My first glimpse of Vizcaya, in the November 1950 issue of National Geographic
n my childhood, before Playboy became ubiquitous, National Geographic Magazine, with its coverage of the world’s peoples and cultures, served an important function—many a rural little boy got his first titillating glimpse of bare breasts in its pages. As important a service as it was, for this rural boy an even greater National Geographic moment was the rainy day circa 1961 that I found the November 1950 National Geographic in a stack of old issues at my uncle’s summer cottage—while, no doubt, my cousins were out playing softball.
The stunning salon, with its 18th century silk wall coverings of palm trees, echoing the gardens beyond
It was love at first sight, and house crazy though I was even at that age, my 8 year old imagination stopped at more obvious things like New England Colonials and English Castles. This was like nothing I’d never encountered. The article was about a house. The title was ‘An Italian Palazzo in Miami.’ The palazzo in question of course, was the sublime Vizcaya, James Deering’s dream evocation of the Veneto during the Renaissance. The effect of this sensuous house and its magnificent gardens was electrifying on my impressionable young brain.
A Roman sarcophagus as fountain, fitted out with frogs by Charles Cary Rumsey
I had not before imagined whole rooms and ceilings lifted from European palaces, (I was eight), carefully rearranged and combined for artful effect, to say nothing of stone barges set in artificial harbors. For the next few years, while my peers imagined themselves astronauts and cowboys, I preferred to think of myself as a Doge, or at least an International Harvester heir, living of course in Renaissance splendor at the edge of Biscayne Bay. I think it is safe to say I was never the same after…..
The plan for the gardens at Vizcaya. Much of the lagoon is now filled in and occupied by a hospital
The story of Vizcaya is well known—-International Harvester heir James Deering, a bachelor, buys large tract of jungle in then rural Miami as site for a winter home, assembles a brilliant team—-architect F. Burrall Hoffman, Artist/Decorator/Cicero Paul Chalfin, landscape architect Diego Suarez, and together, not always harmoniously, they manage to build the finest American house and garden of its day. In her 1926 book, Country Houses of America, Augusta Owen Patterson, alluding to the teams of artists and craftsmen dispatched to Florida said “it seemed at the time as if everyone knew someone who was working on the Deering job.”
Vizcaya, an ‘aeroplane view’ from 1916, showing the unfinished gardens to the south
The estate was under construction for many years, and originally was far more extensive than what the visitor sees today…sadly, part of the estate was sold for development, the southern gardens, wilder than the formal gardens that extend from the house, with canals and lagoons, were sold by the Deering heirs to the Catholic archdiocese as the site for a hospital and high school. Almost the first act of the archdiocese was to fill in the lagoon to the property line (not many people thought of landscape restrictions in those days). No matter the myriad good works that hospitals perform, their sensitivity to surroundings is usually minus nil, and the view shed from Vizcaya is ever increasingly compromised, and where once Deering’s houseboat docked at a fantasy boathouse, there is now a parking lot to the water’s edge, and the high rise towers of the hospital campus urbanize the famous view. As for the gardens themselves, the maintenance is not artful or sympathetic, and trees and shrubs and parterres are badly shaped and pruned. Concessions are made to facilitate the events that help pay the bills. Even so, the magic of the fantastical sculptures and grottoes, the sound of splashing water in fountains under the tropical sun, still seduce.
n 1917, Architectural Review published Vizcaya, newly completed, its gardens still under construction and the beautiful black and white photographs introduced Vizcaya to the world. I came across them again a couple of days ago, and here they are, for your viewing pleasure. Especially wonderful, I think, are the photos of the models for the as yet unfinished gardens, showing an earlier scheme for the casino as finally built, and the last photos, of the lost boathouse, are dream-like. There are too many photos to publish at once, but if response is great enough, I’ll post the rest over the next week.
The house from the lattice tea house
Below, four views of the model for the gardens, showing the original design for the casino.
Model, view from house to casino
Model, section through mound
Model, water terrace to casino
Model, casino and mound from lagoon
Looking North on the barge terrace, to the now long vanished teahouse (actually an improvement without this lavish touch)
Looking south toward boathouse past barge–sculpture by A. Stirling Calder
The boathouse, with Deering’s houseboat, Nepenthe, anchored alongside
The boathouse entrance hall
Boathouse, ladies powder room
And last, but not least, evoking North Africa, the jaw dropping roof terrace on the boat house, looking across Biscayne Bay.