Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

February 20, 2014

In the lush nature that has always set Coconut Grove apart from the rest of Miami, a man decided to build his winter estate right by the bay more than 97 years ago.  Yet when I stood in front of the mansion by the welcoming fountain, it felt much older, like something taken out of Renaissance Italy and therefore it had a sense of grandeur that took me by surprise.

From afar, the mansion is framed with an entranced lined with pines and trickling fountains. The villa is quite a sight with cream-colored walls, a terracotta roof and towers on all four corners. There’s a gate to the right that leads to the infamous gardens.

Vizcaya, the home of the businessman James Deering, was named after the Spanish province and its name is not the only European influence. It was inspired by Tuscan Italian Renaissance style so people would believe the villa had been the home of many family generations. The tour of the villa is given in the exact order Deering used to do it when he had guests over.

When stepping into the welcoming room, the first thing I saw was a spacious courtyard with a glass ceiling that was placed to protect the house from the humidity of the tropic. As much as this caught my attention, the tour started immediately to the left.

Every room is different and heavily decorated with European furniture and art dated all the way back to the 15th century. Almost everything used to adorn came from Deering's substantial collection, acquired from his many trips to Europ. The layout of the place resembles a traditional aristocratic home would be. The first room is the library followed by the Reception Room with a tropical theme. The wall paper, even if faded in some parts, features palm trees and birds. 

One of the most important rooms in the Principal Lounge its design inspired by Italian rooms of the Renaissance. The room contains a tripod made of Roman marble that’s 2,000 years old and it was used in religious ceremonies. A painting of the 17th century was split in two to be used as a cover of the organs’ pipes.

The decoration, though heavy and sometimes very Baroque, is balanced with bursts of natural light that come in from the loggias. The East Loggia has glass doors now but it used to be open and used to entertain guests while enjoying the view of Biscayne Bay, which included two islets on either side of a stone  boat right on the shore.

It opens into an ample terrace that covers the entire back of the house leading to the pool and orchid garden to the left and to the right, the second reason to visit this estate, and the most romantic, I think, is the gardens.

Also designed in an Italian style, the Gardens are absolutely exquisite and show a great balance between the parterre features, French and Italian garden layout and elements of the Floridian limestone stonework.

The center of the garden is a long reflective pool aligned with trees and a labyrinth design of low trim bushes expands from it. Even though there are always people strolling around and sometimes a photo shoot takes place, the gardens are quiet and peaceful. 

At the top of a hill at the far end of the garden, a stone outbuilding caught my attention. I headed towards it and saw that a fountain of multiple levels reached the top and two stone staircases curled around either side. The reveal was a stone structure with columns and the trees around cast a shade over the floor.

I couldn’t help but imagine Deering, of the McCormick-International Havester fortune, hosting private parties at this hill, maybe luring a lady away for a ‘quiet conversation’. And really, I wouldn’t blame her, not if he had promised to show her a sensational view.

It really was.

When I thought I had seen everything there was to see, the Gardens continued with additional almost hidden segments here and there. A river runs right behind it and another pool is closed to the public, the gate covered with vines. Even if you weren’t a romantic, you’d find the place magical, something that seems fascinatingly out of place and even taken out of time.

Deering was only able to visit his winter residence for nine years before he passed away. Tourists and locals have been visiting the estate for more than sixty years. The passing of the years and humid weather have taken their toll on the mansion and the grounds. Many acres were donated around the 1940's and the humidity and ocean air have deteriorated the mansion. But the character the place has, and the majestic charm Deering was searching for, has very much stayed intact over the years.

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