Example of Florida architecture.
Small, concrete and boxy homes in South Florida were designed to be cost-effective and withstand the region’s severe weather.

There’s no place in the world like Florida.

And from an architectural standpoint at least, that’s true. From the state’s copious retirement communities, awash with boxy, concrete single-family homes to towering apartments and condominiums that echo the tenements of northeastern cities like New York, Florida has always been, well, a little weird.

Professor of Art History Anna Andrzejewski studies vernacular architecture — the ways in which the buildings we construct reflect the intersectionality of who we are and how we live. She has long been fascinated by how unusual the architecture of Florida’s retirement communities is and wanted to understand how it all happened. It’s the subject of her forthcoming book, Building Paradise: Housing, Leisure, and the Creation of South Florida’s Vacation and Retirement Landscape, 1945–1975.

“You have these large communities like The Villages that are suburbs of a sort, but they aren’t attached to a major city,” says Andrzejewski. “They consist of tourists and retirees who are not working, so they don’t have the same dependence on a city that suburbs ringing [around] Madison do.”

Andrzejewski wants people to take South Florida’s architecture seriously. It’s not “just there,” but something that emerged out of specific agendas in a historic moment.

After World War II, concepts like vacation time and pensions were no longer the exclusive province of the elite. Middle and working classes could begin considering a place like Florida for vacation or retirement. Builders were trying to convert the state quickly and cheaply into what would become America’s playground.

Back in the 1950s, Florida surveyed older adults who had approached the Florida Tourism Bureau to ask them what kind of housing they preferred. Around 80% wanted single-family houses, which accounts for builders and developers creating so many of them. But even the condominiums and apartment buildings incorporated single-family features, like private enclosed yards and balconies.

“Even though you have different sorts of models besides the concrete, little houses stamped out one by one and these communities, you add hotels along the coastline. They still preserve aspects of this model that were derived from single-family occupancy,” Andrzejewski says.

Many of these concrete homes, constructed to survive storms and hurricanes, were built on wetlands by builders and developers who, at the time, believed they were creating something useful out of nature.

“They thought they were making it beautiful, making it usable,” says Andrzejewski. “They felt they were making it for people to enjoy. They were making a buck, sure, but they were really thinking they were doing something good.”

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