Janet Ramin - If you ever fantasized about being transported to another world ... back in time to a period of glittering balls, palatial mansions, formal gardens, and old-world European charm, you may want to visit Vizcaya in Miami, Florida. Yes, Miami! The city of bikinis, nightclubs, and pink flamingoes may not be the first place you associate with old-world charm, but nestled south of its famous beaches is a local treasure, the Vizcaya estate.
Vizcaya was home to James Deering, a wealthy executive at International Harvester. Deering envisioned Vizcaya as a winter retreat reminiscent of Italian palazzos. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many industrialists built mansions inspired by European palaces to announce to their peers that they have “arrived.” Deering hired designers F. Burral Hoffman, Paul Chalfin, and Diego Suarez to create the mansion, its interiors, and its romantic gardens.
Vizcaya was completed in 1921, taking two years to finish and employing nearly ten percent of Miami’s population - about 10,000 at that time. In the photos above, you can see the East Terrace as well as the front entrance. Invited guests can arrive in two ways: by automobile or by yacht. Those driving would pass by a forest of rockland hammock trees, fountains, and a circular driveway to finally gaze upon an Italian Renaissance façade made from local limestone.
Those arriving by yacht encountered a Venetian stone barge, at once beautiful and highly functional. The barge provided a unique outdoor space for parties as well as acting as a breakwater against tidal surges. After docking, a guest would enter the mansion via the East Loggia (see photo below), a foyer decorated in classical columns and busts, vaulted ceilings, and marble floor. A model ship of San Cristobal, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon’s ship, hangs in the center.
Despite the Italian Renaissance exterior, the interiors were decorated in a variety of styles – Italian Rococo, Baroque, and Chinoiserie (Chinese-influenced), as well as the neoclassical style. One of the most beautiful rooms is the Tea Room, decorated in both neoclassical as well as Baroque manner. The grandiose iron gates with gilded detail, bought from a Venetian palace, certainly reflected the more flamboyant Baroque style, as well as the floor torchieres that light the room. The walls itself are decorated with classical moulding, neoclassical urns, rosettes, and triglyphs. Also painted on the walls are murals of imagined classic architectural ruins in Italy.
A central courtyard sits on the main floor with all the public rooms radiating from it. The courtyard is a typical feature of Mediterranean villas – designed to give privacy for family get-togethers but also provide fresh air. The courtyard was originally open to the sky but is now enclosed with a glass roof to prevent weather damage to the house.
Deering, along with designer Paul Chalfin, traveled to Europe on major shopping expeditions, buying most of the furniture, accessories, lighting, including the iron gates for the Tea Room, in France and Italy. Chalfin designed the Reception Room (pictured below) in the 18th century Rococo style, full of ornate curves, scrolls, vines, and leaves. The furniture is designed in the Louis XV style, complete with console tables against the wall and le bureau plat in the center – a French desk. Deering entertained his guests here with cocktail parties.
The Cathay Room, pictured below, was a guest room designed in Chinoiserie style. In the 18th and 19th centuries, one of the popular trends was applying Chinese motifs as interpreted by European designers to interior furnishings. Chinese landscapes decorate the screens and the walls are covered in bright Chinese floral silks. Despite the Asian theme, the underlying background is still neoclassical - as shown in the mirror, the moulding, and the breakdown of the walls into panels.
The gardens of Vizcaya also reflect the style of French and Italian villa gardens. Landscape architect Diego Suarez was trained in Florence, Italy and applied many Italian features: topiary, fountains, water cascades, and statuary. Below is the Tea House where guests can have refreshments while waiting for visitors to sail in and dock at the landing. Besides the Tea House, one can take shelter from the tropical sun in the cool grottoes under the cascading fountains.
Vizcaya is a wonderful frozen moment of a by-gone era. Whether you’re strolling through the secret garden or imagining taking tea in the loggia, a day at Vizcaya would make for an idyllic respite from the modern world.
Interested in learning more about the history of architecture and interior design? Take a look at Sheffield School's Complete Course in Interior Design. At Sheffield, you'll learn how to transform a space, create color schemes, and select furniture, lighting, and accessories.