Destination Miami: Discovering Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

While there are seemingly endless things to do in Miami, beyond the beaches and clubs, the food and drinks, lies a place that begs to be experienced. Even my football-loving Dad was so engrossed by our tour, he was outraged when we had to duck out early to meet my little sister at the airport.

Vizcaya Museums and Gardens, located off South Miami avenue on the southeast shore of the city, is an architectural, botanical and artistic wonder. Built as the winter home of industrial titan James Deering, the estate is a National Historic Landmark and fascinating institution.

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Seeking respite from the harsh winters of his native Chicago, Deering looked to Miami to create a tropical oasis that reflected his aesthetic and personal interests. To help bring his vision to life, he hired three young men: Paul Chalfin, the artistic advisor and genius behind much of the home’s interior, Francis Burrall Hoffman, Jr. as the architect, and Diego Suarez as the landscape designer.

The massive undertaking that was the construction and design of the estate is not lost on any visitor. The planning began in 1910 and the project was not totally realized until 1922. One fact that I found particularly fascinating is that in the years the house was being built, the average price of a home in the US was $5000. Deering spent over $3million on the creation of this estate – an unfathomable sum of money at the time!

I first walked around the formal gardens of the home, which span ten acres. The original estate consisted of 180 acres altogether, although much of that has now been donated to the city of Miami.

 

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The gardens are spectacular, not only for their design, but the diversity of the horticultural elements. There are over 2,000 orchids throughout the gardens and many endangered plants such as the Bitterbush, Brittle Maidenhair Fern and Redberry Stopper. Some plants maintained at Vizacaya can only be found in one or two other places in the world.

To create the formal gardens, a project that lasted almost eight years, Deering and his team had to clear the dense forest that was almost all of Miami at that time. However, they were very systematic about this process. They made sure to save a large portion of the expansive mangrove forests bordering the shoreline, knowing that these trees serve as protection from the elements. The team also sought out to harvest and transport fully-grown trees from some of Deering’s other properties to Vizcaya. This included live oaks that are still on the property today. They also purchased about one hundred Royal Palms from Cuba and shipped them to Vizcaya.

 

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My favorite aspect of the gardens was the flowers, most particularly the orchids. Deering was an orchid enthusiast and had large greenhouses dedicated to them and instructed that orchid plants be attached to trees (where they often grow with the trunk and limbs) on the north side of the house. There are many beautiful, unique and rare orchid varietals throughout the gardens, and also potted inside the house for visitors to appreciate.

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When you enter the house itself, you can begin to imagine how the estate cost as much as it did! It is truly spectacular. Architecturally, the house is modeled after an Italian country villa and purchased masses of European antiques to accompany this theme, amassing the most significant collection of Italian furniture anywhere in the US. The main house holds 34 decorated rooms surrounded by the 10 acres of formal gardens. Within these rooms (each of which has a theme), is a spectacular collection of European antiquities, American art commissioned by Deering, and plenty of modern conveniences that Deering installed to showcase the modernity of the house, such as the telephone.

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Paul Chalfin, the artistic advisor, was a renowned master of Italian interiors, and the house reflects an interest in various historical time periods and cities of Italy, but also other European styles such as French rococo. Many of the rooms were created around a single centerpiece, such as a piece of furniture, a fireplace, a musical instrument or work of art. However, the final result of this is not an insistence on historical consistency, but a blending of the historic and modern, artifact and invention. This makes for a brilliantly eclectic interior that is captivating to visitors and very fun to explore.

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It is hard to imagine someone being fortunate enough to live at this amazing estate once upon a time. I felt fortunate just being able to pass through the gardens and rooms! If you are ever in Miami, I cannot recommend a visit more. I was truly swept off my feet, and look forward to returning soon.

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