Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya Palace

 

Vizcaya, the winter residence of James Deering (1859–1925), was built between 1914 and 1922 in the Coconut Grove area of Miami, Florida. The estate was entirely surrounded by subtropical forest—the Main House and the formal gardens appeared as a dreamlike vision in the midst of the jungle on the shores of Biscayne Bay. Today, Vizcaya is an oasis of silence and green, miraculously preserved just south of Miami’s modern skyline.

Vizcaya was conceived as a modern and subtropical interpretation of an eighteenth-century Italian villa, in particular the country estates of the Veneto region of northern Italy. Its designers adapted traditional Mediterranean architectural elements to the subtropical climate with a remarkable sensibility for environmental issues. The heart and main living area of the house is the Courtyard, which was originally open to the sky.

The house was designed to take full advantage of its location on Biscayne Bay. Deering wanted Vizcaya to be visible and approachable by sea. The east façade on the bay is the most monumental and the only symmetrical one—it opens onto a wide terrace that descends toward the water.

The other sides of the house have unique relationships with the surrounding grounds. The west façade, which has greeted visitors since Deering’s time, is simple and contrasts with Vizcaya’s elaborate interiors. The north façade accommodates one of Vizcaya’s most delightful inventions—the swimming pool that emerges from vaulted arches at the lower level of the house. The south façade opens onto the formal gardens with enclosed loggias on the first and second floors.

On the first floor, you will find several reception rooms, the Library, the Music Room, and the Dining Room surround by the courtyard. The second floor housed Deering’s personal suite and guest bedrooms as well as a Breakfast Room and the Kitchen.

The interiors of the Main House were meant to suggest the passing of time and the layered accumulation of artifacts and memories. The rooms were designed around objects acquired in Italy and assembled into new compositions by Chalfin.

At Vizcaya, the reference to the past was coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of technology, modernity and comfort. Regardless of its Baroque appearance, Vizcaya was a very modern house. Many are surprised to learn that it was built largely of reinforced concrete, with the latest technology of the period, such as generators and a water filtration system. Vizcaya was also equipped with heating and ventilation, two elevators, a dumbwaiter, a central vacuum-cleaning system and a partly automated laundry room.

Both the house’s aesthetic significance and modern efficiency were celebrated in architectural and engineering magazines of the time.

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Vizcaya’s European-inspired gardens are among the most elaborate in the United States. Reminiscent of gardens created in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Italy and France, the overall landscape design is conceived as a series of rooms.

The central space is dominated by low hedges, or parterres, in a geometric arrangement. Beyond that are the evocative Secret Garden, the intimate Theater Garden, the playful Maze Garden and the once-watery domain of the Fountain Garden. On either side of this designed landscape, James Deering preserved the native forest.

Horticultural innovations were common at Vizcaya, including the use of subtropical plants compatible with Miami’s heat and humidity. Deering was partial to orchids, and he had them displayed throughout the estate. Today, orchids are on view in trees and in the newly rebuilt David A. Klein Orchidarium next to the Main House.

Vizcaya’s exuberant gardens are characterized by an abundance of architectural structures and details, elaborate fountains, and antique and commissioned sculptures. The use of sculptures that were already old and of soft and porous coral stone resulted, quite intentionally, in the gardens having a weathered appearance soon after their completion. To further the appearance of age, Deering and Paul Chalfin planted numerous mature trees, along with vines and plants that would drape themselves over the garden structures.

Landscape architect Diego Suarez referenced many places in the design of Vizcaya’s formal gardens; most are around Florence and Rome. In the outer gardens that no longer exist, Vizcaya’s creators instead looked to the Everglades, North Africa and even Asia for landscape and architectural inspiration.

The original plan for the formal gardens included a series of terraces that began at the Main House and ended at a large lagoon. Suarez realized that the light reflecting off the water would be blinding to garden visitors and that the formal gardens would melt into the jungle beyond—hardly a fitting conclusion for such a grandly conceived landscape. He cleverly redesigned the entire formal garden and added the Garden Mound, an artificial hill that blocks the view from the house and creates long perspectives on its sides.

At the Garden Mound and elsewhere, Chalfin embellished Suarez’s design and their combined inventiveness created Vizcaya’s uniquely romantic subtropical gardens.

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