I spent 3 weeks in Miami last year, thanks to an artist International Development Grant from Arts Council England and British Council. I spent two thirds of my time staying at The Fountainhead residency, which is run by art collectors Kathryn and Dan Mikesell, in a residency programme across the street from their house. They were really useful in connecting me to people when I was there so I had quite a few people to reconnect with while I was there as well as new avenues of research.
As well as Miami Beach architecture, I was really interested in the creation of Miami and as a tropical environment by the use of planting of tropical and exotic foliage. Palm trees and other exotic plants were introduced to Miami Beach to create a more tropical environment but we’re not indigenous to the area at all, but thrived due to the all year hot and humid climate.
On this visit, I really wanted to visit Fairchild Tropical Garden in Coral Gables which was instigated by plant explorer Dr Fairchild who introduced many tropical plants to Miami, and indeed the US itself. With a group of other botanical enthusiasts, including Robert Montgomery, he opened this park in 1938.
Dr Fairchild was a plant explorer who retired to Miami in 1935, choosing this location as a hot all year climate where many plants he had brought from overseas would be able to thrive due to its unique temperature within the United States. He brought more than 20,000 plants to the US including nectarines, dates, mangos, bamboos, cherries and alfalfa. The garden has palms, cycads, vines and flowering trees and also a butterfly garden, all of which was being enjoyed by many local school children on my visit.
The garden was designed by landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, a leading landscape designer in South Florida during the 1930s. The complex includes some interesting art deco buildings from the original build as well as newer buildings over the years such as educational spaces.
The botanical gardens are open all year and have a membership programme and very strong group of volunteers who run the tours and other visitor services, as well as a smaller group of paid staff who undertake management and maintenance of the park, as well as botanical research.
The gardens are laid out in a semi-formal manner with walkways and one vista that looks out across a large lake, which does contain alligators! There is a free tour that talks about the history of the gardens which is led by a volunteer. This was really interesting and informative and talked in great detail about different palms and other varieties of tropical plants brought to the gardens.
After this visit, I went to the nearby Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables in 1926, by well known architects Schultze and Weaver. Not an art deco hotel, but still a very expensive and grand hotel, it was an important part of Miami’s architectural history, alongside the nearby Viscaya Museum. Both designs take references freely and loosely from other historic architecture such as Spanish, Morrocan and Greek, mixing it all together. This is said to have fed into the nautical moderne architecture of Miami Beach which references many other cultures historical architecture with details and patterns on its facades.