The American elite sought a new level of financial status at the dawn of the Gilded Age. The wealthiest in society were no longer content with simply being rich. Their pursuit was to be American royalty. Europeans passed down historic palaces to younger generations, and Americans such as the Vanderbilts and Woolworths sought to one day do the same. They built lavish homes, and several of them. Many of these homes would soon rival those across the Atlantic.
James Deering was no different. Born in South Paris, Maine in 1859, Deering was raised by his parents William and Clara Hammond Deering. His father was in the harvesting industry which brought them to Chicago in 1873. This helped give young Deering a start. By 1880 he was the treasurer of the Deering Harvester Company, and by 1902 he was the vice president of the newly merged Deering Harvester Company and McCormick Reaper Company brought together by the Bank of J.P. Morgan. In 1910, a year after Deering’s place within the company demised, he purchased land in what is now known as the Coconut Grove district in Miami. Soon, he would be a winter neighbor of the Deering Estate belonging to his half brother, Charles.
Deering was an artistic man whose aesthetics did not align with the typical homes of the Gilded Age. Vizcaya, which required nearly half the town’s employment to construct, was a Mediterranean Revival masterpiece on Biscayne Bay. Deering travelled to Europe alongside Paul Chalfin, the creative director over the Vizcaya project, to purchase many pieces for the house. Paintings, sculptures, and entire ceilings that once canopied rooms inside Italian palazzos were removed and shipped to New York, then to the palatial home being erected along the salty tides of Miami. Prior to arriving at the final location, warehouses served as temporary homes for the delicate materials. There, each piece was laid out in order to set plans for how they would fit in the future estate.
While Vizcaya was being constructed, the world was falling apart. World War I set to be one of the largest obstacles to completing the large scale execution of Deering’s tropical retreat from the cold Chicago winters. Everything that he
and Chalfin had acquired from Europe was travelling by boat through uncertain waters. Due to the times, communication was not as simple as pressing send on a keyboard or picking up the phone. Every form of direction, big or small, was communicated via letter.
While Vizcaya was dressed with many relics from the past, it was also built with the most modern amenities the early 1900s could offer. An elevator took guests between floors, and if they were met with a fire as the door opened, sprinklers would douse them and the room with water. Deering was too smart to allow Vizcaya to face potential ruin by flames. Having lived in Chicago after the great fire, he took all precautionary actions to preserve his home. Hurricanes were terrors that Deering had not experienced in his native home to the north, but he was not ill advised on the devastation that powerful storms could bring. Vizcaya was constructed in concrete to resist the assault of fierce winds for long durations.
Deering’s commitment to protecting his home and property was not just against weather and fire, but also himself. All individuals working on the property, specifically in the hammock, were instructed not to harm any of the trees. Deering’s intent was to preserve this lush, tropical growth. It served both beauty and privacy from the outside world.
Trees and flowers gave Vizcaya one of, if not the, most beautiful gardens in the Unites States, but that did not come without aggravation. While Vizcaya was being constructed, workers were plagued with pesky mosquitos and other bugs due to thick overgrowth and mangroves. Among the annoyances of the winged beasts lay a more terrifying creature. Rattle Snakes could be found all over the property and alligators navigated the warm waters. Fortunately for Deering and his family, they did not have to step foot on the property if they did not want to. A houseboat was created offering the finest luxuries that could float on water. Deering would sit on the boat, which was nicer than most homes on land, and peer out at his estate as it grew closer to completion.
Known for his generosity, Deering was very welcoming and interested in his friends and family. The outside world was another story. Deering seemed to have two personas; that of the kind, warm hearted man seated upon his yacht in Biscayne Bay to those who knew him, and of the withdrawn, isolated man behind the walls of Vizcaya to the public. Like so many, Deering had open arms to those he cared deeply for, but remained private to those who were not among his inner circle.
Diego Suarez designed the gardens until ultimately leaving the project a decade into its execution. Deering first met Suarez in Florence while in Europe gathering fine objects to adorn his future winter home in Miami. Suarez had created many stunning gardens in Italy, and Deering’s connection to suarez gained him access to many villas for viewing. Though a strict budget was not placed upon the gardens, Suarez and his incredible designs took the landscape that was planned to be picturesque to another level. What he managed to achieve was nothing short of a masterpiece.
The yard is filled with fountains, large stone stairs canopied in Spanish Moss. Just when a visitor thinks they have reached the end of the property, he or she is met with another secret garden lined with flowers, palms, statues, and more fountains. Walking the grounds of Vizcaya almost makes one forget about the house.
Vizcaya, similarly to Westbury House in Long Island, New York, has the ability to take a guest through a jaw dropping Gilded Age home, and then transport him or her to a palatial estate in Europe when entering the gardens. Vizcaya was built to look established. It looks far older than it actually is, but not because it is worn, but by the way it was designed. It looks elegant, established, and rich. It looks like it carries more history than simply a century.
By the time Suarez was completed, he had far exceeded what Deering expected to pay for the landscape. Today, it is estimated that the gardens cost in the millions to complete. In addition to the shrubbery, walls, and gardens, Suarez also designed the barge that appears to be floating in Biscayne Bay. When the house was lived in, the barge was filled with flowers and small trees creating an oasis in the turquoise waves. But, like everything else Suarez did, Chalfin later took credit, omitting Suarez all together. It was not until the 1950s that architect F. Burrall Hoffman publicly noted that Diego Suarez was the true landscape designer of Vizcaya, not Chalfin.
On Christmas day in 1916, friends and family gathered at the new Deering Estate called Vizcaya. Unlike most Gilded Age mansions that had the sea for a backdrop, Vizcaya was not set far back from the water. Her doors were within feet of the water’s edge along Biscayne Bay. Garland dressed the upper balconies of the central courtyard and it has been reported that a large tree graced the lower level of the same room. Though December 25, 2016 marked the centennial of Vizcaya, the estate in its entirety was not actually completed until 1922.
Sadly in 1925, James Deering passed away while traveling onboard the S.S. Paris from Europe to New York. The following year, destruction set eyes on Vizcaya and South Florida. The worst hurricane to strike the Sunshine State punched continuously with 130 mile-per-hour winds that devastated the mansion and grounds. The gardens were battered and the home suffered damage.
Vizcaya’s demise was initiated not long after her completion with James Deering’s death and Mother Nature’s aggression. In the 1930’s, Deering’s nieces sought Chalfin’s assistance in breathing life back into the once grand home. By 1935, the heirs to Deering’s fortune began selling off portions of the land, and soon made an offer to the city of Miami to open the house as a museum. There was no interest. The depression had left countless families without money or resources, and the last thing the general public wanted was to face a mansion belonging to a wealthy family that mostly sat vacant.
In the 1952, the nieces once again approached the city with an offer to sell the home and all its contents for $1MM, which far undercut its real value. This time, the offer was accepted. Vizcaya lives on today as and home and garden museum now called Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
Written and Photographed by: Matthew Niewenhous IG @The_Gilded_Butler
Rybczynski, Witold, and Laurie Olin. Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2007. Print.
“Vizcaya”. Prod. Linda Corley and Jack Kelly. Community Television Foundation of South Florida, Inc., 2009. DVD.
Sumner, Bill, and Joel M. Hoffman. Visions of Vizcaya. Miami, FL: Vizcaya Museums and Gardens, 2006. Print.