Take an Underworld Tour of the Art Deco District in Miami Beach.

Old rotary phones chimed ring-a-ding-ding. Bookies wearing fedora hats and suits with knife-edge creases in the pants sat in overstuffed chairs, answered the phones, took bets and talked fast. They even called your hotel room to tell you the winning or losing news from the hotel lobby they used as an office.

Does this sound like it could happen in Miami Beach? Not today. The Art Deco hotels are lovingly refurbished in period colors with artistic designs and sleek, timeless furniture to match, providing stunning examples of Miami Beach architecture. There isn’t an overstuffed chair or rotary phone to be seen.

You have to squint to imagine the past, going back to the 1920s and 1930s, when many a hotel lobby served as a place to meet and greet, and place bets for all kinds of races.


History of Miami Beach's Art Deco District 

Once a year, that underworld history and more returns to life during Art Deco Weekend, typically held the same weekend as the Martin Luther King holiday. The underworld history is an intriguing part of the Miami Beach Art Deco District, known for it Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco and MiMo (Miami Modern) styles of architecture. You know the buildings you are going to see will be whimsical, with features like gaudy eyebrows over Art Deco windows, but would you also believe some buildings are notorious?

Al Capone may have been a typical winter visitor looking for sunshine and beaches when he arrived in 1928, but he got a chilly reception from city officials who considered the gang leader bad for the city's reputation. That didn't stop him from buying real estate.

The parties held there could have been scripted a la The Sopranos. While children of gangster families watched movies downstairs, their parents partied upstairs. Crime bosses and their families would vacation on Miami Beach during the Prohibition era.

Prohibition and raids went hand in hand. When it came to raids, many businesses might have gotten advance warning so they could pack up the prohibited items and transfer them to a storage area to “cool off.” The Wolfsonian has a piece of this underworld past.

The Wolfsonian, a museum home to a lively collection of 19th- and 20th-century themes like Art Deco, started out decades ago as a storage unit possibly used by local businesses, including those that served liquor. Raids often took place on a Sunday night, then Monday the liquor came out of storage it was back to business.

Essex House, a hotel built in 1938, still has an overstuffed couch and chair in the lobby, just like it did in the 1930s. It also has an original Earl LePan mural from that period showing the Everglades. The mural sits over the fireplace.

A story goes that the hotel owner's wife asked LePan why there were no alligators in the mural. The next morning, he knocked on her door and asked if she would come downstairs. She put on a kimono and descended the stairs to see that overnight he had painted a small alligator in the upper left-hand side of the mural. She screamed when she saw it. If bookies were sitting in the overstuffed chairs, did they take bets on this scene – would he or would he not paint the alligator? Another version of the story is that LePan added the alligator when he refreshed the painting in the 80s, as he had always regretted not painting one. It is all part of a history, long gone but not forgotten.

After you've seen the Essex House lobby, look down at the floor and follow the red arrows, three of which point you to the hotel lounge. Very cool.

Catch all the styles and history by taking a 90-minute guided tour of the outsides as well as some interiors of buildings in the Miami Beach Art Deco Historic District. Tours given by the Miami Design Preservation League start at 10:30 a.m. every day but Thursday, when there is an additional tour at 6:30 p.m. Arrive 15 minutes ahead of time at the Art Deco Welcome Center, 1001 Ocean Drive. The cost is $20 for adults, and $15 seniors, students and veterans.

Also available are self-guided tours. Some underworld history is included in these tours.