HISTORIC HOUSE TOUR: Inside Miami’s Vizcaya
By Lynn Byrne. When homeowner James Deering first saw his newly completed masterpiece mansion back in 1916, he arrived on Christmas Day in a Venetian gondola. Miniature canons fired a salute. Friends, dressed in Italian peasant costumes, danced to Italian music. The gondola poles are still there today. Between two of them you catch a glimpse of the barge folly.
More on the phenomenal grounds at Vizcaya in another post. There is just so much to see at Vizcaya, that I am going to focus on the inside today.
James Deering got his fortune from farm machinery and was Vice President of the International Harvester Company. His father had a house in Coconut Grove, Florida that James visited often. Around 1910, Deering began his plan to build his own home.
That is how the mega rich spent their time around the turn of the last century–amassing large collections of European art work and creating mansions to house it all.
Think Frick, Morgan and Vanderbilt. Vizcaya in some ways is quite like the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore. Both include a grand house, large formal gardens adjacent to a woodland, and an adjoining village for staff and other support services.
Similar to the Frick collection, Elsie de Wolfe also played a role. Though not nearly as extensive as her part in creating Henry Frick’s collection, Elsie’s finger in Vizcaya is significant. She recommended its chief designer, Paul Chalfin, after turning down the job for herself.
Chalfin went on to spearhead the entire project. He selected the architect, F. Burrall Hoffman Jr., and the garden designer, Diego Suarez. It was the first time anything of its scale was built in tropical Miami. During construction, Chalfin wrote to a friend that Vizcaya was as “imposing as the Palazzo Pitti…if you can imagine the Palazzo Pitti standing on a lagoon in Africa.”*
Chalfin used European and local craftsmen to build the place. Local materials like coral rock are incorporated into the construction. Here is the front entry façade and a close up of the coral rock. So pretty in pink with the green moss growing inside crevices.
I like to visit historic homes (Vizcaya is a National Historic Landmark) for several reasons.
- It is fun to get a peek inside the lives of of the rich and famous. Just as good as reality TV, actually.
- I enjoy being wowed by the architecture, furnishings and gardens.
- And, perhaps, most of all, these homes typically provide a host of design inspiration.
On with the house tour.
Here is the front entry hall. Readers might recall that I first saw Vizcaya at night when we attended a wedding. That marble floor is gorgeous, but oh so very slippery. I was worried I would take a header in my high heels.
Vizcaya is organized around a large center courtyard with a loggia surrounding the courtyard and rooms opening off of that. Back in Deering’s day, the courtyard was open to the elements. Today it is covered with a roof that looks similar to one you would find in a green house. Behind that blue and gold awning is the entrance hall.
Gorgeous stained glass doors led out to the terrace where we had champagne and cocktails. Here is a detail shot of the doors, showing one of Deering’s symbols for Vizcaya, the sea horse. A galleon is the other. Both are sprinkled around the house.
Here is a shot of the east loggia, which leads out to the main view of the water. Note the large galleon hanging from the ceiling. Back in Deering’s day white wicker chairs were set up here to take in the breezes and view.
Off of the tea room is the butler’s pantry. Deering placed the butler’s pantry and dining room on the first floor and the kitchen on the second. He did not want his guests to smell cooking odors when they dined formally. Food was transported downstairs via a dumb waiter. I liked Deering’s Quimper collection.
The dining room features a 16th century tapestry from Tournai. Ok cool, but I was drawn to the appliqué detail on the drapes and the carved ceiling with its sea horse and snake motifs (serpents are trending as a design motif right now).
Another incredibly elaborate room is the music room. The ceiling and canvas panels came from a palace in Milan. Vizcaya is unusual in that much of the art collection came first and the house was built to showcase it.
Upstairs, my favorite room is the breakfast room, where Deering took most of his meals. Large murals of water scenes are painted on each wall.
Deering’s bedroom and bath also are interesting. Look how small his bed is. Hardly unusual for its time, but it seems so tiny by today’s standards, especially for a titan of industry. I love the Empire styling, especially the coronet on his bed, and the tented ceiling in his bathroom. Thomas Jayne names Deering’s Vizcaya bathroom as one of the finest rooms in America in his book of the same name.
Thirteen staff members lived in Vizcaya while numerous others lived in the village. Here is a cool shot of the spiral staircase that leads to the staff quarters.
It is so hard to imagine living a life of such opulence. Deering only spent 4 months a year in Vizcaya, although he maintained a full staff year round to care for it all. Just wait until you see the gardens…
Photo credits: First photo, Mr. Michael Henry Adams Style and Taste blog. Front facade, coral rock, entry hall and second breakfast room photo, Architect Design. Full room shot of the dining room, east loggia, music room, second shot of Deering’s bedroom and bathroom from Great Houses of Florida by Beth Dunlp and Johanna Lombard, photography by Steven Brooke. Full room shot of the breakfast room by Bill Sumner from Visions of Vizcaya. Remainder of the photos by me.
* Chalfin quote from Visions of Vizcaya. I gathered my information for this post from the audio tour of the house, the museum’s Visions of Vizcaya and Great Houses of Florida.