Barbara Baer Capitman lived in the Sunshine State from 1973, when she moved from New York, until her death in 1990. In 1976 Capitman sought a project worthy of celebrating the country’s bicentennial. A tour of Miami Beach was all it took for her to zero in on creating a historic district to revive the neglected hotels along Ocean Drive. She founded the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) in 1976. Capitman applied for and obtained federal grants to hire professionals to survey the buildings and prepare a report to nominate the District to the National Register of Historic Places. Both the City of Miami Beach and the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce opposed the designation. The State of Florida agreed with Barbara and unanimously endorsed designation. The Miami Beach Architectural Historic District (Art Deco District) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 14, 1979. It was the first urban Twentieth Century historic district. The publicity and acclaim she garnered drew significant attention and sparked Miami Beach’s revival.
In the early 1980’s, Capitman focused upon bringing in artists, the fashion industry and travel writers to see the Art Deco architecture firsthand. She offered photographers inexpensive rooms where they could do “shoots” during the winter months while it was too cold elsewhere. Bruce Weber was one of the first to arrive and he shot his famous Calvin Klein Obsession ad on the roof of the Breakwater Hotel. Miami Beach became a sensation and was featured in ads and travel stories worldwide, reaping millions of dollars in free advertising. This drew producers of “Miami Vice” who shot most of the iconic TV show in the Art Deco District, giving the area five years of weekly free publicity on a major television network.
In addition to MDPL, Barbara founded the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation in 1981 to ensure affordable housing would always be a priority in Miami Beach. She didn’t want longtime low-income residents to be forced out of Miami Beach after its newfound success. At the time she began in 1976, the District was the most economically depressed in the entire State of Florida. It is now one of the state’s most economically vibrant areas.
The Florida Department of State named Barbara a “Great Floridian” in 2000. In 2006, the Women’s History Coalition of Miami-Dade County chronicled her achievements in the book, Beyond Julia’s Daughters: Women in Miami-Dade History 1975-2000. She was elected to the Florida Tourism Honor Role in 2007.
She also influenced cities far beyond Florida. She instigated the foundings of the Art Deco Societies of San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and New York. Shortly before her death, Capitman founded of the World Congress on Art Deco, a biannual conference of preservationists from around the world, which still continues.
Barbara Baer Capitman changed the fate of Miami Beach. Her vision to restore the Art Deco buildings to their former glory restored an entire community and ensured South Florida’s success as a tourist destination for visitors from around the globe. Miami Beach is not only a mecca for Art Deco lovers, is a thriving economic center because of Barbara.Back