Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 11, 2009

Barbara Capitman: the red who saved Miami Beach’s Art Deco hotels

Filed under: Miami Beach — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

Barbara Capitman

When our tour guide revealed yesterday that the person most responsible for saving Miami Beach Art Deco buildings from the wrecking ball of capitalist progress was a Communist Jew from New York, my first reaction was surprise and delight. But after a moment it sunk in that this was just what I might have suspected. When it comes to looking after the long-term interests of society, whether it is cultural heritage or climate change, you have to rise above the profit motive and who better to assume this role than the Red.

In 1948 the 28 year old Barbara Capitman met her future husband Will at a May Day party sponsored by the Young Communist League in N.Y. She was the only child of a sweater-importing father and a mother who was a sculptor and painter. When Will graduated from NYU law school in 1951, he was blocked from passing the bar because of his YCL past. So instead he made a living teaching business and marketing at Harvard and Yale.

In 1973 he got a tenure track position at the Florida International University business school and the two moved to Coconut Grove, Miami’s version of Greenwich Village. Two years later he died from pancreatic cancer and Barbara was on her own.

After moving to Miami Beach, Barbara ran into Leonard Horowitz, a doorman at a luxury condo who was gay and an aspiring artist/designer. They became close friends after meeting and soon discovered a shared commitment to the preservation of Art Deco buildings. The two formed a committee to save the old buildings now falling into disrepair that relied heavily on donations from gay people and senior citizens. Within 3 years, they managed to have over half of South Beach’s Art Deco hotels covered by landmark preservation laws. Leonard Horowitz died of AIDS in 1988. The hotel we are staying at is between 10th and 11th streets on Ocean Drive and 11th street has been renamed Leonard Horowitz Drive.

Barbara Capitman died two years later. The NY Times obit noted:

In 1976 she helped to found the Miami Design Preservation League, which in 1979 won Federal historic designation for the South Beach district of Miami Beach. Her outspoken, unorthodox manner later led to her ouster from the group.

”She would push and agitate and cause trouble until people wouldn’t speak to her,” said Michael Kinerk, chairman of the Art Deco Weekend festival. ”She was interested in results, not social sensitivities.’

I would say that no social change takes place without people who are “outspoken” and “unorthodox”. The fact that she was interested in results rather than “social sensitivities” should not be lost on those leftists who are reluctant to take on the status quo.

In the April 27 1982 Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn hailed Capitman as a true heroine. He quoted her on the Art Deco district:

At night when the full moon is overhead, the residential streets of the Art Deco district take on that stagey, solemn simplicity of another era. Moonlight and neon articulate the stripes and circles of the small apartments on Euclid or Jefferson and the swaying palms cast shadows on the curving walls. This is the night world that Thomas Wolfe wrote of in the 1930s—the decade of our district’s revival—nights filled with the far-hooting of trains, the nearer sounding of great vessels moving into port, the mysterious rustling of trees…

Cockburn noted that Capitman was not able to defend all of Miami Beach from the assault of real estate developers. The South Beach area remains unsullied but the middle and northern parts of the island have succumbed to the forces Cockburn describes as follows:

The forces of darkness gathered their nerve, and finally, in 1981 tore off their whiskers and pounced. Anyone who wants to see what might happen to the Deco Square Mile need only glance north of 23rd Street, where architectural barbarism is on the rampage and the condomaniac, behemothic tide marches down via the Fountainbleau and other signposts of Babylon.

Cockburn concludes his article by saying that if the real estate developers had their way, the northern sector of South Beach would succumb and the result would be equivalent to “the permanent submersion of substantial portions of Venice.”

Ironically, Art Deco was an attempt to apply the aesthetic of Russian Constructivism and Italian Futurism to architecture. These art movements were in themselves attempts to approximate the forms of machinery to fine art in the spirit of a modernization stripped of nostalgia for the past. The products of that age now are threatened by the relentless march of capitalist modernization which will result in the leveling of all that is beautiful and its replacement by shopping malls and Walmarts. It is to the credit of people like Barbara Capitman, someone who presumably would have read the Communist Manifesto at some point in her life and who would have absorbed Marx’s breathless evocation of the bourgeoisie’s “most revolutionary role”, to draw a line in the sand and tell this bourgeoisie to get fucked.


  1. Interesting piece. Thanks.

    Comment by David Thorstad — December 11, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  2. Cockburn on Real Estate Developers (beginning of same piece)

    . . . a body of creatures who should be chained to a pile of Westway environmental-impact statement and thrown into the Hudson. They could, alternatively, be marched to the site of the late Morosco Theater, given a last cigarette or a last telephone call to Mayor Koch, blindfolded with old theater bills, and then shot.

    Whatever one wants to say about Ace Cockburn, the man knows how to turn a phrase.

    As do you, Louis, of course.

    Comment by John Halle — December 11, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  3. my parents live in the old edgewater beach apartments on the north lakeshore in chicago. It too is done up in the art deco style and sporting a peach or pink paintjob, depending. It’s a huge complex completed in 1929 right before the crash.

    There too, in the last ten years at least, you could find a lot of gay men and a not insignificant number of communists and leftists. Fred Fineman was my parents upstairs neighbor. Fred was in bad health by the time I knew him, but had a fascinating history as one of the secondary leaders of the CP from the 40s, iirc. He was blacklisted in the 50s of course, so he turned to events promotion and struck up a partnership with the semi-famous trotskyist Milt Zaslow. Fred and Milt brought The Beatles to Chicago, then later Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler, I guess in keeping with the gay theme. They became millionaires from the Beatles promotion and Milt went on to found the Rosemont Horizon amphitheatre.

    When Fred died some years ago, my mom clued me in to the estate sale. I went and had a look at the furniture, but what I really went for was his book collection. I must’ve bought 40 books, hardcover and paperback. I couldn’t have paid more than $20. Among the collection was an autographed copy of _Cold War Fugitive_ by Gil Green detailing his life on the lam from the FBI on Smith Act charges. Fred and his wife and another since-dead comrade and wife appear in cameo roles. Leftists do lead interesting lives.

    Comment by Alex — December 11, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  4. Interesting, indeed.

    I’ve been to the same area in South Beach a number of times since 2001 and find the architecture fascinating. That some-one out of the 1940s radical milleau would have helped to save it only adds to that.

    By the way, have you been to the Wolfsonian Museum? If so, a brief review would add to the discussion.

    Comment by MN Roy — December 14, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  5. […] för nya. Under denna tid blomst­rade Art Deco distrik­tet med många reno­ve­ringar ledda av Bar­bara Capit­man. Sta­den kände att de också behövde ge en liten mer artis­tisk utsmyck­ning och iden­ti­tet […]

    Pingback by Lifeguards Stands, Miami Beach, Florida — March 16, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

  6. I conduct Miami food tours and one of the neighborhoods I take people is the Art Deco District. This article is so detailed and you covered very interesting facts that many leave behind – but now I know them! I will cover some on my food tours from now on, and I will definitely give you the credit you deserve. My tours are possible because Barbara Capitman (and others) had the courage to stand and defend a part of history that should never be forgotten.

    Comment by Miami Culinary Tours — June 16, 2010 @ 11:01 am

  7. Well Louis, if we’re really talking about class (and not just aesthetics) – since you were in South Beach in 2009 when you wrote this, where did you look that makes it seem like the bourgeoisie are getting fucked?
    It’s by now well known that historic preservation does not mean social preservation, and the claiming of history is usually done for the bourgeoisie, even if the “pioneers” of gentrification want to consider themselves a class apart. (San Francisco, for all its Left Coast virtues, is a similar story) More to the point of this article, physical design says nothing of social and political content, and so the politics of WHO gets to inhabit the city, and how, is left up to the vagaries of local politics. It just so happens that the Miami Beach Community Development Corp. has done a decent job in preserving affordable housing and thereby some socio-economic diversity near the Art Deco District. But make no mistake, non-profit developers provide a band-aid, at best, that slows the extent and intensity of the displacement of lower-income residents by gentrification.

    On the Left of the East Coast, we should be asking WHO history and design is being claimed for, toward what ends, and at who’s expense?

    Comment by Marcos Feldman — January 19, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  8. Of course the South Beach art deco district has nothing to do with the class struggle in the way that a fight, for example, to keep Columbia University from expanding into Harlem does. My interest, as was Capitman’s, is in preserving beautiful buildings. My visits to Istanbul leave me with sorrow that Kemalism was so hostile to the Ottoman past and saw progress in terms of replacing old buildings with new helter-skelter. I love NYC neighborhoods because they ooze history and good taste even if a bunch of hedge fund managers live in them.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 19, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

  9. The bourgeoisie and up live in all thos adorably expensive Deco buildings. Good work, commies.

    Comment by Jeremy Sapienza — November 15, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  10. I know Barbara and Bill’s first digs were in an apartment on Venetian Isle, off the Causeway. Circa Spring, 1974 during Bill’s first year or two at FIU. It was a two or three story walk-up, where they were very proud of their potted and fruit bearing orange tree!

    If I recollect correctly, joining us at dinner there was a Hemingway.

    Comment by Bob Hogner — December 16, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

  11. I knew Barbara and her two sons in the mid 1970s in Miami and we spent a lot of time together. Amazing woman, she was. I met her through her son, Andrew, who was a brilliant man and head of a Bahamian bank at 22, I think…just out of university. She and her husband, William G., were pioneers in ergonomic designs after having met as fellow researchers into time management. She and I knew many NY area old-line socialists and commies and activists. And she had such a great mind and spirit. Her good friends, Lester and Doris Hemingway lived down in Miami and think and NYC winters got her to move. I became great friends with them as a result. She got very interested in preservation of places down south well worth preserving and began her efforts in Savannah, Georgia. Soon, she was on to all of the amazing crumbling Art Deco smaller hotels and homes in Miami. Her first renovation was the Hotel Coronado or something like that. She took over the top floor as her home and did a magnificent job of it, of course. She and I collaborated on revamping some yachts in the Miami area.

    Comment by Lorraine Matthews — January 14, 2014 @ 5:48 pm

  12. MDPL continues Barbara Capitman legacy through our ongoing educational programing and advocacy efforts supporting our mission to preserve, promote and protect the Art Deco Architectural District
    Please support “Miami Design Preservation League” become a member.

    Comment by Marie — April 8, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

  13. […] South Beach se llevó a cabo a través de una campaña para preservar su arquitectura. Desde 1976 Barbara Capitman funda la Miami Design Preservation League en un momento de declive y desaparición de la zona […]

    Pingback by El estilo Art Decó: de París a Miami - Agencia La Nave — April 23, 2014 @ 8:20 am

  14. […] South Beach se llevó a cabo a través de una campaña para preservar su arquitectura. Desde 1976 Barbara Capitman funda la Miami Design Preservation League en un momento de declive y desaparición de la zona […]

    Pingback by El estilo Art Déco: de París a Miami | Juanjook creatividad publicitaria blog — December 9, 2014 @ 5:25 pm

  15. […] South Beach va tenir lloc gràcies a una campanya per a la preservació de la seva arquitectura. Barbara Capitman, en 1976, funda la Miami Design Preservation League en un període de declivi i decadència de la […]

    Pingback by Del Art Nouveau de París al Art Déco de Miami | Juanjook creativitat publicitària blog — September 12, 2015 @ 6:47 am

  16. […] area of South Beach  took place thanks to a campaign for the preservation of its architecture. Barbara Capitman, in 1976, founded theMiami Design Preservation League in a period of decline and decay of the […]

    Pingback by From the Art Nouveau in Paris to the Art Deco in Miami | Juanjook creatividad publicitaria blog — September 18, 2015 @ 8:22 pm

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