Once upon a time back in the year 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon traveled by ship to St. Augustine. After having his fill there, yet thirsting for more as explorers often do, he sailed even further southbound down the dreamy blue waters of the Floridian coast. In the midst of his journeys, he happened upon a lush and undiscovered estuary, later to be named Biscayne Bay. Today this area remains just as desirable to tourists and visitors alike as it was then, and is, in fact, the proud home to Vizcaya, one of the grandest Estates in America.
The Pauper Becomes a Prince
Much of the character of today’s Vizcaya, (romantically named for a Spanish Basque Province) ties in with its rich history and a New England based family named Deering who enjoyed great entrepreneurial success. After years of hard work and by the close of the 19th century, they grew to become one of America’s wealthiest lineages. William Deering, the patriarch and founder of the famous farm equipment manufacturer The Deering Harvester Company, set out to build his quintessential dream palace in the untouched picturesque and subtropical Miami, Florida. He purchased land there and built a home in Coconut Grove, just south of the area. His son and heir to the estate, agricultural industrialist, James Deering, was at that very same time, climbing his own social rungs en route to the top, fast becoming an active partygoer and traveler in his own right. Being a wealthy bachelor of refined taste, he dedicated the rest of his years to Vizcaya. Along with a dream team of young designers including a New York painter named Paul Chalfin; an architect, F. Burrall Hoffman and a Colombian born landscape architect, Diego Suarez, he traveled abroad surveying residential architecture for ideas and obtaining components that would later be expressed in Vizcaya. Together this foursome created the main house, designing it to deliberately mimic an Italian Renaissance style estate. From the stately buildings to the European decorative elements and furniture, Vizcaya showcased James’ travels to Italy and fast became famous for adapting European cultural traditions to Miami’s indiginous landscape.
This property was the beloved home to several generations of the Deering family. James himself used Vizcaya as his annual winter home from Christmas 1916 until his death in 1925. Sadly, the hurricane of 1926, which devastated much of Miami, damaged Vizcaya and its surrounding grounds and gardens. Deering’s heirs contacted the estate’s original designer, Paul Chalfin, who oversaw the first restoration of Vizcaya in 1933. Attempting to operate the estate as an attraction they kept the estate going, but another major hurricane in 1935, overruled their efforts. In 1952, Deering’s heirs generously signed over Vizcaya to Dade County on the condition that the property be used as a public museum in perpetuity.
Today, Vizcaya (www.vizcayamuseum.org) plays a leading role in showing Miami-Dade County as the culturally rich place that it is, with its unique architecture, gardens, interiors, and decorative arts. Furthermore, Vizcaya represents the “American Renaissance” and helps visitors understand Miami’s extensive place in history. Now a National Historic Landmark and a museum accredited by the American Association of Museums, Vizcaya stands, as it always has, in its entire splendor, a beautiful old mansion on the bay of Miami and open to the public.
Set amidst beautifully landscaped gardens and fountains, the main house offers 34 decorated rooms of antique furnishings and art objects spanning 2000 years. Joining with this, the original estate of 180 acres showcases European inspired formal gardens flanked by native mangroves and massive hardwood trees, a fragrant tropical garden, extensive lagoon gardens, and a village that services the property. The house cleverly combines European marble and Floridian limestone while the Italianate gardens rely on plants capable of thriving in Miami’s climate. It is filled to the brim with 15th century furniture and decorative arts and is, by far, an eclectic masterpiece.
Key features include several ornate fountains, a central pool surrounding an island, the elevated mound with its small house, or “Casino,” statuary, and a number of themed gardens such as the Maze Garden. Although the house appears to be only two stories high, between the public rooms on the ground floor and the bedrooms above, there is a middle level with more than 20 rooms that were originally constructed for domestic staff quarters. These rooms will soon to opened to visitors so that they may better learn the intricacies of the place.
Several key projects are in the works, all critical to the preservation and growth of the museum as a vital cultural resource in Miami-Dade. With funding, Vizcaya’s main house and gardens will be improved. Upgrades will include the restoration of historic interior elements, repairing historic windows and doors and upgrading hurricane protection systems. The museum also plans to renovate 11 historic endangered buildings on the west side of South Miami Avenue that have never been open to the public.
Christmas and holidays are a special time to see the Mansion, which is beautifully furnished with antique and European furniture. It is open to the public every day but Christmas, and the Vizcaya Volunteer Guides offer tours in 13 languages.
Over the years numerous dignitaries have visited the estate, including Queen Elizabeth II, Pope John Paul II, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain. To its credit, the site is a popular venue for weddings and other special events, and is frequently used by photographers and filmmakers alike.
Vizcaya started out as a pauper’s vision and evolved into a Prince’s paradise. How’s that for an American success story? -DUO
The BELLE of BISCAYNE BAY
"Vizcaya Museum and Gardens"
Written By Karen Holly Berliner