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Friday, April 4, 2014

Villa Vizcaya, Miami, Florida

Vizcaya's impressive Biscayne Bay eastern façade.
James Deering, 1917, John Singer Sargent
Something like twenty years ago one of my favorite TV shows was Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous hosted by the inimitable Robin Leach. Today we'd refer to such people at the "one percent" and the restrained envy of twenty years ago is a good deal less restrained today--even hostile. James Deering was born in 1859, a member of the pre-income tax one percent (possibly the upper one-tenth of one percent). James Deering and his brother, Charles, were the sons of William Deering, the wealthy 19th century farm equipment manufacturer, who, with their help, eventually fathered the International Harvester Corporation. Despite the similarities of their names, the Deerings had no association with the John Deere Company as is often believed (except as competitors).
From the west (the land entrance), Vizcaya appears not too
unlike many other Florida estates of the "rich and famous."
The pyramidal dome over the courtyard is visible from this side.
The Vizcaya music room
(needs a touch of gold, I think).
In the early 1900s, William Deering retired to Coconut Grove, Florida, an affluent suburb south of Miami. Both his sons gravitated to the region, setting up winter homes, Charles near Buena Vista, his brother, James, in the mangrove swamps along the shore of Biscayne Bay. Sometime during early years of the 20th century, James Deering purchased 180 acres of dense jungle where, around 1914, he began planning his winter home. Along with his "designer" Paul Chalfin, architect, F. Burrall Hoffman, and landscape designer Diego Suarez, they built a lavish Italian Renaissance estate in the Venetian style. Chalfin was in charge of the project, and later claimed to have been the architect. Hoffman had to sue to get proper credit. Vizcaya is sometimes called the San Simeon of the East. The two lavish estates were built around the same time though they differ radically in style and ambience. Both have in common the fact they were intended more as live-in museums, housing their owners' collection European art (left, often acquired at fire sale prices) or as entertainment showplaces as much as residences.
A somewhat dated postcard provides an aerial view giving some idea as to the
scope and elegance of the estate, here seen from the south, featuring
the casino focal point of the French-Italian formal gardens.
Vizcaya's formal dining room. The kitchen
was nearby, allowing dinner guests
to smell their meal before they ate it.
My family and I visited Vizcaya along with my brother (who lives in South Beach) during the mid-1980s. By then Deering family financial pressures and the encroachment of Miami had reduced Deering's original holdings to a mere 43 acres, in the hands of Miami Dade County. The main entrance approach to the estate is lined with arching live oak flanked by dense, native vegetation, serving to isolate the grounds from the rest of the Coconut Grove community (the house and gardens sit on as little as ten acres). Vizcaya was designed, however with two main entrances, one from the land, and another from the bay. The Biscayne Bay landing is by far the more impressive, featuring a stone breakwater intended to bring to mind Cleopatra's barge (it's a bit of a stretch). To the south stretches the formal gardens toward an oriental "casino" (bereft of slot machines). In between are walls, sculpture, and walkways made of coral stone, spacious lawns, shrubs, trees, and flowers (wedding photographers love it. On the north side, the landscaping is much less formal and features a sunken swimming pool which extends back under the mansion to create a grotto-like effect. The nearby museum café allows visitors to dine by the pool.
Vizcaya's ground floor plan. The Biscayne Bay façade is at the top,
the land entrance at the bottom of the plan.

The east entrance from the bay side.
Inside, the museum décor evokes a palace fit for a president or a pope, and has, in fact, hosted both (Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in 1987). Originally (in the days before air-conditioning) the villa was planned around an authentic, Italian open court. In the days since, the occasional hurricane coupled with the Miami heat and humidity has necessitated a low, pyramidal, greenhouse-type roof over the courtyard (not apparent from the outside). The ground floor plan (above) is thus a square ring around the courtyard, featuring a living room, dining room, music room, reception area and entrance loggia. The upper level plan (below) displays bedrooms opening off a broad balcony overlooking the courtyard.
Vizcaya's upper level--Mr. Deering's quarters occupy the upper left quadrant
overlooking the bay. There are also five guest rooms, a breakfast room,
another kitchen, and servants quarters on this level
James Deering was an art connoisseur, aided and abetted, no doubt, by his designer, Mr. Chalfin who advised him what to like and dislike. As with much turn-of-the-century interior design, restraint is not a common trait. The whole attitude regarding wealth and its ostentatious display differed from that of today (Donald Trump being the exception). Even the wealthy today can seldom afford to collect European antique art (even if they could get export permits) like Deering, the Rockefellers, or William Randolph Hearst. Moreover, when they do, amass such works, they are more often placed in museums rather than lived with daily as did the gilded age millionaires.

Vizcaya's Tea Room set for an evening wedding reception.
A Vizcaya wedding with the waterfall
in the background.
Vizcaya was completed in 1916, the gardens not until several years after that. James Deering died in 1925, on board a ship heading back to the United States from Europe, having wintered at Vizcaya for a mere nine years. Two nieces inherited the place. The next several years were not kind financially, even to families of wealth. Moreover, Vizcaya was, at best, something of a white elephant, especially as a category 4 hurricane bore down on the place with a fifteen-foot storm surge in 1926. Even in selling off parts of the estate, the Deering heirs (and their heirs) could little afford the place. They sold it to the city of Miami in 1952 for the price of one-million dollars. A year later, the estate was opened to the public. Even Miami Dade has had trouble affording the repair and upkeep. Admission is $18 for adults. A daytime wedding (left, 100 guests) will run you around $6,000. A similar evening affair on a weekend gets up in the neighborhood of $15,000.

Vizcaya's grotto pool--just add water.

The pool as it flows into the grotto.

The Vizcaya courtyard, now under glass.

One of two Vizcaya kitchens. (Where's the microwave?)
Vizcaya from the waterfront tea house gazebo (my favorite view).


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