Vizcaya- Preserving the Treasures of American Splendor
One of South Florida’s most iconic landmarks unveils its multimillion renovation that will bring us closer to the days of its gilded past like never before.
On a picture-perfect winter day in South Florida, it would be difficult to find a more exquisite spot to relax with a good book than among the meticulously manicured hedged patterns, the many fountains and tiered gardens showcasing tropical, subtropical and indigenous flora around the exulted and labyrinthine grounds of Vizcaya. Here and there, intricate grottos, graceful gazebos and ancient Greco-Roman and Renaissance statues create a spectacular reflection of living history.
A Gatsbyesque Era
As your eyes drift upward to one of the upper level balconies, you can almost see James Deering, an intriguing and almost Gatsbyesque figure, staring down at his visitors who still marvel at the breathtaking beauty of his glorious estate, 100 years later.
Vizcaya’s original builder, owner and resident was the quintessential roaring 20s industrial magnate. He was Vice President of the International Harvester Company, a global agricultural equipment company, son of renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist, William Deering, and half brother to Charles Deering, owner of the Deering Estate at Cutler. James was an astute businessman who managed to expand the family fortune and amass great wealth on his own.
The Vizcaya Vision
Vizcaya was originally conceived as his seasonal retreat. Deering inhabited the mansion from Christmas Day 1916 until his death in 1925. When he began building his winter home, Deering procured the talent and aesthetic sensibilities of New York painter Paul Chalfin. Together, Deering and Chalfin found inspiration along with unique decorative elements during their travels throughout Europe. Architect F. Burrall Hoffman and Colombian landscape architect Diego Suarez also came on board to contribute with their respective knowledge and expertise.
From its earliest planning stages, Vizcaya was intended to have a lived-in feel. In fact, Deering’s objective was to make the brand-new home appear four centuries old. The mansion was to be a paramount achievement on an undeniably grandiose scale. At the time of construction, Miami’s population was roughly about 10,000 people. More than 1,000 workers were commissioned for this massive undertaking, including laborers and craftsmen imported from both the nearby Caribbean and across the Atlantic in Europe.
In an effort to make Vizcaya a self-sustainable entity and impervious to the lack of conveniences of Miami in the 1920s, the original estate would have its own efficiently run farm and livestock, produce gardens, fields for grazing and a village complex along an expanse of 180 acres of land.
An Endearing Deering
Although James Deering himself never married and seemed to long for the presence of family in his home, he was far from a loner. His name appeared frequently in social columns as a man of impeccable manners and social graces who was also an arts connoisseur, an international traveler and cultural ambassador. His New York and Chicago homes hosted French dignitaries, and prominent artists, such as silent film stars Lillian Gish and Mario Davies, and painters Gari Melcher, John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn were dear friends. James suffered from pernicious anemia all his life, and even though his health began to deteriorate rapidly in 1923, his active social life did not slow down.
Deering was by all accounts a practical man with a weakness for beautiful and impractical things – such as choosing a hot, humid and hurricane-prone climate to erect a palatial Italian oceanfront villa that housed 15th through 19th century European, Asian and American furnishings, painted frescos, historic artifacts and works of art that spawn two millennia; among these the very carpet that Christopher Columbus walked down to collect payment from the King of Spain for his travels.
Over the years the effects of South Florida’s humid climate and salt air have taken their toll, requiring Vizcaya to undergo continuous restoration. Although the house’s design allowed the free flow of tropical ocean breezes through the open courtyard, the need to preserve the structure and the treasures within required the installation of modern systems for climate and humidity control. A tinted glass enclosure was originally installed over the home’s open courtyard back in 1986. This and other preservation measures proved immensely effective at stalling rapid decay and corrosion.
100th Birthday of Vizcaya
As Vizcaya approached its 100th birthday, it was time to update the enclosure with more technologically advanced glass and materials that would filter in more sunlight, while blocking more destructive UV rays. The now less conspicuous enclosure has since achieved two vital accomplishments: to bring Vizcaya to the 21st century and also to restore its old splendor with more historically accurate lighting in the courtyard that offers a stunning and crystal clear view of the rooftops’ architectural details, as they were meant to be seen. This new skylight is one of many repairs that were completed in 2012. Among them: significant garden work and replanting, cleaning and restoration of the outdoor statuary, a brand-new cafe and gift shop, and other structural upgrades.
But Vizcaya still has more treasures to reveal. Although until now, visitors have been able to marvel at the splendor of the opulent living spaces, the museum intends to open and exhibit twelve additional servants’ and workers’ rooms in the near future. This should give our National Landmark an irresistible “Upstairs Downstairs” dimension that will give even the most avid Vizcaya patrons a reason to return, again and again.