Saturday, November 28, 2015


James Deering's Fantasy Estate and Gardens

OK I admit it. I'm not a fan of Miami. 

The times I've visited it, I found it intensely hot and dirty. Just felt generally kinda icky.

The fact that it is filled with young, incredibly beautiful, fit, zero body fat residents (that make Roadboy feel old and fat) also tends to work against it.....

Last week, however, while attending an architectural conference downtown in Brickell, I came up with a few hours for some personal sightseeing.

Since I've always wanted to visit Vizcaya, the timing was perfect. After a few days working amid downtown's traffic and highrises Vizcaya represented everything I found myself craving. It is lush, beautiful, uncrowded and quiet.

From downtown Vizcaya is a short drive (or just a few Metrorail stops) away. And, if you drive, and space is available in its on-site lots, parking at Vizcaya is currently free.

View of Biscayne Bay From Vizcaya's Barge
(Arguably The Most Beautiful Breakwater Structure Ever Built) 
Vizcaya, now a museum and park, was conceived as a spectacular winter residence by James Deering a wealthy Chicago industrialist. 

James Deering
(Painted by Deering's Friend / Houseguest: John Singer Sargent)

James Deering (1859-1925)
Mr. Deering was heir to the Deering Harvester Corporation (founded by his father William Deering).

Deering was a Chicago socialite who had a passion for collecting art and antiquities. He was also a conservationist and philanthropist. Deering traveled extensively and (besides Vizcaya) maintained residences in Chicago, Evanston, New York City and Paris.

Deering never married and died of pernicious anemia in 1925 while aboard the steamship City of Paris.

Professional Career
After one year at Northwestern and one year at MIT, at the age of 21, James Deering became treasurer of Deering Harvester.

In 1902 JP Morgan purchased both Deering Harvester and McCormick Reaper and "Morganized" them into a new (monopoly) mega-company International Harvester. Deering became a vice-president in the new corporation. By 1909, at age 50, Deering retired from day-to-day operations at International Harvester.

Creating Vizcaya
A year after retiring (in 1910), at the age of 51, Deering turned his attention to a new project, planning an epic winter estate in South Florida. To accomplish the task he enlisted Paul Chalfin (an artist and designer who was busy creating the interiors to Deering's Chicago home).

Deering and Chalfin then began extensive travels to Europe to gain inspiration and acquire antiquities for the new Miami estate.

In 1912 Deering added 30 year old F. Burrall Hoffman to serve as the architect of the house. He also began purchasing land in the Coconut Grove section of Miami. His initial purchase was 130 acres of virgin mangroves and hammocks fronting Biscayne Bay, just north of his brother Charles' estate. After a second land purchase of 50 additional acres the estate encompassed 180 acres.

In 1914 construction on the house began. Also in 1914 Deering retained Diego Suarez (a Columbian landscape architect he had met in Italy) to create Vizcaya's elaborate gardens.

The Overall Vizcaya Site
(Note how the plan essentially results in the huge house "fronting" on three sides)

With planning and construction teams now in full swing, the house was completed and ready for occupancy by Christmas of 1916.

From this point on Vizcaya became a "must see" stop on the celebrity circuit of the era. Deering's winters at Vizcaya became enriched by a parade of artists, movie stars and dignitaries.

The design of the house and estate is exquisitely composed. The villa is one of the few estates of its day to front directly on Biscayne Bay. This meant it would always be particularly vulnerable to hurricanes. To offset the hurricane risk the house is built of concrete, is elevated above the bay and is protected by a large ornamental breakwater in the shape of a huge stone barge. Hence, the east face and terrace is front door to visitors arriving by boat. The west facade and terrace serve as front door to visitors arriving by land. The South facade and terrace faces the estate's magnificent gardens.

Sadly, photography inside the home is prohibited, so my photos where limited to the grounds and the (now) enclosed interior courtyard.

Vizcaya's East Facade and Terrace Facing Biscayne Bay

As you leave the East Terrace you confront Vizcaya's main character defining element, its amazing "barge". The barge serves as a landmark for visitors arriving by water (including Deering who frequently arrived on his yacht Nepenthe). And, during Deering's time the barge was heavily planted and contained a gazebo for meals or tea. The hurricane of 1926 destroyed the gazebo and planting. They have never been replaced.

The Vizcaya Barge
(A truly spectacular breakwater)

 Part of the Interior Courtyard
(Deering was fond of projecting Hollywood movies in the courtyard)

Originally the house surrounded an open courtyard which allowed for the convection of natural breezes and airflow, throughout the house. To preserve the house, the courtyard has been covered with an elaborate skylight. This has enabled the house to be fully air conditioned. 

Even Little Details Like These Wall Mounted Courtyard Curtain Tie-backs 
Were Meticulously Designed

Looking Up In the South Wing's Spiral Staircase

The South "Garden" Facade and Terrace
Complete With A Playful Frog Garden Sculpture 

Construction of the extensive grounds continued on for 9 years with delays in part due to labor and material shortages caused by World War 1.

I found it stunning that at times the shear size of this project resulted in the employment of 10% of the population of Miami.

A View to The Fountain Garden

Although I came to see the house, I found myself spending more time enjoying Vizcaya's Gardens. Deering was fascinated by European gardens and some note that the design of the gardens evoke a sort of a traditional European garden style executed with tropical plant materials.

Deering opened Vizcaya's gardens to Miami's residents on Sundays. Lore has it that Deering would discretely watch his guests and take great pleasure in witnessing their enjoyment of the gardens.

Central Garden

A Large Reptilian Houseguest

Vizcaya is a Cherished Backdrop for Quinceanera Photos 

A Sample of the Extensive Garden Sculptures

In The Gardens 

Don't miss the north side of the villa as it is the most private and intimate side of the estate. Below the north terrace is a cafe, gift shop and elaborate grotto where one might plunge into the indoor outdoor swimming pool that extends beyond this facade. The North facade also faces into the Orchidarium. Another favorite spot of modern photographers.   

The Orchid Garden is Perfect backdrop For Celebratory Photos

As you tour the house carefully note some of its subtle details.

Despite the lack of air conditioning and fully subjected to Florida heat, the kitchen was built upstairs (at bedroom level). This results in all food for major meals being transported to the dining room downstairs via a dumbwaiter.

The house featured a built-in vacuum system and a modern annunciator system allowing Deering and his guests the ability to summons staff around the clock.

When Deering was in residence the house required a staff of 16-18 with another staff of 25 to maintain the gardens.

Some house staff lived in bedrooms in the west towers (not on the tour). Bedrooms in the east towers offered privacy and spectacular bay views and were coveted by Deering's guests.

A village of secondary structures with some staff housing, repair shops and barns to keep the estate pristine and raise animals for the kitchen was built near Miami Blvd.

Other features worthy of note include the built-in pipe organ downstairs (surrounded by a spliced antique mural), a very early residential elevator and direct-dial telephone room.

One quirk of the design are the concealed doors from one guest bedroom (allowing private movement to Deerings private balcony and master suite). I'd be very interested to see the gender represented in the guest roster for that bedroom.

Also note how the big tub in his master bathroom has two sets of gold handles. One tap was for fresh water, the other was for salt water. His shaving stand has the most spectacular view imaginable.

The history of Vizcaya is not without trials and tribulations. Deering entrusted the design and management of the project to his friend Chalfin who, although very talented, was not an architect.

Apparently, over the years Chalfin "forgot" that fact, and started taking credit as the architect. The true architect ignored it initially. Then after a noteworthy magazine article credited the architecture to Chalfin, Hoffman finally took legal action to correct that.

Although the gardens remained under construction until 1921, the landscape architect Suarez was released in 1917. After which Chalfin took credit for the garden design as well. 

Upon Deering's death in 1925, the estate was deeded to his brother Charles, eventually passing on to Deering's two nieces.

Just a year after Deering's death Vizcaya was devastated by the hurricane of 1926. His nieces worked hard to restore and keep the estate maintained, but eventually sold much of the estate including the southern lagoon property to the Catholic Diocese (for a hospital in 1945).

Even after hurricane's, the Great Depression and World War's, Vizcaya was kept as intact as possible (including many of the original furnishings) until it was sold in 1955 to Dade County for a largely symbolic payment.

Vizcaya is a true one-of-a-kind.

Similar to Hearst's "Castle" in California, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville NC and all of the estates in Newport RI, it provides insight into the lifestyle of America's pre-depression over-the-top rich.

Putting such estates into perspective, Vizcaya was built at a time when many Americans were unemployed and monopolistic corporate greed was encouraging the rapid dehumanization of industrial working conditions. Where Pinkerton thugs were employed by Ford to work over any employee caught whispering about unionization.

Where child labor was standard and one in five steel workers would die in a workplace "injury". It was when William Jennings Bryan rose to champion the worker only to be defeated in his presidential bid by JP Morgan's willingness to buy the presidential election for McKinley. It was when Upton Sinclair shocked the nation by chronicling the desperate conditions of Chicago's meat packing industry and when factory doors were used to lock staff in factories, resulted in terrible deaths during warehouse fires.

It was an era when America's wealthy could spend millions on a winter home like Vizcaya, yet a typical American family's monthly income was less than $100.

Roadboy's Travels © 2015

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