Saturday, April 1, 2017

Villa Vizcaya - Old World Opulence in the Heart of Miami

Vizcaya as seen from the Boat Landing

The great Jay Gatsby would approve of Vizcaya. I can picture it as his temporary home when escaping the unseemly cold that wraps itself around Long Island and his mansion in West Egg during the winter months. Vizcaya was built to impress. It screams Old World opulence and money that has been passed down for generations. Its antique-filled rooms and stately formal gardens mentally transport visitors to Europe despite the fact that they are just across the bay from Miami's famed South Beach.

The Tea House and part of The Barge

In real life, this villa was quickly built over the course of two years by agricultural industrialist James Deering. He officially kicked off taking up residence in Vizcaya on Christmas Day 1916 with a ceremony involving cannons, gondolas and friends dressed as Italian peasants. Despite that extravagance, Deering was reportedly a circumspect and reserved man who was excited by only two things — Vizcaya and Webster's Dictionary. Deering and his artistic director, Paul Chalfin, envisioned Vizcaya as an 18th century Italian villa with themed rooms furnished with antiques suggesting that they had been accumulated by the family over generations. In fact, they were all purchased by Chalfin to create the illusion of old wealth.

The central couryard was originally open to the sky to improve air flow throughout the villa.

Deering's father, William Deering, was the founder of Deering Harvester Company which produced machinery that allowed Midwestern United States farmers to harvest grain at the amazing speed of an acre every hour. By the end of the 1800s, the Deerings were one of the wealthiest families in America. James Deering was a world traveler, cultural ambassador, socialite and arts connoisseur. In 1910, he was awarded the Legion of Honour for promoting agricultural technology in France. Four years later, he retired and chose the the shores of Miami's Biscayne Bay to be the site of his winter home.

East Loggia that faces the bay where guests arriving by boat would have entered

Although built to appear from another century, Deering embraced modern technology and hid it throughout the design of the building. The main home is built largely from reinforced concrete covered in a facade of Cuban limestone and Floridian coral architectural trim. Two elevators carried guests from one floor to another, and dumb waiters (food elevators) transported dishes of prepared food from the upstairs kitchen to the downstairs serving pantry. Vizcaya also has a water filtration system, central vacuum cleaning system and a partially automated laundry room dating back to its original construction in the 1910s. There's even an annunciator system that permitted Deering and his guests to call the household staff (16-18 people) whenever they needed something.

Downstairs Serving Pantry complete with refrigerators and a dumbwaiter.

Deering was a bachelor who built Vizcaya as a place to entertain guests. In addition to family and friends, his visitors here included silent film star Lillian Gish and President Warren Harding. Vizcaya was his residence from the end of November to the middle of April when he presumably moved back to his primary home on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. With homes in Paris, New York and the Illinois countryside, he was spoilt for choice for where to lay his head.

The Living Room

Situated facing the water, the Living Room was also known as Renaissance Hall because many of the items are from that period of European history (1300s-1600s). A man with such a room must certainly have refined and cultured tastes, don't you think? Many of these antiques were altered to better suit the home's modern design. Two electric light fixtures are affixed to tall, ancient Roman marble columns. Above the organ keyboard, the religious painting from the 1600s has been cut in half to function as doors that open to reveal the organ's pipes.

The Reception Room

The decorative ceiling of the Reception Room was purchased by Deering in Europe, and the rest of the room was designed around it. The curving, flowing lines of the wall panels, mirror and furnishings harken back to the Rococo style of the 1700s.

Enclosed Loggia

The Enclosed Loggia is my favorite room in the house for the very reason that Deering intended it for. It is a visual connection between the indoors and the outdoors providing a fantastic view of the formal gardens. The top arches of the windows feature sea horses and a Caravel ship, two symbols that Deering had incorporated throughout Vizcaya. Opposite these windows, the gates that lead into the Courtyard were originally part of the Palazzo Pisani in Venice.

The Cathay Bedroom

Designer Paul Chalfin named this the Cathay Bedroom after the name that Marco Polo gave China. In fact, he gave all the rooms colorful and descriptive names to set the mood for each one. So much better than being told as a guest that you're staying in "Room 202" or "the room at the top of the stairs and to the left." He decorated the Cathay Bedroom in the Chinoiserie style, the 18th century colonial-era European interpretation of Chinese artistic traditions. The bed in this room is specifically designed by Chalfin to be how a Venetian would have imagined a Chinese couch.

Belgioioso Bedroom

The Belgioioso Bedroom sits in the North Tower high above the rest of the house with a panoramic view of Biscayne Bay. The Countess of Belgioioso was a prominent figure in early 1800s Milan. Long dead by the time this room was created, she would have felt right at home as it is furnished in the style popular when she was alive.

James Deering's bedroom

Deering occupied the bedroom on the second floor facing the water. Designed in the Empire style associated with Napoleon, it seemed much more restrained and less flamboyant than all the guest rooms. The tub in the adjoining bathroom delivered both fresh and saltwater.

Close up of Deering's bed

While the colors and style of Deering's bedroom seemed more muted than elsewhere in the house, I couldn't help but notice the tableaus depicted in bright gold along the bedframe. There was also a giant water stain on the silk covered walls.

Espagnolette Bedroom
The Espagnolette Bedroom connects with Deering's bedroom through a shared bathroom and private balcony. According to Chalfin, "There was always the flutter of scandal about Deering and his women." A bachelor until the end, Deering is said to have had a rather long relationship with a mistress who traveled with him and stayed at Vizcaya. Although the current definition of "espagnolette" is a piece of French door hardware, it used to refer to a style of Spanish dress featuring a low neckline. Shocking! The espagnolette style was popularized in France in the 1800s by the painter Jean-Antoine Watteau whose fantasy garden paintings inspired the decor of this bedroom.

Frog fountain on the South Terrace leading to the Formal Garden

My favorite part of the entire estate is the Formal Gardens. There were many photo shoots going on while we were there. Some seemed to be for weddings or debutantes whereas another was definitely a fashion shoot with a rack of enviable clothes. Although the house was finished in 1916, the gardens were not completed until 1922.

Deering left the mangroves along the shoreline and the Rockland Hammock native forest surrounding the formal gardens undisturbed, distinguishing himself as one of Miami's early environmentalists. The Garden Mound and Casino (small, ornamental house) rising up at the far end of the formal gardens shielded visitors' eyes from the wilderness just beyond the boundaries.

The Center Island of the Formal Gardens

Although the gardens were European in style, they incorporated native and subtropical plants suitable for the Miami's heat and humidity.

French-style parterre executed with subtropical plants

In addition to all the plants, Colombian landscape architect Diego Suarez incorporated fountains, sculptures and architectural elements.

Along the Statuary Walk

Deering died in September 1925 while returning to the United States aboard the steamship SS City of Paris. His two nieces inherited Vizcaya which was hit by a major hurricane a year later. In addition to leveling Miami's South Beach and paving the way for an Art Deco building spree there, the hurricane caused major damage to Vizcaya. Over the years, the nieces sold off the outer gardens and surrounding land to pay for maintenance and repairs. In 1952, they sold the remaining 50 acres to Miami-Dade County for $1 million and donated all the interior furnishings. Keep in mind that Deering spent $26 million in the early 1900s to build the estate. A year later, the restored villa was opened to the public as a museum, notable because everything is original to the building. In 1994, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

If all this isn't enough to convince your kids to look forward to visiting Vizcaya, the exterior also served as Aldrich Killian's mansion in Iron Man 3.  

For current information on visiting Vizcaya, see the official website.

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  1. Wow! The house is just magnificent and he had so many others - what the life! So interesting to get a glimpse inside the villa. House goals for sure! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  2. The people who created this place were successful in recreating an Old World palace or mansion in Florida. It really looks like something you would find in Europe. I was amazed by the interiors but the gardens have to be my favorite part. Wow! Those are lovely. #wkendtravelinspiration

  3. Oh yes, Jay Gatsby would approve!! I love the look of this old world style wealth in the US! I haven't seen much and it reminds me a bit of Heart Castle, during the Gilded Age! I'd love to see this! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard

  4. I can't remember if we visited Villa Vizcaya when we were in Miami years ago. However we have just started planning a trip for next year and after reading your post I am going to add it to our list of things to see.

  5. A Book Lover's AdventuresApril 2, 2017 at 2:43 PM

    Wow! Vizcaya is stunning! We'll have to head south and check it out. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  6. wow. it's a little Venice and a little versaille, I think. but definitely not Miami what a great find. I would visit there if i were in Miami.

  7. Wau I love your photos. It looks absolutely stunning. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  8. My family attended the Orange Bowl when I was about 4 - and they went to Villa Vizcaya. Unfortunately, I don't remember it - but I have seen a photo. And I've always wanted to go back. I'm thinking there's lots more I want to see in Miami so it should be soon!

  9. I just love Old World opulence! When visiting places like Villa Vizcaya I always wonder how would it feel to live in a place like this. I'm sure that after a while you can get used to it and probably not even notice the opulence around you, but still it must have been wonderful to walk through those gardens every morning. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  10. Oh my, I love these kinds of places as my imagination goes into overdrive and my lust for history does the same. Villa Vizcaya is definitely a must-see for me!

  11. Wow! What amazing place and beautiful photos

  12. This mansion is stunning. South Florida seems to have its share of wealth, both old and new. I've been to the Flagler mansion in Palm Beach but Vizcaya looks more opulent (must be the Italian influence). Paul Chalfin must have really enjoyed decorating the mansion is such classic styles.

  13. I agree that Chalfin must have had a great time with this assignment. It was built just a decade before the South Beach Art Deco district but feels so much older.

  14. Thanks! It's a fantastic place for photographers.

  15. I think you would really enjoy. So many of the pieces have a backstory which may or may not be fictional. There was one rug that supposedly belonged to poets Robert & Elizabeth Barrett Browning. However, they also said it could have been a story made up by the art dealer to increase the price.

  16. I think I would go nuts if I had to live here with my kids. If I was a free wheeling single like Deering, I probably would do okay.

  17. Thanks, there was so much to photograph both inside and out.

  18. I like how you summarize its look. That's a great description.

  19. If you can't remember, then you probably didn't go here. I actually visited it when I was a preteen, and it's the only thing that I remember other than watching Empire Strikes Back when it first came out.

  20. One of Vizcaya's nicknames is the Hearst Castle of the East.

  21. I could have spent hours wandering the gardens.

  22. I'm wondering if his other houses were this grand.

  23. Gosh, I'm with you. The enclosed Loggia is absolutely gorgeous!

  24. Every single time we go to Miami, I say we should visit Villa Vizcaya, and yet...never been. I must be doing something wrong. Your photos are awesome, and the place is SO pretty. Next time for sure! (He said last time. And the time before. ;) Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  25. contented travellerApril 6, 2017 at 7:53 AM

    Well I certainly did not expect that in Miami. Villa Vizcaya is stunning.

  26. Thank you for such an in-depth and fantastic virtual tour. I have read about Vizcaya over the years but somehow we never make it there when in the Miami area. It is absolutely stunning. I can't believe this is in Miami. I really enjoyed reading all about Mr. Deering. I think those gardens would be my favorite too.

  27. Funny - I just read your Everglades article for The Weekly Postcard and decided to hop on over to your blog to grab the Weekend Wanderlust badge for first time and saw this post. I recently wrote a post on Vizacaya too - absolutely loved it!! And none of my friends knew what I was talking about. But for me, it was a highlight of Miami.


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