A common perception of the arts and culture in sunny Florida is that it’s something you investigate when the weather isn’t perfect.
Some think scoping out museums and attending theater or concert matinees is for those afternoons when it rains or it’s just too hot to linger outside. Otherwise, the natural and outdoor attractions, the beaches, water sports, golf and tennis are simply too tempting. Perhaps just strolling past the endless sidewalk cafés and boutiques to people-watch and window-shop is more appealing.
Right? Well, not so much.
From Florida’s northwest down to the Southernmost Point in Key West, at least one category of arts and culture – architecture – surrounds you. And obviously, you don’t have to go indoors to appreciate it. You simply have to look around, even as you enjoy other activities.
On Lincoln Road in Miami, for example, as you lunch at the café at Books & Books, you not only absorb the vibe of the literati in this independent bookstore, you sit in the shadow of The Sterling Building. Erected in 1928, the Sterling is just one exemplary piece of historic (yes, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Miami Beach Architectural District) Miami Modern (a.k.a. MiMo) architecture created by Morris Lapidus. Farther down the road, you can view Lincoln Road, redesigned by Lapidus in 1960, and his many shade structures and fountains, which double as whimsical public art even as they provide relief from the sun.
Then, if you’re feeling inspired or crave a little more structure (pun intended), you can continue on to Ocean Drive, one of the centerpieces of South Beach’s Art Deco district. Stop in first at the Miami Design Preservation League, a nonprofit that houses a small museum and a funky gift shop. This is the meeting place for 90-minute guided walking tours that point out the colorful Art Deco, graceful Mediterranean Revival and contemporary MiMo styles found within the Miami Beach Architectural Historic District. You can also pick up the literature for a self-guided walking or bicycling tour here.
At the opposite end of the state, Pensacola’s indigenous architecture has a low-country Creole feel. Seaside, the first New Urbanist town, revolutionized urban planning around the world in the 1980s. Lakeland, west of Orlando, is defined by the Frank Lloyd Wright campus (called “Child of the Sun”) at Florida Southern College.
Sarasota is known worldwide for its Modernist-style buildings. Palm Beach and Boca Raton are known for their ornate “Mizner-style” (named after architect Addison Mizner) buildings, which give the towns a Mediterranean feel.
Walt Disney World is often overlooked for its design leadership, from the Contemporary Hotel to the post-modern Swan & Dolphin.
For a completely different style of architecture to be savored in a setting far removed from this glitz, head to Winter Park and hop on a pontoon boat provided by the Scenic Boat Tour (SBT) outfit. The SBT is the oldest attraction in the region – it was established in 1938 – and provides hour-long cruises through three of the heavily bird-populated lakes in the area, which are connected by Spanish moss-draped canals.
Winter Park was settled by turn-of-the-last-century industrial and financial barons looking for vacation homes. The houses, built on prime real estate along the lake shores, are both historic and impressive. The tours are led by skippers who are extremely knowledgeable about the region’s lore, and they’ll point out the best houses, which range in style from Craftsman to Southern Colonial to Andalusian Revival. They’ll also tell tales about who has lived in them – including architect James Gamble Rogers II, who was responsible for a good number of the designs.
If you prefer to row your own boat − or rather, paddle a kayak − you can get up close and personal with a Cracker-style winter retreat. For a 20th-century corporate success story, look no further than the Spruce Creek Preserve and Recreation Area and the James Gamble Estate. Spruce Creek, near Daytona Beach in Port Orange, is one of the few natural black-water streams in Florida that has been left undisturbed. These dark, clean streams are home to alligators and manatees; the former won’t bother you, and the latter are likely to swim along with the boats you can rent from Cracker Creek Canoeing, which is located on the original 20-acre homestead of Roland “Rollie” F. Johnson, who was the caretaker of the James Gamble Estate.
Adjacent to the caretaker’s cabin, Gamble Place on its 175 acres (now a designated nature preserve) is a fully restored and furnished Cracker-style bungalow featuring large, open porches; an open breezeway running through the middle of the home; a steeply pitched, wooden shingle roof; and large windows for cross-ventilation that are covered by cut-out shutters. It was built in 1907 by James N. Gamble, of Procter & Gamble fame, as a backwoods getaway and sportsman’s lodge. Gamble, considered one of Florida’s first real “snowbirds,” also had an interest in agriculture, and not only grew standard citrus but cultivated unusual varieties.
Also of interest: the Snow White Cottage, a life-size replica of the Disney version featured in the animated movie, built by Gamble’s son-in-law, Alfred K. Nippert, in 1938.
To the north is Florida’s crown jewel, St. Augustine. Dow Museum of Historic Houses offers nine historic homes, built between 1790 and 1910, that are filled with timely furnishings. For instance, one of the oldest Colonial buildings in St. Augustine, the Prince Murat House, is named for Prince Achille Murat (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew) and contains antiques that have some historical connections to the Murat family. You can explore it all at your own pace.
In addition to the houses, there are also beautiful courtyards and gardens. According to city records, this block once contained a hospital, a cemetery and a bridge; signs now indicate where they once stood. The Star General Store, a consignment shop, also adds authentic appeal by offering gift items and local crafts.