

Noting the historic significance of the hotels on Ocean Drive, Capitman gathered enough support for the preservation of the Deco buildings. In 1976, Capitman founded the Miami Design Preservation League, the first league created for the protection of Art Deco architecture. Capitman and the league focused their energies on the hotels lining Ocean Drive. During this time period, many locals considered the buildings an eyesore, lacking credentials for historic preservation. Despite public opinion, however, the league succeeded when the U.S. National Register of Historic Places designated the area a historic district, the first post-1900 neighborhood to receive such status. Without the historic designation the Preservation League won, other post-1900 designations wouldn’t have been possible, such as the Fredericksburg Road historic corridor in San Antonio.8

Deco ornamentation tend to be geometrical and symmetrical. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.

The Fredericksburg Road corridor, within the inner loop of Interstate 410, contributes to the historic significance to San Antonio’s Deco District. Fredericksburg Road connects the surrounding neighborhoods of Keystone, Jefferson, Altavista, Tobin, and Five Points, neighborhoods with long-standing communities and eclectic architecture. Fredericksburg Road gained historical significance because its role in the Old Spanish Auto Trail (OST).9 In the early-20th century, the OST connected the southern states by paving an automobile highway that ran from St. Augustine, FL to San Diego, CA.10 Fredericksburg Road is in the middle point of the OST. With its historical significance and connection to several neighborhoods, the Fredericksburg Road corridor is a prime location for a distinct district with a unique aesthetic.

One of several buildings on Fredericksburg Road with Deco ornamentation. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.
Several Deco structures in San Antonio were influenced by the Missions and Spanish heritage of the region. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.

San Antonio’s Deco District formed its identity through its historical significance and artistic influence. In the early 2000s, Mayor Ed Garza and several community leaders sought to form a cohesive identity for the Fredericksburg corridor. A survey conducted at the time found that the largest percentage of artists in San Antonio reside in the surrounding neighborhoods.11 Using the information as a lynchpin, community leaders designed an arts district. In the middle of the district is the Woodlawn Theater, a 1945 Streamline Moderne movie palace designed by famed New York architect, John Eberson.12 The theater produces local productions of Broadway musicals. With other examples of deco design in the area, community leaders voted on naming the area the Art Deco District. To provide more artistic involvement, the Centro Cultural Áztlan moved into a building newly remodeled in the Deco style by Grace Rose. Further enhancing its neighborhood significance, the Deco District received designation as a historic corridor for being part of the OST.13 With a branded image, the Deco District can continue to grow through enhancements and community involvement.

The Woodlawn Theater on the Fredericksburg Road corridor. It’s tiered structure on the sides is and example of the Streamline Moderne style. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald
New Deco style facade for the Centro Cultural Aztlan designed by Grace Rose | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald

Without community involvement, Capitman and the League wouldn’t have been able to create a successful district in Miami. The designation encouraged preservation, but without ordinances, the buildings were still at risk of being demolished. The 1980s were a period of opposition between the Miami Design Preservation League and developers. The most notable example of clashes between the two is that of the New Yorker building. In 1982, an ordinance went into effect requiring developers to submit their plans to a historic preservation board.14 Unfortunately, several buildings were lost before the ordinance took effect. Abraham Resnick bought the New Yorker in hopes to tear it down and build new condos on the lot. On the day of demolition, preservationists formed a picket line and the press was there to cover it.15 After several exchanges with Capitman, Resnick delayed the demolition to seek alternative uses for the building. The hopes for preservation were lost, however, when Resnick backed out on his word and the New Yorker was demolished on April 1981.16 The demolishing of the New Yorker was seen as a win by many outside of the preservation league.

The New Yorker building was demolished before the enforcement of ordinances in the early 1980s. | Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Property owners and investors believed historic preservation was seen as an infringement on owner’s rights to destroy and rebuild. The historic designation interfered with foreign investors’ plans for Miami Beach. Murray Gold, executive director of the Miami Beach Resort Hotels Association, was quoted in a 1981 article of the New York Times:

“Miami Beach is 65 years old. George Washington didn’t sleep here. Neither did Abe Lincoln come through here. Neither do we have anything that represents history. People coming to Miami Beach aren’t coming to see old buildings. They’re coming for san and sun. If you want to see old buildings, you go to an old city. You go to Philadelphia and see the Liberty Bell. You don’t make money running a hotel. Money is only made buying and selling. You put this Art Deco scam on Miami Beach, and you’re going to lose investors who don’t want any more Government regulations than they already have.”17

Murray was not alone in his sentiments. Many developers fought the designation. The league, however, continued to rebuild the area. By the late 1980s, Miami Beach had garnered international recognition through its Art Deco District.

The Miami Design Preservation League gathered talented artists and investors to form the backbone of what we know the Deco District to be today. Going against their contemporaries, investors Tony Goldman and Gerry Sanchez bought and restored several hotels in the Deco District.18 Capitman’s friend and artist, Leonard Horowitz, created an aesthetic inspired by the 1930s World’s Fair.19 The renovated buildings were painted in pastel colors and were transformed into boutique hotels. One of photographer Steven Brooke’s photos of Friedman’s Bakery landed on the November 1982 cover of Progressive Architecture, providing the restoration project interest across the nation.20 Barbara Capitman and Brooke released a book, Deco Delights in 1988 to provide further exposure to the district. What provided the district the most publicity, however, was the 1985 television series, Miami Vice.21 Influenced by the historic district, the show used pastel colors in its aesthetics and broadcast the Miami look to the rest of the world. It wasn’t until another artistic medium exposed Art Deco’s charm to rest of the world and created economic impact that locals fully embrace the significance of the Art Deco District.

The preservation of Miami Beach’s Deco District teaches us many lessons when enhancing a district. The Preservation League saved many buildings, but just as many were lost. The Deco hotel buildings on Ocean Drive sparked the preservation movement, but private estates, civic buildings, and theaters were lost through time. Despite these losses, the Preservation League succeeded in creating a neighborhood with a distinct look and feel. Forty years later, the Deco District is an iconic part of the Miami landscape and a major tourist and economic drive. Understanding the work  put into creating the Deco District in Miami sheds light on the type of projects needed to enhance the Deco District in San Antonio.22

Similar to the Miami Preservation League, the community around the Deco District united to ensure the district’s identity remain intact in face of new development. In 2001, HEB announced plans to raze its old location and bought surrounding property in plans to build a large store with an even larger parking lot.23 The plan would disrupt the flow of the neighborhood, create more traffic, prevent walkability, and reduce the aesthetic quality of the neighborhood. Through a formed coalition, residents from several neighborhood associations and elected officials took their concerns to HEB, and together, came up with a solution that benefitted both HEB and the community.24 HEB designed the facade of the building in the Art Deco style with plenty of landscaping and ensured walkability of the neighborhood wasn’t disrupted. The success of business and community working together for the neighborhood’s best interest demonstrates that a neighborhood can be enhanced without losing its identity.

Sign in the deco style for HEB. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald
HEB designed the style in the traditional Streamline Moderne style. Straight vertical lines are emphasized with the stacked colors around the logo. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald

Similarities between the Deco Districts in San Antonio and Miami may seem to end in title alone–Ocean Drive preserved  a mile of historic hotel buildings and Fredericksburg Road only has a handful of deco buildings–but historic designations bestowed on both neighborhoods provide a similar opportunity. As Mike Greenberg posits in The Poetics of Cities, “people both create and are creatures of their cultures.”25 The spirit of inner growth coursing through the veins of each neighborhood invites comparison. The communities in these districts create value for each other when given the proper tools to thrive. Preservationists in Miami created a specific aesthetic that attracted artists to beautify the neighborhood and it is now a tourist destination. Similarly, the Deco District in San Antonio will continue to attract artists that will help enhance the district with help from the community. Historic designations help to foster local pride and civic action. The differences between the two districts helps to entice the imagination with possibilities of how the community’s specific identity will enhance the Deco District in San Antonio.

This sign on Fredericksburg Road emphasizes the curvature of Streamline Moderne. The vertical lines and tires structure are common patterns. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.
Deco inspired sign on Fredericksburg Road. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.

San Antonio’s reinvigorated Deco District is still fairly young and will take several decades of enhancements before reaching a similar economic and cultural apex to Miami Beach. With its mix of Deco buildings, Spanish Revival, and traditional bungalows, San Antonio’s Deco District and surrounding neighborhoods are various voices searching for a platform to sing. The Deco District provides an opportunity for the neighborhoods to sing under a unified tune. Choosing to shine a spotlight on the Deco style that grew in popularity during the Depression, a time that desperately needed economic growth and creative output, provides an opportunity to reflect on the district’s past, the community that saw it grow, and how those elements will continue to help it shine. The Miami Art Deco District provides an example of how historic preservation can help enhance a district. It does not provide a blueprint of how San Antonio’s Deco District should grow. The distinct people of San Antonio will define what a Deco District in Texas is by molding it to their specific identity. 

Street sign branding the Fredericksburg Road corridor as San Antonio’s Deco District. This sign emphasized the Woodlawn Theatre. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald.
This sign emphasizes the Tower of the Americas as it welcomes people to San Antonio’s Deco District. | Image courtesy Lance Velazquez Reynald
  1. Jay C. Henry, Architecture in Texas 1895-1945 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993), 229.
  2. Jay C. Henry, Architecture in Texas 1895-1945 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, Austin, 1993), 230.
  3. Richard Striner, “Art Deco: Polemics and Synthesis,” Winterthur Portfolio 25, no. 1 (1990): 33.
  4. Richard Striner,  “Art Deco: Polemics and Synthesis,” Winterthur Portfolio 25, no. 1 (1990): 33.
  5. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 9.
  6. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 10.
  7. Jo Thomas, “Miami Beach Conflict Pits Developers Against Lovers of Art Deco,” New York Times, February 26, 1981.
  8. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 10-11, 13.
  9. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, “The neighborhood, the district and the corridor,” The new urbanism: Toward an architecture of community (1994), 20.
  10. Charlotte Kahl, “Old Spanish Trail Basic History,” Old Spanish Trail Centennial, http://www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com/history/Old%20Spanish%20Trail%20Basic%20History.pdf, accessed May 16, 2019.
  11. Interview of Grace Rose by Edgar Velazquez Reynald, May 9, 2019.
  12. David Bush and Jim Parsons, Hill Country Deco: Modernistic Architecture of Central Texas, (Fort Worth, Texas: TCU Press, 2010), 84.
  13. Interview of Grace Rose by Edgar Velazquez Reynald, May 9, 2019.
  14. Jo Thomas, “Miami Beach Conflict Pits Developers Against Lovers of Art Deco,” New York Times, February 26, 1981.
  15. Jo Thomas, “Miami Beach Conflict Pits Developers Against Lovers of Art Deco,” New York Times, February 26, 1981.
  16. Carolyn Klepser, Lost Miami Beach, (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2014), 139.
  17. Jo Thomas, “Miami Beach Conflict Pits Developers Against Lovers of Art Deco,” New York Times, February 26, 1981.
  18. Carolyn Klepser, Lost Miami Beach, (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2014), 137.
  19. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 10.
  20. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 10.
  21. Steven Brooke, Miami Beach Deco, (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2011), 10.
  22. Carolyn Klepser, Lost Miami Beach, (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2014), 137.
  23. Jesus de la Torre, “How a Coalition Put a Giant Grocer and a Community on Equal Footing,” Old Spanish Trail Centenniel,http://www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com/articles/How%20a%20coalition%20put%20a%20giant%20grocer%20and%20a%20community%20on%20equal%20footing.pdf, accessed May 16, 2019.
  24. Jesus de la Torre, “How a Coalition Put a Giant Grocer and a Community on Equal Footing,” Old Spanish Trail Centennial, http://www.oldspanishtrailcentennial.com/articles/How%20a%20coalition%20put%20a%20giant%20grocer%20and%20a%20community%20on%20equal%20footing.pdf, accessed May 16, 2019.
  25. Mike Greenberg, The Poetics of Cities: Designing Neighborhoods that Work, (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1995), 35.

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This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Very interesting article that allowed us to kind of relate being in san antiunion and recognizing some of the buildings and districts. I thought it was pretty cool how HEB, a store here in San Antonio that is everywhere and everyone goes to is a part of the deco style in San Antonio. Ive never heard of the old Spanish trail that ran from Florida to California, but its cool to see how you can see its impact on the deco style art on Fredericksburg rd.

  2. Avatar

    I am always interested to read about art so this article was interesting for me to read. I liked how the article mentions that HEB and the community came together to create a new HEB with an art deco style. It is amazing how San Antonio is decorated with art deco architecture. That is probably one of the reasons why San Antonio is unique. Hopefully, more cities decide to have art deco architecture.

  3. Avatar

    I really liked reading an article about a subject that has a connection to San Antonio. This was a really interesting article about a subject that I wasn’t too familiar with. I enjoyed hearing about this subject on a deeper level. This article was written on a very intriguing subject. This was written very well and included many important facts that I didn’t know before. The article kept me interested all the way through. This was a very enlightening article. I really liked the pictures that were chosen.

  4. Avatar

    I was always aware of the Art deco style through they skyscrapers in new york and chicago, I never knew that San Antonio had a whole district that was built in the same style of them. I’m glad they were able to preserve most of the style within these districts, and I hope more cities embrace their communities and preserve the style.

  5. Avatar

    I never knew that the Deco District was based off of a style of art. I grew up in the Jefferson area and to learn more about the areas that are surrounding Jefferson is amazing. It is so weird to find out that the Deco District in San Antonio isn’t the only Deco District, to learn that the district began in Miami is so interesting. I am so glad to learn more about the inspiration of the art style and it’s creation roots.

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