The Wonderful Wizard of South Beach

Micky Wolfson and his hall of marvels.

There is the Miami Beach everyone pictures: a place of bronzed bodies, bottle-service nightclubs and Art Deco hotels. This is the streamlined oasis of hedonism Gianni Versace epitomized, spray-tanning his golden musk upon Ocean Drive and its nether regions. Then there is the other Miami: old school, guarded, understatedly chic and residing in the quieter enclaves north, south, across the bay. Its year-round denizens are immune to tanning, beaching or making the scene at the hotel penthouse du jour.

This is the world that Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, Miami’s offbeat answer to Peggy Guggenheim, inhabits and helped to culturally enrich through his eponymous Wolfsonian-Florida International University museum. Opened to the public in 1995, the Wolfsonian sits a block away from Casa Casuarina, Versace’s gaudy, gilded compound—now a boutique hotel—where the Italian designer was murdered two years later. But the two places might as well be an ocean apart. The seven-story former storage warehouse that Wolfson turned into a temple of obscura and propaganda in the mid-1980s is something of a paradox: an internationally recognized institution that has the feel of a local secret. It’s an Emerald City holding a vast cache of artifacts, inventions and decorative art from the tail end of the Industrial Revolution to World War II, with more than 120,000 finds in all. Wolfson, 75, calls all of this his “autobiography.” (The forthcoming exhibition, “Myth & Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture,” for instance, focuses on artists’ reactions to the birth of industrialized warfare. Opening November 11, the show is timed to both the centenary of the war and the institution’s 19th anniversary.)

Culled mostly from Europe and the States, the museum’s collection covers nearly every design movement of the making-and-breaking decades—however unconventionally. There’s Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Futurism, Constructivism, Imperialism, (name your -ism), mixing with machinery, textiles, rare books, children’s toys, scale-model blimps, erotic stained-glass panels, cocktail shakers, statues, toasters that look like medieval torture devices and personalized china lifted from speakeasies. It is a rare piece in the museum—donated by Wolfson in 1997 to FIU—that fails to speak of the conquests, ingenuity and tragedy of modern man. There’s no collection in the world quite like it, let alone in Miami.

“Wolfsonian” (rhymes with “Smithsonian”) is both proper noun and adjective, inasmuch as its contents reflect Wolfson’s peculiar sensibility. Asked if naming the museum after himself might be construed as immodest, he says, “Back then”—in the mid-1980s, when he says Miami was something of a blank slate, culturally speaking—“I didn’t care what anyone thought. I was having too much fun building it all!”

Wolfson’s father, Key West–born Mitchell Sr., founded Miami’s first television station and movie theater, the ornately appointed Capital. He went on to become Miami Beach’s first Jewish mayor (in 1943) at a time when hotels hung “Gentiles Only” signs in their lobbies (until 1949).

With war declared, Senior abruptly resigned his mayoral post to “fight the Nazis,” as his son puts it. As a lieutenant colonel in the army, he led the siege upon the National Socialist Party’s headquarters in Munich, from which he “liberated” the Führer’s personal flatware. Wolfson says that his own drive to collect grew in part from an “attempt to re-create familiarity, to keep a psychological relationship with my father.” The Wolfsonian, in essence, is Wolfson’s “Rosebud,” a bid to recapture what was lost in the fire from a childhood with a father often AWOL.

Wolfson got the collecting bug when he was 12 and was permitted to travel with his family by train and luxury liner, his favored modes of transportation. He started with key fobs from hotel rooms and ocean-liner cabins. Matchbooks, too. “Trains, for everyone in the South, were liberation. They took us to the big worlds of opportunity and glamour.”

But after traveling the world and studying at both Johns Hopkins and Princeton, he says, he finally returned to his hometown, as so many great industrialist sons do. Miami Beach remains his true home, albeit one that brings with it mixed feelings.

“There’s a past, but not much of a history,” he says. “Miami has the aura of a city, but it’s not yet a city. It’s a conglomeration of a lot of particles. We all don’t play in the same sandpile.”

Over time, Wolfson’s collection grew too big to be contained under one roof: In 2013 he donated a large portion of it to FIU, including a space it occupied in Downtown Miami. Consuming three floors in an otherwise drab office building, the so-called Wolfsonian-FIU/Downtown Collection holds an additional 25,000 treasures. (Wolfson opened it to the press in 2013 during Art Basel Miami Beach, but it remains closed to the general public.)

The collection also has a satellite in Genoa, Italy. Wolfson house-hops through the seasons, placing himself where he needs to be for tips on one-of-a-kind relics from flea markets and dealers for potential inclusion in the trove. Among Wolfson’s residences, there is the Castello Mackenzie, a Gothic Revival castle in Genoa’s Castelletto quarter, which he sold to a friend (though he continues to camp in its tower aerie when in town); a Mark Hampton–designed Park Avenue apartment; a Paris pied-à-tierre; and his longtime condominium in the tony Palm Bay Club, on Miami’s Upper Eastside, across the bay from Midbeach.

Belying his cosmopolitan lifestyle, Wolfson cultivates a Willy Wonka demeanor. “Kids love the museum most,” he says. “And their grandparents love it, too. That poor middle generation—they’re a little embarrassed, even insulted. For the grandparents, the collection is justification of their accomplishments. For the kids, it’s just simple fascination.” For his part, Wolfson says, “I like things that are genuine and substantive. I don’t like irony…and I don’t like self-conscious sophistication.”

The installation artist Michele Oka Doner, Wolfson’s longtime soul mate and coauthor of a scrapbook-style ode to the duo’s hometown—Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden (2005, Feierabend Unique Books)—says of her friend’s upbringing and ability to Indiana Jones it in life: “It all wasn’t quite handed to him; it was partially handed to him. Like real people, he had to fight to claim it.

“Micky is an intent listener,” adds Doner, whose own father, Kenneth Oka, was twice elected mayor of Miami Beach post–Mitchell Sr.’s tenure. “[Micky] admires swashbucklers, people who, like himself, slash their way through conventionality.”

Wolfson’s father used to think Micky was illiterate, and his mother called him a “slow developer” like the rest of the men in her husband’s family.” The lack of faith continued at Princeton, when a professor told Wolfson he didn’t have “a creative bone in his body.” Wolfson maintains he is no artist—he calls himself an “archaeologist, not a collector.”

But Doner objects: “He is an artist, he is so creative. The Wolfsonian is one giant…collage!” The Wolfsonian-FIU is at 1001 Washington Ave.; wolfsonian.org.