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Barbara Baer Capitman, Champion of Art Deco

Blogger: Polly Guerin from amazingartdecodivas.blogspot.com

Miami Design Preservation League's Barbara Baer CapitmanWhen it comes to Art Deco preservation and the woman who founded numerous Art Deco chapters around the country I recognize and honor the memory of an amazing Art Deco woman Barbara Baer Capitman. An intrepid little woman with a colossal personality, Capitman was a pioneer and spearheaded the struggle to save Miami’s colorful Art Deco district. Identifying the architectural value of the 1930s buildings in South Miami Beach she literally put her body on the line to protect deteriorating Art Deco buildings marked for demolition. It is amazing how one person with limited resources yet possessing a powerful goal could change the course of a city’s prosperity so completely and wonderfully. It had a ripple effect through its people and tourism, and gave rise to a greater appreciation of Art Deco style nationwide. Barbara Baer Capitman was a woman determined to succeed and her reputation as the indomitable champion of Art Deco treasures of Miami Beach is revered in the architectural history of our country. 
BECOMING A PRESEVATIONIST Leave it to a woman to rally behind a cause and put her whole heart and soul into its realization. After the death of her husband William, at 53 Barbara Capitman became a preservationist she admitted, “To fill the void and as a means of making new friends.” Petite and feisty she attributed her quavery voice, which her detractors frequently mimicked, to the shock of his death. Unfazed by any criticism Barbara pressed on as a preservationist, observing as she did that the 1930s Art Deco buildings in South Beach could be a historic district of 20 century architecture. Although Art Deco is somewhat more whimsical in Miami, the style is exemplified by the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall in New York City, which are the best examples of Art Deco. 
THE MIAMI DESIGN PRESERVATION LEAGUE It was inevitable that such a monumental task of saving the Art Deco treasures in South Miami Beach, which Capitman took up unrelentingly, was an insurmountable task alone. Although she began her campaign to create 20th century historic district in Miami Beach in 1975, she no doubt realized that she would need support to back up her preservation goals and in 1976 through Barbara’s efforts and her son John Capitman, The Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) was formed. The initial impetus for forming The Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL) was to find a project to honor the United States’ bicentennial and in 1977 MDPL was duely incorporated by the State of Florida. 
THE FIRST ART DECO WEEK As an incentive to showcase the Art Deco Section of Miami Beach, and hoping to attract locals, tourists and Art Deco aficionados to the area, the first Art Deco Week was held in October 13-19, 1978.Within four years, despite opposition by the Miami Beach city manager and the Chamber of Commerce, Barbara and her Design Preservation League won listings of the mile-square district on the National Register of Historic Places, providing federal tax incentives for restoration. The Miami Beach Historic District popularly referred to as the “Art Deco District” is the only district with 20th century architecture in the register. Art Deco Week continues to be a great attraction and draws visitors worldwide. Today the festival is in its 28th year and attracts upwards of 400,000 over the three-day festival. 
MIAMI BEACH ART DECO REVIVAL A born visionary, in the early 1980s it was Capitman’s idea to bring the fashion industry and travel writers to South Miami to see the Art Deco architecture first hand. While it was winter in New York South Beach provided a summer venue for fashion industry professionals and photographers. As an incentive she offered the photographers and press inexpensive rooms in the Art Deco District. Miami Beach became a sensation and advertisements and travel stories worldwide garnered millions of dollars in free advertising as did its fame increase with the hit television series “Miami Vice,” which gave the district more free publicity on a major television network. Today celebrities, the fashion cognoscenti, the curious tourist come to call South Beach their own playground of Art Deco delights. World famous artist and one of the pioneering Art Deco collectors Andy Warhol was among the celebs who visited South Beach and the news generated caused a sensation that brought art-world notoriety to the district. 
CHAMPIONING ART DECO No better spokesperson ever existed for Art Deco style than Barbara Baer Capitman. In 1981, at her own expense, she went on a three month nationwide tour driving her small car across the country to tell people about Miami Beach’s historic district and to promote Art Deco style. Her feisty personality and determination to popularize Art Deco was singular achievement which led to preserving nationwide the “decorative arts” style of architecture popular between the two world wars. She personified the genre and instigated the founding of Art Deco Societies around the country including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston and New York to name a few. Modeled after these societies many others sprung up all over the world, but Miami Beach became the Mecca for Art Deco enthusiasts. Capitman also became the founder of the World Congress on Art Deco, a major conference that is held in a different country every two years. The 11th World Congress on Art Deco met August 14 to August 20 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, marking the first ever meeting in Latin America. World Congress’ were previously held in New York, Australia, England, New Zealand, Tulsa and South Africa. 
THE INDOMITABLE CAPITMAN After Capitman took her celebrated trip around the nation in search of Art Deco treasures the idea for a book inspired her to write Deco Delights, her definitive book on the efforts to save and protect Miami Beach’s famed Art Deco district published in 1988. At the time of her death Capitman was working on a book, “Rediscovering Art Deco U.S.A.,” her final book, but passed away in the midst of the project, on March 29, 1990. The book was completed by co-authors Michael K. Kinerk (an original member of the MDPL) and Dennis W. Wilhelm, who spearhead the Miami Art Deco Society today. The publishing world was her métier for she had worked all her life in the design and publishing, serving as editor of numerous magazines. At the time of her death, she was president of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies (ICADS), president of Art Deco Society of Miami and counted the Miami Design Preservation League and board member of the metro Dade County Historic Preservation Board among her liaisons. 
WHILE MOST OF THE INVESTORS AND BUILDERS WHO RESTORED SOUTH MIAMI’S ART DECO DISTRICT MADE HUGE FORTUNES BARBARA BAER CAPITMAN GARNERED NO FINANCIAL REWARD FOR HER PRESERVATION EFFORTS. FOR BARBARA BAER CAPITMAN SAVING MIAMI’S COLORFUL ART DECO TREASURES WAS A LABOR OF LOVE. HER SOLE COMMITMENT TO RESCUING ART DECO FROM OBLIVION IN SOUCH BEACH, AND ESTABLISHING SOCIETIES AROUND THE COUNTRY IS A LASTING LEGACY AND A FITTING PROJECT THAT HONORS AMERICA’S ART DECO HERITAGE.

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