Villa Vizcaya: A Gilded Oasis on Biscayne Bay

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 15, 2016.

By Natalia Heguaburo

Miami visitors glancing toward the shore while sailing on Biscayne Bay just south of the Rickenbacker Causeway can be forgiven if they’re startled by the vista that comes into view.

After all, a palace built in the style of the Italian Renaissance is probably the last thing they’d expect to see near a downtown waterfront lined with high-rise condos and glass-clad office towers often lauded for their ultramodern architecture.

A relic of the past – Miami’s and America’s – Villa Vizcaya was built a century ago as a winter home for one of America’s richest men, James Deering.

Portrait of James Deering by John Singer Sargent, ca. 1916

Construction began in 1914, and the main structure was essentially finished in 1916, but completion of the entire project took much longer because World War I caused a shortage of building materials.

When it was finally completed in 1922, Vizcaya was surrounded by elaborate formal gardens while the interior featured priceless art and antique furnishings.

By then, Deering had retired from an active role in his family’s farm-equipment business. Moreover, the millionaire bachelor had been advised that plenty of warmth and sunshine would help combat his chronic health problem, pernicious anemia.

However, in choosing to build this elaborate winter palace, Deering was also emulating Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and others among the Gilded Age’s industrialists whose ostentatious homes were a reflection of their great wealth.

To design his Florida residence Deering hired Paul Chalfin, who had been the interior designer for his Chicago apartment. Together they sought to create a rustic Italian masterpiece. This was an especially appealing undertaking for Chalfin because he had specialized in Italian themes in his interior design practice.

Plan of ground floor of Villa Vizcaya

Plan of second floor of Villa Vizcaya

Because Chalfin was only an interior designer, Deering hired Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr. as the architect for Vizcaya. A Harvard graduate, he had also studied architecture in Paris.

Hoffman, who eventually opened a very successful architectural practice in New York, is credited with developing the plans for Vizcaya’s main house. Soon thereafter, however, he left the project, claiming that Chalfin and Deering argued too much.

Meanwhile, to design the gardens, Deering hired Diego Suarez as Vizcaya’s landscape architect. Born in Colombia but reared in Italy, Suarez had initially envisioned a design based on the 16th Century’s Viterbo villas.

However, when he arrived in Miami and observed South Florida’s subtropical climate first-hand, Suarez wisely restructured his plan in order to prevent harsh rays of sunlight from entering the home, which lacked air conditioning.

Eventually, after having designed most of the gardens, Suarez left the project because of numerous disagreements with Chalfin. Because Chalfin had taken credit for the design, Suarez was not acknowledged as the landscape architect for the nationally renowned gardens until 1950.

Plan of the gardens and architectural structures at Villa Vizcaya

Aerial view of Villa Vizcaya and unfinished gardens, ca. 1916. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Deering had envisioned the gardens as fulfillment of his conservationist goals, which were carefully observed and adhered to during the construction of the estate.

For instance, in an effort to preserve the rocky hammock that originally covered much of the property – and to avoid destroying the natural habitat, part of which is still preserved — Deering built the main structure fairly close to the bay, despite the added expense and danger.

After James Deering’s death in 1925 at the age of 65, his brother, Charles, gained possession of the manor. The following year a highly destructive hurricane hit South Florida, and Charles Deering soon passed the estate down to his two daughters.

View of the waterfront at Villa Vizcaya, ca. 1930s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Peacock sculptures in the Marine Garden at Villa Vizcaya, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

In the 1930s the Great Depression made it nearly impossible for the sisters to afford the cost of maintenance, so portions of the land were gradually sold off, with the core property eventually conveyed to Dade County for $1.4 million.

That price was considered an extremely generous bargain because the original cost of construction was about $26 million – much more in today’s dollars.

Although it was designed to appear historic and timeworn, Vizcaya was surprisingly modern for the period, being equipped with a master clock, a telephone system and even an elevator!

Today, visitors to the estate are able to view 34 ornate rooms, most decorated in their original furnishings. Visitors also get to explore the 10 acres of gardens filled with limestone fountains, extravagant pools, breathtaking views, and tropical flora ranging from yellow Peruvian candles and fuchsia ti to exotic orchids.

Fountain in the Marine Garden at Villa Vizcaya. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Bayside view of Villa Vizcaya, ca. 1920s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

The estate, which rests on 38,000 square feet of property on the northern fringe of Miami’s quaint Coconut Grove neighborhood, is the city’s only publicly owned national historic landmark.

Having once welcomed guests ranging from Pope John Paul II to Thomas Edison and President Warren Harding, Vizcaya has withstood the ravages of time thanks to countless restorative efforts.

Whether it is the history, architecture, or gardens that entice its guests, Vizcaya invites its visitors to step back in time and into a period before Miami became a vibrant international city marked by trendy nightclubs and round-the-clock traffic jams.

Indeed, Vizcaya has continued to impress visitors since it first opened its doors nearly 100 years ago.

Featured Image: Villa Vizcaya via Library of Congress