Vizcaya History


James Deering undertook the construction of Vizcaya Villa in 1912, and hosted an opening party on December 25, 1916. Guests dressed as Italian peasants. The construction of Vizcaya involved nearly a tenth of the population of Miami. Many of the builders of Vizcaya were Bahamian.

Historical Figures of Vizcaya
James Deering (1859-1925): Owner. The Deering family earned their wealth primarily through the Deering Harvester Company, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery.
Paul Chalfin (1874-1959): Studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Also, stays in American Academy in Rome
Burrall Hoffman (1882-1980): Studied at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris
Diego Suarez (1888-1974): Mother from Firenze. Studied at Accademia di Belli Arti in Firenze. Deering and Chalfin met Colombian Diego Suarez in Italy. Deering hired Suarez as the Landscape Architect of Vizcaya.

Key Dates of Vizcaya
1910: Deering and Chaflin begin working on design for villa.
1912: Hoffman hired as architect
1912: Deering buys the land that is to become Vizcaya
1913-1914: All four actors spend extended time in Europe to prepare for Vizcaya
1914: Construction begins on Vizcaya in late 1914
1916: James Deering moves into Vizcaya on Christmas Day

“In 1916 more than eight hundred workers, many of them Bahamian, were building Vizcaya for millionaire James Deering, who had purchased a large portion of the Brickell estate from Mary Brickell. At one time, Deering owned all of the land on which now stand the Museum of Science and Mercy Hospital. As the building and gardens neared completion in October of that year, the Miami Metropolis thus described the unfolding magnificence in detail, portraying the Bahamian work gangs in the woods near the palace: “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.” Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century (Florida History and Culture) (p. 98). University Press of Florida. Kindle Edition.

Architecture of Vizcaya
The main building is inspired by Italian and Spanish architecture, and the Gardens by French and Italian traditions.

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.”

The Art of Vizcaya
James Deering hired Paul Chalfin as Artistic Director. Deering and Chaflin purchased art in Europe for Vizcaya. Learn more about 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.”

The first sculpture one encounters when entering from the west side of the house is a sculpture of Dionysus (or Bacchus), god of wine and ecstasy.

The symbol of the Vizcaya Villa is a Spanish caravel. Sculptures and images of the boats can seen throughout the house.

The barge at Vizcaya serves as a breakwater, creating a calm area for boats.

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.

At the top of the north staircase the French words “J’ai dit (I have spoken)” are proclaimed in stained glass. This simple statement reflects Deering’s attachment to Vizcaya, as well as his sense of grandeur as the phrase is a play on his initials “JD.”

Vizcaya Village
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.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. (Photo by JW Bailly CC BY 4.0)

Stephanie Sepúlveda  & John William Bailly 18 January 2019

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