6 February 2022

The Lifeguard Towers of Miami Beach

Lifeguard towers can be found the world over.  Yet not many places can boast as many unique examples of this form of architecture as those along the eight and a half mile stretch of Miami Beach.  All told there are twenty five towers guarding those who use the beach. At once functional and decorative, they contribute beautifully to the overall aesthetic of this Floridian resort city.

Yet although the city is the home to the greatest assortment of art-deco architecture in the world, dating from the early 1920s up to America’s entry in to the Second World War, the lifeguard stations which safeguard the beach today are more recent additions to the Miami Beach.  We have the costliest hurricane in US history to thank for their existence.

Hurricane Andrew, which developed over the Atlantic in August 1992 caused cataclysmic damage when it hit the Florida coast.  During the recovery period the architect William Lane offered his services, gratis, to the city and created a series of towers which became so immediately iconic that they look and feel as if they have been there ‘forever’.  As time has passed, other towers have been added through competition and commission.

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Anyone who has ever seen Baywatch will know that lifeguard towers are used to watch over swimmers so that any potential drowning can be averted as well as limiting any other threats including spotting sharks before they get too close to swimmers.  Yet despite this being what you might think of as a vital contribution to public safety is often paid for by fundraisers and staffing is not always guaranteed.

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Although the towers all share the same function, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Although their purpose is almost immediately recognizable to even the most casual of observers, each has been distinctively decorated, ranging from the garish to the kooky, from the old fashioned to the emphatically patriotic. 

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You might think that twenty five is, perhaps, too many for a single stretch of beach but hundreds of thousands of people visit the beach each year (not a bad statistic when you think that Miami Beach’s first hotel was only built in 1915): perhaps not so when you consider that Miami Beach has the warmest winter weather on the United States mainland.

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There is certainly enough ground for the lifeguards to cover.  Miami Beach is 8.5 miles (13,6km) long and is located on a barrier island connected to Miami by a number of causeways.  The beach has three distinct parts.  South Beach, also known as SoBe is 2 miles long and is probably the best known, containing the historic, art-deco part of the city.

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Then there is Mid-Beach, a is portion of the city which encompassing the area north of 23rd Street and the Indian Creek and south of Surprise Lake and 63rd Street. It contains a number of neighborhoods and the Collins Waterfront Architectural District (home to 110 notable buildings and structures built from the late 1940s to the 1960s. 

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Finally there is North Beach, bound by 63rd Street and Indian Creek Drive to the south and 87th Terrace to the north. The lifeguard towers can be found on all three sections of Miami Beach but most can be discovered on SoBe.  Altogether it’s a long beach by any standards.

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Imagine all of those people, all of those towels and umbrellas.  If ‘because’ wasn’t a good enough reason for each tower to be so attractively unique, to stand out on its own rather than one to be a clone of the other, then the geography of Miami Beach is. On an otherwise potentially bewildering beach plane the towers tell everyone exactly where they are – in their own inimitable way.

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