There are plenty of things to do in Miami that don’t involve dancing, dining and shopping. One example is a visit to the beautiful Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on Biscayne Bay, an unexpected gift to tourism from a man who simply wanted to live well and be warm in the winter.
It started in 1912 when James Deering of Chicago, like most wealthy people of his era, craved a Florida vacation home. But not just any old condo would do. He wanted to showboat, and between 1912 and 1922, the executive at International Harvest built a European-inspired mansion, complete with formal gardens and a private lagoon, on 180 acres bordering Biscayne Bay. Deering dubbed the home Vizcaya, the same name as a northern Spanish province.
New York artist and interior designer Paul Chalfin supervised the momentous project, using more than 1,000 workers to create Deering’s dream of an antique Italian estate. Deering first saw the completed mansion – decorated with priceless treasures – on Christmas Day 1916 when Chalfin staged an elaborate theatrical ceremony as Deering sailed up to the new abode in a Venetian gondola.
The mansion has more than 30 public rooms decorated with 15th through 19th century furnishings and art. There are a dozen rooms for servants, although some lived at other locations on the property. The estate also features a manual pipe organ, tea house, garden theater, plentiful statuary, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains and water features, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, grottos and one room dedicated to arranging flowers.
Deering stayed at his Florida get-away about four months each year, but between 16 and 18 staff members, including a French chef, lived at the estate year-round. The lavish gardens were created by Chaflin and landscape architect Diego Suarez over a seven-year period. More than two dozen gardeners and security personnel maintained the lush exterior during the owner’s absence.
From 1916 until his death in 1925, Deering used the mansion as his winter residence, hosting parties for film stars, family members and even President Warren G. Harding. Deering reportedly swam in the estate’s luxurious pool only once – while smoking, it was said. Never married, Deering willed the property to two nieces. The heirs attempted to maintain the property, even after damaging hurricanes in 1926 and 1935, but eventually most of the land was sold or donated for development.
In 1952, the heirs donated the mansion and gardens to Dade County, for a price below market value, and Vizcaya opened to the public the following year as the county’s art museum. In1955, the county purchased more of the estate’s surrounding property and the heirs donated Vizcaya’s art and furnishings on the condition that the estate be maintained as a public museum.
Today, Vizcaya greets thousands of visitors from around the world. It has been featured in several movies, including Tony Rome, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Any Given Sunday, Bad Boys II and The Money Pit. It is a popular location for romantic weddings, fund-raising galas and special events.
Vizcaya welcomes visitors daily from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission to the main house and grounds is $15 for adults and $6 for children age 6 and older. Seniors, students with IDs and visitors in wheelchairs are $10 each. Vizcaya accepts cash, MasterCard, Visa and American Express. By Pat Pape