Time Travel: Vizcaya in 1917 and 1950 (Oh Toto, We're Not in Maine Anymore)

My first glimpse of Vizcaya, in the November 1950 issue of National Geographic
In my childhood, before Playboy became ubiquitous, National Geographic Magazine, with its coverage of the world's peoples and cultures, served an important function---many a rural little boy got his first titillating  glimpse of bare breasts in its pages.  As important a service as it was, for this rural boy an even greater National Geographic moment was the rainy day circa 1961 that I found the November 1950 National Geographic in a stack of old issues at my uncle's summer cottage---while, no doubt, my cousins were out playing softball.

 The stunning salon, with its 18th century silk wall coverings of palm trees, echoing the gardens beyond
It was love at first sight, and house crazy though I was even at that age,  my 8 year old imagination stopped at more obvious things like New England Colonials and English Castles.  This was like nothing I'd never encountered.  The article was about a house.  The title was 'An Italian Palazzo in Miami.'   The palazzo in question of course, was the sublime Vizcaya, James Deering's dream evocation of the Veneto during the Renaissance.   The effect of this sensuous house and its magnificent gardens was electrifying on my impressionable young brain.
 A Roman sarcophagus as fountain, fitted out with frogs by Charles Cary Rumsey
I had not before imagined whole rooms and ceilings lifted from European palaces, (I was eight), carefully rearranged and combined for artful effect, to say nothing of stone barges set in artificial harbors.  For the next few years, while my peers imagined themselves astronauts and cowboys, I preferred to think of myself as a Doge, or at least an International Harvester heir, living of course in Renaissance splendor at the edge of Biscayne Bay.  I think it is safe to say I was never the same after.....

The plan for the gardens at Vizcaya.  Much of the lagoon is now filled in and occupied by a hospital

The story of Vizcaya is well known----International Harvester heir James Deering, a bachelor, buys large tract of jungle in then rural Miami as site for a winter home, assembles a brilliant  team----architect F. Burrall Hoffman, Artist/Decorator/Cicero Paul Chalfin, landscape architect Diego Suarez, and together, not always harmoniously, they manage to build the finest American house and garden of its day.  In her 1926 book, Country Houses of America, Augusta Owen Patterson, alluding to the teams of artists and craftsmen dispatched to Florida said "it seemed at the time as if everyone knew someone who was working on the Deering job."
 Vizcaya, an 'aeroplane view' from 1916, showing the unfinished gardens to the south
The estate was under construction for many years, and originally was far more extensive than what the visitor sees today...sadly, part of the estate was sold for development, the southern gardens, wilder than the formal gardens that extend from the house, with canals and lagoons, were sold by the Deering heirs to the Catholic archdiocese as the site for a hospital and high school.  Almost the first act of the archdiocese was to fill in the lagoon to the property line (not many people thought of landscape restrictions in those days). No matter the myriad good works that hospitals perform, their sensitivity to surroundings is usually minus nil, and the view shed from Vizcaya is ever increasingly compromised, and where once Deering's houseboat docked at a fantasy boathouse, there is now a parking lot to the water's edge, and the high rise towers of the hospital campus urbanize the famous view.   As for the gardens themselves, the maintenance is not artful or sympathetic, and trees and shrubs and parterres are badly shaped and pruned. Concessions are made to facilitate the events that help pay the bills.  Even so,  the magic of the fantastical sculptures and grottoes, the sound of splashing water in fountains under the tropical sun, still seduce.

The Entrance Court
In 1917, Architectural Review published Vizcaya, newly completed, its gardens still under construction and the beautiful black and white photographs introduced Vizcaya to the world.  I came across them again a couple of days ago, and here they are, for your viewing pleasure.  Especially wonderful, I think, are the photos of the models for the as yet unfinished gardens, showing an earlier scheme for the casino as finally built, and the last photos, of the lost boathouse, are dream-like.  There are too many photos to publish at once, but if response is great enough, I'll post the rest over the next week.

 The house from the lattice tea house
Below, four views of the model for the gardens, showing the original design for the casino.

Model, view from house to casino
Model, section through mound
Model, water terrace to casino
Model, casino and mound from lagoon

 Looking North on the barge terrace, to the now long vanished teahouse (actually an improvement without this lavish touch)

Looking south toward boathouse past barge--sculpture by A. Stirling Calder

The boathouse, with Deering's houseboat, Nepenthe, anchored alongside

The boathouse entrance hall

Boathouse, ladies powder room

And last, but not least, evoking North Africa, the jaw dropping roof terrace on the boat house, looking across Biscayne Bay.

 For Part II of this post, please click HERE
For Part III of this post, please click HERE 


columnist said...

It was indeed a staggering enterprise worthy of the great patrons of the arts throughout history. It would be nice if those who have equivalent wealth today could spend it as artistically, but that's only the expression of an aesthete, and perhaps the AIDS charities of the Gates's and Buffet are a more worthy beneficiary.

Anonymous said...

I visitied this magical house for the first time in February - thank you for posting the images of the interiors - nice to see them before they became museum-ized. KDM

Anonymous said...

One of the best American houses (if not the best) of this period. The first time I saw it I was struck by the total success of this revival style in the right climate coupled with the sensuous choice of coral as the primary building material. Most of these houses built in our colder climates always look a bit uncomfortable to me, as if all the "italian" in them is saying get me out of here!

How I would love to have been in Deering's circle.....was he attractive?

Great post so many unseen images- thank you!

La Petite Gallery said...

That is one of my favorites Houses. I used to go there three times a year as I lived on Palm Island in Miami Beach. Mr Deering was a very short man if you noticed the custom built furniture. I am so glad you did this marvelous post. You did a fantastic job. Thank you so much. Yvonne

Lucindaville said...

CLEARLY, I was not the only precocious child out there! I never understood softball or why one might play such a game?? Better in the house reading and discovering treasures.

home before dark said...

Wonderful post and as always presented with charm and good humor. My husband was one of those boys who lived outdoors with some kind of ball in his hands. The result at 60: ongoing issues with his post-pitcher shoulder and skin cancers from too much sun. None of this would have happened if he had dreamed of being a Doge and stayed indoors. Being a dreamer does have its rewards.

p.s. what's with me and your word verification? Today it's versini. Truth in Italian?

The Down East Dilettante said...

Columnist, don't you agree that the world needs both? What interests me is that it isn't at all clear what the great patronage projects of the last few years are, what will last.

Anon 7:05: Stay tuned, there are a few more 'before' interiors to come

Anon 7:54: Definitely agreed. although the ocean facade is a tad fussy, the ensemble is brilliant, both in conception and execution. Attractive? Sharp featured guy, pince nez, described by a visitor as dyspeptic. But see what he built, who he entertained---who knows?

Yvonne, lucky you, I've only been 3 times, and the glassing in of the courtyard guarantees I may never go back...it's so sad that they felt such a brutal solution to the climate control (although my meaner self suspects it was as much driven by wanting to have dry cover for event rentals?), rather than a more holistic approach. As president of a historic house museum board myself, I'm sympathetic to the issue, but I find the solution drastic.

Lucinda, sorry, now that I know you were hanging in your locker reading Malraux, the precocious trophy is definitely retired. :-)

Home Before: Oh, I've got all the sun damage...I did my share of time at the beach---just not on the softball fields. Versini? Good one.

Regina Joi said...

My heart skips a beat when VIZCAYA is on the horizon...it is truly a MASTERPIECE of Venetian Dreams.

His master bath is superb, ALL rooms captivatingly beautiful, John Singer Sargent was a friend and he captured some beautiful watercolor moments on one of his RARE visits to America...the Loggia being one of the more famous views.

I remember reading that the Venetian bedroom has a door that links to his bedroom and they share a little balcony, the Center balcony overlooking Biscayne Bay that was his bathroom. I was told that he had a 'female' friend who would stay there...but who knows what that means. He was a bachelor for life.

The Swimming Pool is truly the unspoken and unseen gem of the estate, for Robert Winthrop Chanler...one of the ASTOR ORPHANS painted and sculpted the ceiling to represent a Grotto fit for Neptune...years ago, you could lunch by the pool.

Please publish the full series, as it is truly remarkable to see the interior shots of the Boathouse which I recall was destroyed in the Hurricane of 1926.

Simply words cannot convey the Beauty of this Vision...on Earth!

Turner Pack Rats said...

yes - dilletante - yes, yes, yes - more pix. now this is a house.thats what i blather about on old li. this house has imagination, daring, and money. like whitemarsh, its huge and out there. big gardens, the barge, the unbelievable boathouse and the jungle gardens. florida arch. at its finest. if you had the bucks, build something that shows up not some dreary 30 room neo-colonial. look at the scale of the rooms. impress people not kowtow to some architect with no creative juices. do you have a site plan that shows a bigger view incl. the boathouse?

one of my favorite pastimes in the same era as you (altho i didn't realize you were such a baby) was drooling over the real estate ads in downeast magazine. i remember that huge pile on isleboro (the one with all the columns) was for sale in 1960 for $8000 with something like a mile of ocean frontage. also, that monster up on western prom in old porland with the ballroom on the second floor went for $5K in 66.but since i was of tender years, i didn't buy any.

security word def: "snende" - italian for - it's over

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Definitely want to see more original photos -especially interiors! I've always wanted to visit this house......but things as they are...miami is not on the top of my visitation list for vacation hotspots. If I had unlimited time and money i'd be there this week!

Kellie Woodward said...

Wow I'll have to look up that NG edition. You posted photos I've never seen before. It's amazing to think of all the lifes a house has touched.

Renée Finberg said...

you did gather some excellent images for this post.
i grew up around vizcaya.
it is amazing.

thank you for the post.


I have quite a few old, old photos of Vizcaya that I've been meaning to post. I always hesitate though, as I feel I need the time to do Chalfin some justice! The man was an underrated genius. Sad to see what's happened to it, between the hospital urban landscape and polluted bay.

Anonymous said...

James Deering's grandfather, William Deering, was born in South Paris, Maine, and moved to the midwest to take over a friend's farm machinery business. So Vizcaya has a Maine connection!

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