“This place is beyond all expectations lovely. The photo does not give you the slightest conception of its charm. In driving here from Miami, the very impressive high irregular, pink walls on both sides of the wide highway, broken with big vases & carved ornaments, tell you that something extraordinary is behind them.” Corine Melchers, 1923
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
3251 South Miami Avenue
Miami, FL 33129
“Experience the Gilded Age at James Deering’s 1916 winter estate, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. You’ll be inspired to embrace the cultural vitality and environmental sustainability of the world around us. Connect with the past, understand the present and shape the future by exploring the resources found here.” Vizcaya Museum & Gardens
Although not documented historically, it is believed that Spaniards from the Province of Vizcaya settled on Biscayne Bay in the 1500s. It is for this reason that the name of the area changed from Tequesta Bay to Biscayne Bay. James Deering was taken by this story and named his villa after these European settlers.
“HISTORICALLY, Vizcaya can boast no world-shaking events on its ground, but certain bits of its background may be pertinent. Back in the 1500s a colony of Spaniards from the Province of Vizcaya settled about a mile South of the Miami River because they found there good springs and a fine bay. When Mr. James Deering, then Vice President of the International Harvester Company, realizing that anemia would shortly force his retirement, decided to build in this area, he was much taken by thoughts of this Spanish settlement and chose the site on which to build. There was, of course, no remnants of settlers’ habitations by then.” E.P. Goodnow, President of The Vizcayans, Letter of 27 October 1964
James Deering undertook the construction of Vizcaya Villa in 1912. Deering purchased 100 acres with 1000 feet of shoreline from Mary Brickell. He was the wealthiest person in Miami and employed more than 1000 people between 1914 and 1916 to build Villa Vizcaya and Vizcaya Village. Many of these workers were of Bahamian origin. Again, it must be acknowledged that early twentieth-century Miami was built by black laborers at a time of racial segregation. Their pay was poor, working conditions terrible, and they were forced to live in segregated parts of Miami.
“Entering the grounds through the eastern gateway one follows a winding road through the woods. Gangs of workmen are busily engaged in setting out special trees, flowers and shrubbery along this road, and in through the woods, the weird chant of the Nassau Negro rises above the click of the shovel and hoe as the laborer sings in his high pitched voice of the wonders of his native Bahamas.” Miami Daily Metropolis, October 1915
Deering hired Paul Chalfin as Artistic Director. Chalfin “the painter who never really painted became the artistic director responsible for the choice of the general overall design of the main house and garden, and for decorating and furnishing the interior of the main house himself.”
Burrall Hoffman was hired as architect and Diego Suarez as landscape architect. All four of the major actors spend considerable time in Europe for education and inspiration.
Deering hosted an opening party on December 25, 1916. Guests dressed as Italian peasants.
VIZCAYA WALKING LECTURE
Vizcaya was built at a time when Miami had not seen the boom development of the 1920s. Tropical Hardwood Hammocks, Pine Rocklands, and Mangrove Forests still dominated the landscape south of the Miami River. Even today, a century after it’s construction, Vizcaya appears as a mirage-an Italian villa and gardens in a tropical landscape. We can only imagine the impression this would have had on guests in 1916.
It is this unique juxtaposition of Mediterranean architectural components framed by the ocean, mangroves, and a tropical hammock that makes Vizcaya unique and important. In addition, the material and playful indulgence of Vizcaya establishes the image of Miami as the hedonistic capital of the US. The influence of James Deering and Paul Chalfin on the cultural identity of Miami can not be overstated.
From South Miami Avenue, guests walk or drive through a Tropical Hardwood Hammock; this is a rare native Miami landscape. If you walk in, you’ll encounter a collection of figurative sculptures, many decapitated(!), that culminate in two prominent figures at the entrance. On the north side is Bel Vizcaya and on the south is Ponce de Leon. The tales of the shipwrecked Spaniards are now transformed into to one mythological explorer with the name Bel Vizcaya that lived among the Tequesta on what is now called Biscayne Bay.
The other sculpture is of Ponce de Leon, the Spaniard that claimed “La Florida” for Spain in 1513. Ponce de Leon’s cultural and historical significance can not be overstated for the history of Miami. He represents the start of the Grand Exchange between Europe and the land that is now Miami, in all its destruction and growth. At his feet is a globe, with Florida as the landmass most visible. It is thought that this was originally a portrait of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, that was renamed as Ponce de Leon.
Through these two sculptures, James Deering is demonstrating to visitors that this Villa is a piece of Europe coming to what was then a natural landscape of mangroves and hammocks, with a long history of indigenous people, as well as Bahamians. It is important to note that no aspect of Tequesta, Seminole, or Bahamian culture manifests itself at Vizcaya.
“The essential character of all these culture seekers was that their heart lay in one age, and their life in another. They wanted, finally, to cover up the bleakness of their American heritage; and they did that, not by cultivating more intensively what they had, in fertile contact with present and past, but by looting from Europe the finished objects which they lacked.” Lewis Mumford, The Golden Day.
“Included in the lost spaces is the former moat, which is located near the ticket booth. Deering had it constructed in the tradition of European castles as a security measure against unwanted invaders. He initially sought to fill it with water but the coral stone soaked it up; so, instead, according to local papers, he put cacti in the trench. Now, it’s overgrown with tropical vegetation, and most visitors unknowingly walk over it upon entering the estate. Artists Duane Brant has created a visual “white strip” installation within the channel to remind guests of its original role as the territory’s first line of defense and of Deering’s desire to exude an air of royalty.”
The property of the main house was surrounded by a moat. It was first filled with water, and then with cacti. Gina Wouters, Vizcaya Curator, described the defensive nature of the moat in a 2016 article in the South Florida Sun Sentinel: “Wouters says the 100-year-old empty moat framing the museum is one of Vizcaya’s more enduring mysteries, and “never discussed” on guided tours around the lush property. The moat, which is 10 feet deep, was dug into the local coral stone, and was too porous to contain any water. Deering later ordered the moat be filled with cacti to deter trespassers, Wouters says. Some of our visitors thought it was a natural crevice, but it was something that’s fabricated. It’s manmade,” Wouters says. “We’ve never tackled this part of Vizcaya’s history before.”
We must imagine the impression on visitors in the 1920s when the Villa Vizcaya appeared to them out of the curtain of trees-a Mediterranean villa appearing as if a mirage with the blue of Biscayne Bay as a backdrop. This dramatic approach is emphasized thanks to the linear, descending fountains reminiscent of Villa d’Este.
“Only the sense of the infinite outdoors, deftly shut away, brings one into the house-so gradual is the transit within through the iron grilles and open arcades of the first loggia. The luxurious green from out-of-doors forms curtains at the arches, through which sunlight falls upon many flowers grouped on a marble pavement.” Paul Chalfin
This pedestrian and auto entrance is very reserved in comparison to the main entrance-by sea-on the west. It must be remembered though that the glass was added later and this severely impacts the experience of the visitors entrance.
WEST ENTRANCE LOGGIA
“Deering always had in one hand a tiny glass of whisky, and in the other a cigarette, sipping first from one and puffing from the other.” Chalfin on James Deering
One is greeted by a sixteenth-century statue of Bacchus-Roman God of wine and ecstasy. He stands in contrapposto, with a wreath on his head and a jug of grapes, meant to signify that this is wine, not water. Bacchus is flanked by putti, little figures inspired by cupid. Below is a second-century CE Roman bath. Are visitors to Vizcaya invited to take a wine bath? To indulge themselves in wine and ecstasy? James Deering knew Miami, and defined Miami as a capital of hedonism, before Miami was really even Miami. I feel Bacchus would be the perfect patron saint of Miami.
“Great building and garden projects are essentially not of the aspiring periods of art. They succeed and serve leisure; they enhance individuals and dynasties; they embody the turning of strong wills upon pleasures too large for a man or a generation to appropriate; they call into collusion elements as fundamental as dawn, distances, and the seasons. They are demanded, and remain, as monuments to avowed dreams of pleasure and bienetre.”
“In consequence of the appropriation of the sentiment which inspired the originals of this villa, words all out of date and extraneous to our sympathies must be found if it is to be described. Words like prodigality and pomp and ostentation are fit to express its indifference to directions we accept as elevating, its preference for loose forms and theatric dispositions, and even for fun rather than for compunction; yes,-frankly,-words to express human preferences we have not grown up to like.” Hoffman and Chalfin, Architectural Review 1917
It is important to note that the central court is not visible or directly accessible from this entrance. We are not at the main entrance. This is the back entrance.
This central part of Vizcaya is glorious. Use your imagination to remove the windows on the east and west and the glass roof above. Indoors is outdoors and outdoors is indoors as the sea breeze travels through Vizcaya. The sunlight pouring in from above is reflected and enhanced by the white oolitic limestone of the floor. The tropical plants framing the patio define the most unique and original aspect of Vizcaya-the juxtaposition of Mediterranean architecture with Miami’s tropical flora.
If James Deering is an ambassador of Mediterranean culture to Miami, Vizcaya is his embassy and the Spanish caravel is his standard. If you stand in the center of the court and look east to the water, you will see a five foot hanging caravel. Turn south and in the center of the stained glass is another. Pivot again to the east, and there are two more caravels-one in metal and one in stone. It is important to understand that the perspective of Spanish settlers was different in the time of James Deering than it is today. The contemporary awareness of the violent imperialism the Spaniards exerted on the indigenous populations of the western hemisphere was not at the forefront of thinking in the early twentieth century. Rather, a romantic notion of Spaniards bringing religious enlightenment and culture to undeveloped societies was predominant, and it is in this light that we must understand Deering. No person that perpetuates racial stereotypes and ignores the horrors of history should ever get a pass on judgement. It is also important, however, to be nuanced in our anachronism-different eras have different belief systems.
Deering often converted this space into a film projection area, screening movies for his guests.
Walk north towards the staircase. This lecture will not cover the upstairs as it is too difficult to move through with a group. If you look at the top of the staircase, there is a small section of stained glass. Guests walking up to their bedrooms would encounter “J’ai dit.” This French expression translates to “I have spoken” or “I said”…kind of like “God said, let there be light” except here it is James Deering said let there be Vizcaya. J’ai dit. JD. James Deering.
Humility is not a thing in Miami.
Now go back west in the direction you entered. You will enter a darker room with a geometric pattern on the floor.
This French Neoclassical room is a welcoming room with adjacent men and women’s coat rooms. Neoclassical art is linear, structured, and often symmetrical. It is aimed to be balanced in aesthetics to instill a feeling of balance in the viewer. If you stand on a circle in the floor, there will be a circle above in the ceiling. Same with the squares.
The painted wallpapers of classical mythology are by Parisian artist Joseph Dufour.
The Library was the first room designed by Chalfin and is quite cramped and unbalanced compared to the rest of the house. Chalfin would adjust after this. Deering’s desk is an old Parisian counter that was repurposed.
There are two quite fun aspects to this room. The first is that personal libraries often have pictures of one’s children. The fact that James Deering had no children did not stop him from displaying a group. As Rybczynski and Olin note, Chalfin was more concerned with overall mood rather than quality of art. The second item to note is that this business part of the Villa (West Loggia, Entrance Hall, and Library) was separated from the entertainment part of the Villa. The bookshelves actually covered the entire wall. Take a peek around the open door. You’ll notice that it’s actually a secret door with fake books. In Vizcaya, as in Miami, appearance is often of greater importance than reality.
We return to a light, open, decorative room. For me, this room, with its palm trees and birds, its brightness, and its playfulness, is the most Miami room in Vizcaya. The decor is Rococo, a French eighteenth century style associated with the Ancien Regime, the era of Kings in France. This explains why Chalfin referred to it as the “Marie Antoinette Salon.”
The Rococo style originated in France in the early 1700’s. It is derived from the word “rocaille” which translates as “shellwork, pebble-work.” It is a style that is heavily decorative, with curves and undulations, composed of many small components that resemble shells.
Also…just cause they could…Deering and Chalfin purchased this ceiling in Venice and reinstalled it in Miami.
This hall is important because of the telephone room-what a luxury. In addition, the Spinario is quite beautiful. It is also important to notice the beautiful door frames with the wonderful faces.
You are now in the largest room in Vizcaya, and the one with the most significant historical event and objects. On 10 September 1987, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met at Vizcaya to discuss peace in Central America, and they sat in front of this French fireplace. The fireplace is an incongruous composite of styles and designs. While the lower section is a sixteenth century stone work from Caen in Normandy, the upper portion is a plaster addition by Paul Chalfin. Chalfin’s figures represent liberality and hospitality.
The most compelling object in the entire Vizcaya collection may be the large Admiral carpet on the wall. The carpet was commissioned by King Ferdinand’s grandfather in the 1450s. It is an excellent example of Mudejar art. Mudejar refers to Islamic artists that worked for Spanish Catholic monarchy or nobility. While retaining Islamic designs and writing but celebrating Catholic rulers, the Mudejar artisans produced works of fascinating cultural intersection. In this carpet, the border is a Kufic script and repeats in Arabic La ilaha illallah (There is no God but Allah), but the coats of arms belong to Catholic families. One consists of a lion and two three towered castles. Another coat of arms depicts two wolves and the last is only a red diagonal for the chivalric Order of La Banda.
The organ in the room works. If you’re lucky, you can catch an impromptu performance. From an artistic perspective, one of the most unfortunate situations arises here. Wanting to cover the pipe organs, but yet still have easy access to them, a seventeenth-century Neapolitan painting was cut in half. Yes, an art collector and an artist cut a painting of the Virgin Mary in half.
While this room contains beautiful individual objects, the overall cohesion seems lacking-a religious painting is cut in half and a chimney seems to be composed of different Lego sets. The harmony and confidence of the Courtyard, Reception Room, and South Loggia are absent here, as Chalfin seemed to reach for something he and Deering were not.
But let us end our visit of this room on a whimsical, gossipy note. On the south wall next to the chimney is a tapestry of Hercules fighting the Nemean lion. Rumors of James Deering being gay abound. Although Paul Chalfin was known to be gay, Deering’s history and orientation are much more ambiguous and , as a result, subjective theories abound. In a discussion once with a gay friend of mine, I expressed my hesitation on the subject. He was determined that Deering was in fact gay and his closing convincing argument was “Just look at the lion.”
Wow! Now this is an entrance worthy of Vizcaya. Depending on how crowded it is, step outside, walk to the steps down by the water, and walk back in. Remember, there would not have been glass. The sea breeze would have blown through the house. This is the grand entrance that Deering and Chalfin extended to their guests. An absolutely glorious juxtaposition of Miami, Venice, and Mediterranean Spain.
Stand under the five-foot Spanish caravel. The floor design radiates your position out, inviting you to explore the entire Villa. The four doors are from the Palazzo Torlonia in Roma. The classical sculptures above the doors and the medallions in the ceiling contribute to the feeling that you are entering a world of European mythology. The incorporation of the tropical landscape and the reserve in the amount of European objects displayed makes this one of the most successful spaces in Vizcaya.
“A frivolous sort of grandeur pervades this room, with its exotic bits of coral and rinceaux and garlands on a fabulously gay painted échafaudage. Smiling busts of cupids look down on conscious groups of listening chairs, ranged in a stately formality, – the most elaborate Brustalon sort of charis. Some one seems to lurk here, wearing old creamy satin, looking into dim mirrors at strings of pearls and corals upon a narrow and corseted bosom, ready with facile musical sighs.” Paul Chalfin, Architectural Review 1917
This is a Rococo room. The Italian chandelier originally hung in the reception room, but was switched in the 1930s. As far as the Vizcaya records show, the instruments were never played. Deering purchased them because of their historical value, not because they were to be used. Some of the instruments are from the 1600s & 1700s. The harp was reputed to have been built by a craftsman that worked for Marie Antoinette, but is more likely from London.
The painted wall pieces of putti, floral elements, feathers, and scrollwork were acquired from the Borromeo Palace in Milan. The organic curves and appearances of shells as patterns, clearly indicate that this is a quintessential Rococo room. It is playful. It is romantic. It is overwhelming. It is Miami.
The tapestries in this room are of an excellent quality. The two that depict Mercury are from the house of the poet Robert Browning. The table and chairs are centuries old, but do not compare in importance to the stone table. The lion-griffins are reported to be from Pompeii, thus approximately 2000 years old. The ceiling is impressive, incorporating the flora and fauna of Miami.
But here is the great thing, according to Rybczynski and Olin. And I must interject. This is so Great Gatsby. “In fact the dining room was rarely used. Deering entertained chiefly at midday, and since the groups usually numbered as many as thirty, lunches were usually served al fresco in the court.” This room is more of a museum exhibition that it is a practical space.
To fully appreciate the grandeur of the South Loggia, if the museum is not crowded, backtrack through the Music Room and enter the South Loggia through the patio. Let’s have Paul Chalfin guide us.
“You pass through narrow gilded doors to an enchanted room. Its high walls are spaced with rhapsodic painted architecture, in such cool colors, such grays and rusty darks, such apricot pinks and watery greens and marbly whites,-its faintly tinged flood of sunlight gathered in the magical crystal vase at the center of the pattern of the floor…a masterly room indeed, in which sunlight is lord.” Paul Chalfin, Architectural Review, 1917
The pantry provides a platform to discuss the invisible lives of the servants. Look down and see the cork floor-made to absorb the sound of the workers. Look at the panel on the wall. This is a Servant Bell, a system of pulleys and bells in which a homeowner can summon a servant without leaving the room they are in.
Also of interest is the use of advanced technology from the time. There is an early refrigerator and, directly below it, a whole to attach an early vacuum cleaner. On the south wall is a dumb waiter. The kitchen at Vizcaya was upstairs for fire safety and temperature control reasons. This dumb waiter was an elevator for food.
This completes the lecture of the interior of the Villa. If your are visiting in the afternoon, the sun should be entering the South Loggia and illuminating the stained glass. Enjoy that. It’s a spectacular view. Then reenter the central court and exit to the water through the East Loggia.
SHORELINE AND GARDENS
On the east facade is the latin inscription of the word of Horace: “Dona praesentis cape laetus horae ac linque severa – Gladly accept the gifts of the present hour, and abandon serious things.”
The sculptor of the figures on the barge was Alexander Stirling Calder, father of the great Alexander Calder. Deering felt Stirling Calder had made the breasts on the northern female figure too large. The artist did not wish to rework his sculpture, but relented when additional compensation was agreed to.
The fountain in this garden was purchased from Bassano di Sutri, where it was in the town square.
THE VILLAGE AT VILLA VIZCAYA
STAFF RESIDENCE WITH GARDEN
Vizcaya was intended as a self-sustaining endeavor, a type of small village. This required staff to be present year round.
Approximately 16-18 staff maintained the house, and 26 gardeners and workers were permanent residents of the house.
Vizcaya Village had extensive crops and some livestock.
Vizcaya Village was identifiable thanks to its large banyan tree.
James Deering invited all the people of Vizcaya Village to the main house every Christmas.