Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami’s American Palace in the Tropics

By Alona Abbady Martinez

Photos by Xavier Marañón

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, the expansive winter residence built by retired millionaire James Deering stands as a poignant symbol of the wealth and allure Miami held in its earliest years. Built between 1913 and 1922 using an impressive ten percent of the city’s population to help with construction, the estate was meant to serve as Deering’s refuge from harsher climates in hopes of buoying his failing health. The 180-acre property was intended to hold a dreamlike quality—with the estate completely surrounded by subtropical forests and the Main House and formal gardens glistening in the midst of the jungle on the shores of Biscayne Bay. 

Inspired by Italy’s rich architectural history, in particular country estates of the Veneto region of northern Italy, Deering hoped to create something that appeared to have been standing for 300 years. With that in mind, certain techniques were used, such as incorporating antique Italian marble with native coral rock to create an older appearance. He also chose the name, “Vizcaya” with the hopes of generating a certain allure and mystique to the place. Intrigued with the Age of Discovery explorers, Deering reportedly hoped to spawn a myth that his Miami home was named after an explorer, tying the glamorous estate to an air of discovery and adventure and going so far as to fill the estate with furniture, art pieces, and artifacts from Europe. His goal was to embody South Florida’s history, which was filled with stories of explorers such as the Spanish merchant Vizcaíno, said to have explored the Americas in the early 1600s. 

Although Deering had a fascination with European architecture, he made sure to celebrate and incorporate local surroundings as well. Shells found in Florida and the Caribbean were used to decorate grottos and bridges in the gardens. The Courtyard, which served as the main living area was open to the sky and the house was designed to take full advantage of its location on Biscayne Bay. Because Deering wanted the estate to be approached and seen from the sea, the east façade on the bay is the most monumental, opening onto a wide terrace that descends towards the water. By contrast, the west façade, which is where visitors have been greeted since the estate’s inception, is simple and unpretentious. Head to the north to catch a glimpse of Vizcaya’s impressive swimming pool emerging from vaulted arches at the lower level of the house. It’s the southern façade that opens onto the formal gardens. Inside the houseguests will discover several reception rooms, a library, music room, and dining room surrounding the courtyard. The second floor was home to Deering’s personal suite of rooms and guest bedrooms along with a breakfast room and kitchen. 

Deering wanted his estate to embody South Florida’s history, legends and mythology. He was intrigued, therefore, to learn about the Spanish merchant Vizcaíno, who is said to have explored the Americas in the early 1600s. Although it is commonly assumed that Biscayne Bay was named after the Bay of Biscay and the Spanish province that is known as “Vizcaya” or “Biskaia,” Deering learned that some believed it was named after this Spanish explorer. He liked the name so much that he adopted it for his estate, with a slight spelling alteration explaining that he found the name Vizcaya to be “pretty in itself,” easily pronounced and evocative both of Spain and the Biscayne Bay location of his winter home.

Despite its old façade, Vizcaya was designed with the most modern technologies of its time. The Main House is an early example of poured-in-place concrete and featured two elevators, heating and ventilation, central vacuuming, and an electric telephone exchange system, all of which garnered attention from architecture and engineering magazines of that era. Deering was also a lover of contemporary art and commissioned several artists to create works specifically for the estate.

Beyond the extraordinary estate, Vizcaya is celebrated for its European-inspired gardens, considered one the most elaborate in the United States. Deering hired landscape architect Diego Suarez, whom, together with Paul Chalfin, conceived Vizcaya’s unique, romantic, subtropical garden. Following the pattern of 17th and 18th century gardens seen in Italy and France, the overall landscape design was conceived as a series of rooms, with each space having its own name and character. The central space features low hedges in a geometric arrangement. Beyond that, guests can enjoy the Secret Garden, Theater Garden, and Maze Garden. Throughout the gardens there are architectural structures, fountains, and antique and commissioned sculptures. Mature trees were also planted along with vines that would drape themselves over the architectural structures—all in an effort to create an aged feel. The garden also served as a horticulture mecca of its time with experimentation of subtropical plants compatible with South Florida’s climate, including a large orchid collection, which was Deering’s favorite.

Sadly, Deering was not able to enjoy Vizcaya for a long time. He passed away on September 1925 while returning to the United States from France aboard the S.S. City of Paris ocean liner. He left the estate to his half-brother Charles Deering, who died two years later and passed it on to his daughters. The estate sustained extensive damage during the hurricane of 1926 and underwent a restoration campaign in 1933 under Chalfin. It opened as a privately owned museum in 1935. In the ‘40s 130 acres of the property were turned into Mercy Hospital and the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine. The remaining Main House, gardens, and Village were conveyed to Dade County in 1952 on the condition that Vizcaya be used as a public museum in perpetuity. 

Today Vizcaya Museum & Gardens remains a proud and beautiful remnant of the past. A National Historic Landmark, it is known for its impressive art collection, beautiful gardens, and extraordinary architecture. It also boasts one of the only remaining native forests in Miami. James Deering’s goal was to create a place of glamour and prestige while preserving and embellishing the natural surroundings he fell in love with so many years ago. Today, even as Miami’s modern skyline continues to grow, Vizcaya Gardens remains a quiet, lush, and inspiring cultural escape. 

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