The complete guide to: Art Deco America

The design style that swept Europe in the Twenties and Thirties took on a whole new energy when it crossed the Atlantic. From elegant skyscrapers to entire streets, Aoife O'Riodain explains why the US went Art Deco mad

Saturday 22 March 2003 01:00

What exactly is art deco?

Art Deco is the name of a style of architecture and decoration that flourished all over the world, particularly in Europe and America between the First and Second World Wars. It quickly came to represent the spirit and glamour of the modern age.

How did it all start?

The clean lines of Art Deco were the perfect antidote and a natural progression from the overtly florid decoration of the Art Nouveau movement. However, the phrase Art Deco was not coined until 1968, by the English art critic and historian Bevis Hillier. Until then it had been referred to in various ways: Moderne, Jazz Moderne, Zig Zag Moderne. The high point of the Art Deco movement was the Paris Exposition of 1925, or to give it its proper name, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes. After this, the style was emulated all over the world.

Which brings us on nicely to America

Not to be outdone, America embraced Art Deco with gusto, and a unique style of American Art Deco emerged. Even in the uncertain economic times, the style survived Prohibition, the catastrophic 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. It epitomised the age of the flapper, of jazz, Hollywood glamour and conspicuous consumption. In short, it was adopted as a thoroughly modern style for a thoroughly modern country. Deco became the style of the new pleasure palaces, cinemas, cruise ships, restaurants, bars and garages.

You can even find a rare example of an Art Deco amusement park in Rye, New York. Playland (001 914 813 7000;, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, is a 280-acre park with hundreds of rides, amusement arcades, ice-skating rinks and a sandy beach. Admission is free, but rides are priced individually.

Art Deco's popularity waned in Europe in the Thirties, but it flourished in America until well into the Forties. You can find examples of Art Deco in almost any city in America, from Detroit to Denver and Cincinnati to Chicago. Many of the design motifs used in Art Deco could be easily adapted for mass-production, which began in the Thirties. This meant Art Deco was made available to a completely new audience. Another reason for its success was the way each culture could assimilate its own style and traditions into Art Deco's motifs and designs.

Cheap fares to America are plentiful at present, see "Bargain of the Week" on page two, for the current best offers.

One of the major influences of American Art Deco was pre-Columbian, Aztec and Mayan cultures, and many buildings featured motifs and patterns borrowed from ancient sites such as Chichen Itza in Mexico. Trips Worldwide (0117 311 4400; offers a 10-day itinerary to the Yucatan including visits to Chichen Itza and Uxmal from £1,400 per person sharing. The price includes return flights from Heathrow, accommodation and some meals.

What's so special about American art deco?

First and foremost, the skyscraper. And for examples, you need look no further than the most famous skyline in the world – Manhattan.

New laws imposed in New York in the Twenties decreed that any new tall buildings would have to decrease in width as they grew to allow light to permeate. This meant that the top of any tall building was required to be one quarter of the area of the base. The architects of the time rose to the challenge and skyscrapers became almost like abstract sculptures, often reflecting something of the nature of the businesses they housed. The wealthy business leaders of the time such as the Chanins, the Rockefellers and Chryslers couldn't resist the chance to own their own temples to capitalism, and so a great period of construction commenced.

Are any particularly noteworthy?

The Empire State Building (001 212 736 3100; is one of the most iconic buildings of the time; although when it first opened it was dubbed the "empty state building", as much of the office space was vacant. The observatory deck gives unsurpassable views of the city and is open from 9.30am to midnight daily, admission $10 (£6.60) per adult.

Possibly the second-most recognisable building in Manhattan is the Chrysler Building at 405 Lexington Avenue. It was designed by architect William Van Alen in 1928 to house the offices of the Chrysler Motor Company. Its bold geometric patterns, gleaming metal exterior and decoration echoing hubcaps and radiators play homage to the automobile.

Inside it's equally ornate; the lobby is built in a triangular temple-style and is a riot of marble and zigzags. The very top of the building housed Walter Chrysler's loo, which says something about his sense of humour.

Also in mid-town at 42nd and Third Avenue, you can find the former Daily News Building, built in 1930. Designed by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, the lobby, which looks more like a planetarium, features a magnificent sunken globe and caused a sensation when the building was completed. So many spectators clogged up the entrance that it was necessary for another entrance to be built for employees.

A short walk away is one of New York's most impressive Art Deco skyscrapers, the Chanin Building, 122 East 42nd Street. Constructed between 1927 and 1929, it features a decorative plate on the first-floor level designed by celebrated Art Deco artist Renee Chamberlain. On the 52nd floor you'll find the German National Tourist office (001 212 661 7200). Ask very nicely and you might be allowed to peek inside its original Thirties bathroom.

Stand at the corner of East 51st and Lexington Avenue for the best view of the General Electric Building, which is decorated with zigzags, lightening bolts and geometric wave mosaics.

Further downtown is One Wall Street, home to the Bank of New York ( and one of the city's most opulent interiors. The Red Room was created by muralist Hildreth Meiére and is a towering 8,911sq feet Gothic-inspired hall, the size of a tennis court, which is covered in red and gold mosaic tiles, 2,000 of which were made of gold ore. Since the attack on the World Trade Center, the public can't gain access (unless, of course, you are one of the $1m-plus account holders) – but there's no law against looking through the windows. Round the corner you'll find the Trump Building and the Cities Service at 70 Pine Street. Designed in 1932, it has one of the last Art Deco lobbies ever built.

To get a real taste of Art Deco New York take an Art Deco Metropolis walking tour with architecture buff Anthony Robins. These are held every Sunday at 2.15pm from West Side YMCA, West 63rd Street between Central Park West and Broadway. They last around two and half hours and cost $15 (£10) per person. For reservations e-mail: For further details visit the Art Deco Society of New York's website at

My neck is getting sore,

Anything else?

Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art (001 212 535 7710;, 1000 Fifth Avenue and The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (001 212 849 8380; exhibit pieces dating from the period. The former displays Dupas panels from the Thirties cruise ship the Normandie and some of the ship's decorative objects.

Take a break for a bite to eat at the suitably retro Empire Diner (001 212 243 2736), 10th Avenue and 22nd Street, which serves all manner of diner staples including pancakes and burgers, and is open 24 hours a day.

The giant Rockefeller Center between Fifth and Sixth Avenue and West 48th and West 51st Street was opened in 1931 close to the end of Prohibition and at the start of the Depression. Seen by many as a pointless folly doomed to failure, it has become one of New York's great landmarks. Now the plaza is home to upmarket shops, designer boutiques, cafés and an ice rink, which has been open since 1936. Part of the interior was designed by Diego Rivera, who was taken off the job for his Communist-leaning murals for the entrance hall.

For the ultimate Art Deco dining experience (as seen in Sleepless in Seattle and countless other movies), reserve a table at The Rainbow Room and The Rainbow Grill, (001 212 632 5100; at the top of the Rockefeller Center. The restaurant is run by the upmarket Cipriani family and offers dinner and cocktails from 5pm to 1am daily and brunch from 11am to 4pm every Sunday.

The adjacent Radio City was opened on 27 December 1932 with a gala opening night. Home to the dance troupe the Rockettes, its theatre is one of the largest in the world and seats almost 6,000 people. Take the worthwhile Radio City Stage Door Tour (001 212 247 4777;, 7th Avenue at 32nd Street. Tours depart every half-hour, Monday to Saturday from 10am to 5pm, Sundays 11am to 5pm and cost $17 (£11) per adult.

For information contact NYC&Company on 020-7202 6368 or visit

WHere else can I visit?

Not to be eclipsed, Chicago has its fair share of impressive Art Deco buildings too, which include the Palmolive Building, 919 North Michigan Avenue, the Chicago Board of Trade Building and the Chicago Daily News Building. A Downtown Deco tour is given by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (001 312 922 3432; on Thursdays and Saturdays at 10:30am from 3 April to 30 October. Tours start at the Chicago Board of Trade Building, 141 West Jackson and cost $10 (£6.60) per adult. The foundation also offers tours of the suburb of Oak Park, associated with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who had immeasurable influence over American architecture in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties. For a taste of the Jazz age proper, pay a visit to the Green Mill Jazz Club (001 773 878 5552) at 4802 N Broadway, Chicago, which was one of Al Capone's favourite speakeasies. Admission is $5 (£3.30). For more details contact Chicago/Illinois Tourist Office on 01628 418 163 or visit

The Fair Park Esplanade in Dallas is referred to as the place "where the Art Deco clock stopped in 1936", as it's a perfectly preserved complex with more than 26 buildings, statues and fountains dating from the Thirties. For more information call Texas Tourism on 020-7978 5233 or see

What about the silver screen?

The birth of the "talkies" was a huge contributing factor in the popularity of Art Deco. There was a craze for Art Deco interiors in the movies, and who could fail to be seduced by the likes of Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo? Hundreds of Art Deco theatres were constructed all over North America so people could enjoy a visit to the movies. The Commodore Theatre (001 757 393 6962; at 421 High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia, has been painstakingly restored to its former Art Deco glory. It also has a dining room and admission costs $5 (£3.60) per adult.

The Fox Theatre Building (001 757 393 6962;, at 2111 Woodward Avenue in Detroit is another spectacular example. It was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Designed in 1928 by the theatre architect Howard Crane, it was one of five huge theatres commissioned by the movie impresario William Fox. Now a concert venue, it seats more than 5,000 people and features a giant Wurlitzer pipe organ.

However, you'll have to go to Los Angeles to find what has become perhaps the most famous of all American movie theatres. Manns Chinese Theatre (001 323 464 6266;, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, was built in 1927 by the movie mogul Sid Grauman with exactly that in mind. The cinema opened to a huge fanfare on 18 May 1927 with the premiere of Cecil B DeMille's King of Kings. With its lavish Chinese decoration and forecourt featuring foot and handprints of more than 240 Hollywood stars, it has become one of the city's most visited landmarks, although you need to buy a ticket for a performance to see the interior.

Across the street is El Capitan (001 323 467 7674; Originally opened as a theatre in 1926, more than 120 plays were staged there until 1936, starring the likes of Clarke Gable and Joan Fontaine. In 1941, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane premiered there and afterwards it was converted into a cinema. Still a cinema, it is now owned by Disney.

Is that all there is in hollywood?

With its new-found prosperity thanks to the movie business, much of Los Angeles still bears a debt to Art Deco. Along Wilshire and Sunset Boulevards and around, you'll find rich Art Deco details, such as the Eastern Columbian Building on 849 South Broadway and the El Rey Theatre at 5519 Wilshire Boulevard. Los Angeles' Art Deco gem, however, is Bullock's, 3050 Wilshire Boulevard. In 1928, it was opened as LA's most sophisticated department store and is still one of the city's most important Art Deco buildings. It's now home to the South Western University Law Library. Tours are occasionally available; call for information (001 213 738 6728;

The southern slopes of Mount Hollywood are home to a more unusual example, the Griffith Observatory (001 323 664 1191;, 2000 East Observatory Road. The building is closed for restoration until 2005, but a temporary building, the Griffith Observatory Satellite, 4800 West Heritage Way, is open to the public in the interim. It has a planetarium and several astronomy exhibits and a telescope. This is open to the public from 1pm to 10pm, Tuesday to Friday and 10am to 10pm, Saturday and Sunday, closed Monday. Admission is free.

One of the best ways to see it all is to join one of the "Miracle Mile Walking Tours" (001 310 659 3326; offered by the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. These cost around $10 (£6.60). For further information contact the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau on 020-7318 9555 or see

If you still don't think you have seen enough, take one of the regular ferries to Santa Catalina Island off the coast of LA and visit the Avalon Ballroom and Casino (001 310 510 7400). This magnificent Art Deco structure played host to the big bands of the Thirties and Forties, including stars such as Benny Goodman. The island itself is a haven for wildlife and is a popular spot for hiking and sunbathing. Catalina Express (001 310 519 1212; operates several ferries to the island from points on the mainland such as San Pedro and Long Beach. Return fares cost around $42 (£28).

For further information call the Santa Catalina Chamber of Commerce on 001 310 510 1520 or see

Where is your favourite?

Florida. In the late Thirties, another phase of Art Deco emerged that America could call its own, Streamline Deco. Streamlining echoed the great era of travel that was developing, with the mass production of motor car, the first trans-Atlantic flights and opulent cruise ships. Lines were smooth and echoed the smooth lines of the forms of transport – aeroplanes, automobiles, ocean liners and zeppelins.

One of the cities most famously associated with Streamline Deco is Miami. Much of the city's architecture is referred to as tropical deco, owing to the pastel hues of many of the buildings in the city and neighbouring Palm Beach. The city's South Beach Art Deco district stretches from Ocean Avenue to Lenox Avenue between 23rd and 6th streets and its 800 buildings, constructed between 1923 and 1942, are the largest concentration of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne in the United States. Make sure you have a burger in the gleaming 11th Street Diner (001 305 534 6373), 1065 Washington Avenue.

The Art Deco Welcome Center (001 305 531 3484;, 1001 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, offers walking tours of the historic Deco district, held every Thursday at 6.30pm and Saturday at 10.30am and costing $15 (£10). For further information contact the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau in the UK on 01444 443 355 or visit

Another more unexpected location is the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Its residential neighbourhood known as Brookside is almost exclusively made up of Streamline Art Deco houses. In the Twenties and Thirties there was rapid growth in Tulsa as a result of oil discoveries, earning it the nickname "the oil capital of the world". With the rapid expansion came the need for new buildings, many of which were constructed in the Art Deco style – developers were reputedly spending around $1 million a month.

Particularly impressive examples include The Boston Avenue Methodist Church, the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building and the Tulsa Fire Alarm Building. Later in the Thirties, the style progressed into streamlining. The Tulsa Historical Society (001 918 712 9484; offers both walking and details of driving Art Deco tours.

For further information contact the Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau on (001 918 585 1201;

Where can I find out more?

Visit "Art Deco 1910-1939", from 27 March until 20 July, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (020-7942 2000;, sponsored by Ernst &Young. It will include more than 300 works from all over the world including Paris, London, New York, Bombay and Shanghai. Admission costs £8 per adult and £5 for senior citizens and full-time students. Under 18s are free. To book tickets call 0870 906 3883. The exhibition is open from 10am to 5.45pm daily, except Wednesday, when it will be open until 10pm.

Additional research by Alice Rooney

Staying in style across the US

From sunset boulevard to park avenue: The great art deco hotels

Opened in 1936, The Tides, Miami Beach, (001 305 604 5000;, was soon christened the "Grande Dame" of South Beach. Every one of its 45 rooms and suites has a view of the beach. Double rooms start at $525 (£350) per night.

Also in Miami, The Raleigh, 1775 Collins Avenue at 18th Street, Miami Beach (001 305 534 6300;, has recently undergone extensive renovation at the hands of Andre Bazals, owner of the trendy Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. In the Forties, the hotel's pool was featured in Life magazine as the most beautiful swimming pool in Florida, no mean feat in a city full of Art Deco gems. Double rooms cost from $172 (£116) per night.

The Waldorf Astoria (001 212 355 3000; 301 Park Avenue, New York, was the centre of high society during the Thirties. Opened in 1931, this large hotel also incorporates a smaller hotel, The Waldorf Towers, between the 28th and 42nd floors. It still contains Cole Porter's piano and a fabulous Art Deco lobby. Double rooms start from $239 (£160).

Undoubtedly one of the high points of Los Angeles Deco, the Argyle Hotel (001 323 654 7100;; 8358 Sunset Boulevard) started its life as "Sunset Towers". Built in 1929 by the architect Leland Bryant, the exterior features plaster friezes showing zeppelins and mythological creatures. The hotel was mentioned in Raymond Chandler's novel Farewell My Lovely. Double rooms start from $275 (£183).

When it first opened in Phoenix in 1931, celebrities such as Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Marilyn Monroe flocked to the Arizona Biltmore (001 602 954 6600;; 2400 East Missouri). Originally owned by chewing-gum magnet William Wrigley Jr, it was designed by Albert Chase McArthur under the expert guidance of Frank Lloyd Wright. Irving Berlin is reputed to have composed the song "White Christmas" while staying here. Double rooms start from $375 (£250).

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