History students digitize photos, memorabilia from Miami Beach

Miami Beach Aerial View

Aerial view of Ocean Drive between Fifth and Seventh Streets in 1960s.

In one black and white photo, Lincoln Road is depicted as a tangled mass of trees and swamp. No sign of the boutiques and cafes that dot the pedestrian mall today. The label on the image, taken in 1905, reads “clearing wilderness on Lincoln Road.”

It’s a glimpse into Miami Beach’s past most people never see, said FIU history professor Ken Lipartito.

“Miami Beach has not always been big hotels and concrete,’’ he said. “It is a small barrier island that still is very fragile.’’

Working with a team of FIU students and researchers, along with the staff of the Wolfsonian-FIU and city officials, Lipartito helped spearhead a year-long effort to create an online digital archive of historic Miami Beach photos, post cards, travel brochures and city documents.

Jeremy Salloum, a graduate student on the project, said his perception of the city has changed greatly since he began working on the archive.

“It was quite funny when I learned that, prior to the 1940s, if a male or female was caught wearing a bathing suit west of Ocean Drive they would be thrown in jail,’’ he said. “Quite the opposite of how it is nowadays.”

Miami Beach lifeguards

Lifeguards on Miami Beach in 1920.

The archive project was proposed by FIU as part of the city’s centennial celebration this year. To date, the team has scanned more than 15,000 high resolution images, each catalogued with a description, location and time period. Lipartito said he expects the archive to reach more than 20,000 images.

“It gives you a much more complex understanding of what Miami Beach is,’’ he said. “People who don’t really know Miami Beach think of Ocean Drive. But Miami Beach is no more only Ocean Drive than New York is only Times Square.’’

Among the archives are brochures for Miami Beach’s iconic hotels for almost every decade since 1910. Dozens of images show aerial views of the city, depicting its growth over the past century.

Alongside a substantial collection of official mayoral photos are hundreds of photos of swimsuit models and beauty pageant contestants.

The images, many dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, are also available to the public through a website, digitalarchivesmiamibeach.com, which launched earlier this year, using open source software created by the University of Florida.

“It is a richly detailed, scholarly research database that is also fun to browse,’’ said Derek Merlaux, the Woflsonian’s digital assets manager, who helped build the site. “The intended audience is historical researchers, as well as members of the public or the media.”

Users of the site are able to create an account, save items to a personal “bookshelf,” share images and save search results.

Already, the archive has generated interest from freelance writers looking to find images for their stories, including one working on a piece about Miami’s music scene for Billboard Magazine and another writing a travel piece for American Airlines magazine.

Lipartito said city officials are considering creating a permanent exhibit of the photographs, some of which were displayed at city hall in honor of the centennial. FIU has also received inquiries from other cities who wish to create a similar historic archive, he said.

“Now that we have the knowledge and experience of doing it, I think that is something we’d be interested in,’’ Lipartito said.

For graduate student James Almeida, seeing the drastic changes in the Miami Beach coastline has been the most interesting part of the project.

“Old photographs show how erosion has changed the physical landscape over the years,’’ he said. “After seeing pictures of the coastline, I love to walk along it and see how it has changed.’’

Lincoln Road

Lincoln Road in 1955.

Paula de la Cruz-Fernandez, a postdoctoral researcher in history, supervised the students’ work on the archive. She said the experience of creating a digital archive from scratch is one most history students never get.

“By building this digital repository, we got to understand how history is not incompatible with the digital age and how historians and archivists are adapting to new technologies and creating new ways of bringing history to the public,” she said.

She said the most interesting part of the project was discovering how Miami Beach has continued to lure visitors throughout the decades, despite its challenges.

“People have done everything they can to make Miami Beach a paradise and they have done it in many different ways over time, making the city a very diverse and culturally rich place that continues to attract people.”

– Alexandra Rodriguez-Carhartt contributed to this report.