“We’re not at Versailles anymore, Toto,” comes to mind as a skinny green lizard darts across the classically beautiful face of a Greek caryatid replica.
The sprawling, manicured sculpture gardens and looming square silhouettes of a stately mansion could fool most into thinking they lapsed back through the centuries into the fairyland of the French aristocracy. Yet the pounding heat radiating off a subtropical sun, the sight of webbed mangrove roots and the heaviness of salty humidity aptly remind awe-struck visitors that Marie-Antoinette didn’t exactly fancy Mission Revival architecture, and that they’ve to come to ogle, not a royal chateau, but Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, Florida.
Vizcaya was originally conceived to be the winter retreat of Chicago businessman James Deering (1859-1925), who was the co-founder and vice president of the International Harvester company and made a mega-fortune turning out modernised farming equipment. The property’s Main House, gardens and village once occupied one hundred eighty acres of land, which housed a large domestic staff and once featured an expansive lagoon dotted with floating isles and tennis courts only accessible by gondola or rowboat. Though only around fifty acres remain intact today, the east facade and original entrance of the Main House still adjoins the ultramarine waters of Biscayne Bay.
A softly eroding stone boat landing recalls a merry and bright December 25, 1916, when Deering arrived to spend his first season entertaining away from the snow-covered Midwest. Motoring up, he might have anticipated throwing his first soirée aboard the imposing boat-shaped barge installed front and center, kitted out with electricity, fountains, leafy potted plants and trees and gazebos for intimate conversation. And surely he would have taken in and found a sigh of relief in the facade’s Latin inscription, which translates roughly to “Take the gifts of this hour, put serious things aside…”, and was carved above Deering’s own private balcony. The message set the mood for lavish twentieth-century carousing after a hard day’s industrial pioneering, and continues to encourage viewers to relinquish their real-world woes to the exotic, healing charms of the engrossing estate.
Deering’s fata morgana of a private palace among the palm trees came to fruition with the foresight and assistance of three other men. F. Burrall Hoffman (1882-1980) drew out plans for each of the buildings, Diego Saurez (1888-1974) planned the regal, romantic gardens and Paul Chalfin (1873-1959) acted as artistic director for the whole project. Deering and company found inspiration in the grand hereditary estates of Europe, and it was hoped that Vizcaya, when brand-new, would look as if a powerful family had been residing on the grounds for hundreds of years. So Chalfin sourced antique statuary from what Tennesee Williams once called the Massive Fire-Sale, more commonly known as Europe, and employed porous, quickly-aging local coral in outdoor spaces to complete and accentuate the gracefully aging aesthetic.
Vizcaya’s outdoor expanses are wedged between natural shorelines and persistent inland forest. Deering’s choice not to meddle too much with existing natural boundaries singled him out as an early environmentalist in southern Florida, as many of his contemporaries were busy piling up man-made beaches. However, sumptuous human whims were not to be entirely denied. The landscape is crowned by geometric formal gardens and secretive grottoes spilling out in all directions, arcades, columns, balustrades, busts, nudes, urns and domed shelters with built-in seats in pale stone, and sweeping terraces leading to breezy loggias for the added luxury of easy indoor-outdoor living.
Inside, life was indeed both opulent and convenient for Deering and his enviable guests. The Main House was constructed between 1914 and 1916, fixed around an immense courtyard with jungle-like foliage and plenty of seating for casual socialising. Papered, furnished and ornately embellished with antiques sourced across North America and Europe and bespoke pieces crafted specifically for Vizcaya, the villa was painstakingly finished from floor to sky-high ceiling. Keen on the frills and thrills offered by new technologies, Deering also padded his nest with several uncommon modern amenities, including an omnipresent intercom system, a telephone room, an automated dumb-waiter and a cushy elevator to the second floor.
In accordance with upper crust practices of the early 1900s, the rooms of the house are decorated in various historical styles. Thickly ladled-on baroque glamour, the pristine neoclassicism of the eighteenth century, colourful chinoiserie and heavyset Tudor styles all dominate in their own way, pooling up against and blending into one another in a quirky, seamless way. Each of the bedrooms, four of which occupy separate northern and southern towers, are named after notable aristocrats or done in the tastes of illustrious royal circles. “Goyesca”, for example, stirs up an atmosphere akin to that favoured by the well-bred patrons of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes at the court of Charles IV of Spain. Deering’s spectacular suite of rooms run along the east of a three-sided gallery on the second floor, offering overwhelming views of the bordering turquoise bay. His sitting room, bedroom and white marble bathroom reflect an ambitious, masculine persona that certainly had its more fanciful sides, as pastel hues and even seahorses scatter themselves throughout imperial gilding and darkly lacquered wood.
After Deering’s death, a hurricane blew through in 1926 and proved catastrophic to both the interior and exterior reaches of Vizcaya. The heirs to the property had been inhabiting it only fleetingly, so Deering’s nieces and their husbands petitioned to restore and convert Vizcaya into an historic house museum. In 1953, their dream officially opened to the public, under the care of Miami-Dade County. Today, the museum is an accredited National Historic Landmark which incorporates site-specific contemporary art into its programming and aims to engage local communities and far-flung wanderers in learning through the arts, history and the environment.
Vizcaya is a place to see, a place like no other, so alien from yet so at home in its surroundings. Magnificent in every physical detail, the villa also brings things utterly intangible to life; imagined memories, ghostly auras of good times had and the generous personality and soaring desires and of its forever-present owner. What Deering truly seemed to yearn for was also ungraspable — not shelter from the windbags and wintry chill of Chicago, not a showy investment to flaunt his wealth, but the authenticity that accompanied Italian, French and Spanish blue blood, the pomp and pure circumstance of the dead and gone past, something no unfathomable fortune could ever procure on American soil. Fortunately, Deering’s Floridian vision has forged a legacy all its own, as a perfect testament to what dreams can build which requires no comparison to its old-world forebears.
Photographs by Bill Sumner, courtesy of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens