December 08, 2012

A Visit to Vizcaya

Hello from Sunny Florida where I am enjoying the sun and surf and, oh yes, there are some art fairs going on too!  But today I took a break from the Art Basel Miami Beach scene and visited a local National Historic Landmark that I think you will enjoy.

Spectacularly situated on Biscayne Bay, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens offer a stark contrast to the gleaming skyscrapers and ultra-modern container port that have come to symbolize the Miami area.  In fact, when Mr. James Deering engaged designer/visionary Paul Chalfin, architect F. Burrall Hoffman and landscape architect Diego Suarez to build his winter home, he deliberately set out to create an antique-looking estate, albeit with every conceivable modern convenience.

But I'm getting ahead of myself!  Let's go back to the early 1900s when James Deering (1859-1925) had retired from the family business (the Deering Harvester Company, later International Harvester, the largest manufacturer of agricultural machinery in the U.S.) and was looking for a location to spend the cooler months that would compliment his homes in Chicago, Evanston IL, New York City and Paris, France.  His father, William, and his half-brother, the philanthropist Charles Deering, had already purchased property in Coconut Grove, Florida, and James was so taken with the area that in 1910 he acquired a 180 acre bay front site with lush sub-tropical vegetation.

The result was Villa Vizcaya, a spectacular home built to accommodate its owner and his many guests in style and comfort both indoors and out.  James Deering and his right hand man Paul Chalfin spent four years traveling throughout Europe in a quest for both architectural ideas and elements such as doors, wall coverings and furniture, that could be incorporated into the future home.  Construction began in 1914 and two years later, Mr. Deering welcomed his first guests to a Christmas feast in his marvelous enclave.

What makes this historic home different from the many others that were built during the Gilded Age but now operate as tourist attractions?  I think there are several answers, starting with the location.  Ideally, the Vizcaya Mansion is entered from the sea - via the stone barge with its Venetian striped poles - into the open East Loggia.  Modern day visitors are relegated to the car park but still arrive at the main house through a beautiful indigenous forest and then through gardens and fountains to the Entrance Loggia.

Vizcaya was intentionally built to look antique, specifically a 400 year old Italian villa, and one that had seen generations of family come and go.  To this end, the home was filled with decorations and furniture from the 15th through the 19th centuries with a few Roman antiquities thrown in for good measure.  Mssrs. Deering and Chalfin were very creative.  If they could only find one appropriate mirror they would have a replica made to complete the pair.  If the fireplace was not tall enough, they commissioned stone carvers to add a few extra feet.  Roman columns were electrified to create light fixtures and a 16th century religious oil painting was cut in half to create an aesthetically appealing cover for the pipes of Mr. Deering's organ.

As well as these antique (both real and faux) treasures, the house also contains some very modern amenities for 1914.  For example, Vizcaya boasted the first electric telephone exchange in the Miami area.  It also featured a burglar alarm, an electric master clock system, elevators and my personal favorite, a central vacuum system!  The kitchen was state of the art and Mr. Deering's private bathroom not only had the best views in the house, but his bathtub had hot and cold running fresh and salt water spouting from gold plated taps!

Today visitors can enjoy 34 decorated rooms including the public salons and the more private bedrooms and baths as well as the behind the scenes facilities like the pantry and food preparation areas (complete with dumbwaiters, silver safe, and a salt water refrigeration system).  Stepping outside the main house onto the East Terrace offers a wonderful view of downtown Miami and one can almost imagine arriving for a party on board a gondola and disembarking at the stone barge.

The gardens are just as imaginative as the main house with grottoes, fountains, a maze, a theatre, a secret garden and an orchidarium, all filled with plants and statues and birds and animals.  There is something charming to be found around every corner and it continues to be a verdant refuge - a garden of earthly delights - much as it must have been in its heyday.

The name Vizcaya is a made up one, much like the perfect universe created by Mr. Deering.  It is a combination of "Biskaia", a province in Spain, and "Vizcaino", a Spanish explorer, thereby referencing both geography and history in a very pretty-sounding word.

You may have the idea that Mr. Deering was a sort of "bon-vivant" or a turn of the century Donald Trump, but actually the opposite was true.  Despite his privileged upbringing and extravagant lifestyle he was a very thoughtful and private man.  He built a swimming pool, tennis courts, a bowling alley and billiard room in the hope that his nieces and nephews would visit.  He was a patron of the arts and friends with painters John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn who visited Vizcaya.  The gardens were open to the public on Sundays and his staff were very well looked after to the point of having their own private beach on the property.

Unfortunately James Deering did not enjoy his creation for long.  His health had been precarious for many years, and he died quite suddenly during a Transatlantic crossing on board the SS City of Paris in 1925.  As he had never married, the estate passed to two nieces but after being severely damaged in the hurricanes of 1926 and 1935, the sisters sold much of the acreage for development and the house and gardens to Miami-Dade County at a very reasonable price.  The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens have been open to the public since 1952 and thanks to the generosity of its many public and private donors, this magnificent retreat is impeccably maintained and restored.  A visit to Vizcaya in all its bygone splendour is a worthwhile stop on any South Florida itinerary.

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