High-Res Photos of a 1980s Miami Beach Show Decaying Art Deco Glamour Before its Big Comeback

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When architectural critic and curator John Margolies took these photos in the early days of South Beach’s art deco revival, from approximately 1980 to 1990, many thought it was a lost architectural cause, or perhaps not even worth the effort. But Margolies’s photos document the raw beauty of South Beach’s architecture at the time and are a stark comparison to what came later, as anybody who has seen what South Beach has become can immediately tell. These were the dark days of Miami Beach’s art deco resurgence, but the light would soon come.

The Margolies photographic collection, at the Library of Congress, documents roadside vernacular structures throughout America, in the latter half of the twentieth century, with all forty-eight contiguous states represented. According to the Library of Congress, “Margolies’ Roadside America work chronicled a period of American history defined by the automobile and the ease of travel it allowed. Emerging with the prosperity of the post-WWII era, roadside and commercial structures spread with the boom of suburbanization and the expansion of paved roads across the United States. Yet, in many instances, the only remaining record of these buildings is on Margolies’ film, because tourist architecture was endangered by the expansion of the interstate system and changing travel desires. Margolies’ work was influential in the addition of roadside buildings to the National Register of Historic Places beginning in the late 1970s.”

“In his photography, Margolies utilized a straightforward, unsentimental approach that emphasized the form of the buildings. These structures were usually isolated in the frame and photographed head-on or at an oblique angle to provide descriptive details. Given the breadth of his subject matter, common typologies and motifs in vernacular architecture can be identified through their repetition. While environmental context is only occasionally provided, Margolies’ eye was often drawn to signage or other graphic elements of buildings that expressed the ingenuity or eccentricity of their makers.”

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