Thursday, April 13, 2006

Vizcaya - A National Treasure

Art as political statement/Art as status symbol/Art as utilitarian—
these concepts are all embodied in the exquisite estate on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

I had passed hurriedly by Vizcaya once before, knowing immediately without seeing much and knowing even less about this National Historic Landmark that I wanted to visit this mysterious place. Then hurricane Wilma showed up, just a few short weeks after Katrina hit New Orleans. Everyone was freaked about the storm, and so I had to leave Miami, hurriedly before getting the chance to visit Vizcaya.

Recently I returned to Miami to do a story for Romantic Destinations magazine. Lorie Juliano with Sonesta Hotels had brought us here. Sonesta by the way has an incredible art collection program that I'll write about later. It was on this trip that I had the opportunity to visit Vizcaya, an incredible Italian-style villa built by Chicago industrialist James Deering, Vice President of International Harvester.

Upon walking through the door, my irrational interest in this place was revealed to me. A product of the Industrial Age and subsequent Roaring 20s, one of the most colorful eras of our history, Vizcaya, was completed in 1916. It lies on the Bay of Biscayne not far from Coconut Grove, where Deering’s father, William also had a home.

Deering employed the assistance of three men, who played an important part in creating Vizcaya. Paul Chalfin was a painter from New York who served as artistic designer, F. Burrall Hoffman was the architect, and Diego Suarez of Columbia created the stunning grounds, which once included 180 acres.

The industrialist's winter home was designed to appear as if it were a 400-year-old Italian estate that had been occupied and renovated by several generations of families. With 34 exquisitely decorated rooms evoking time periods from the 15th through 19th century, the house is filled with antiquities and art. Included in some of the oldest items in the house are storage benches, uncomfortable looking pieces of furniture that immediately convene the thought that the people who made them were not busy sitting around ruminating on their work.

Because of the salt air and the occasional appearance of hurricanes such as Wilma, and the incredible collection of European antiquities at Vizcaya, the open courtyard has been discreetly enclosed to allow protection from the elements.

A little known fact about the house is that it has a middle level with 12 rooms for the servants and service. This is going to be opened up to the public soon. One of the most fascinating aspects of the house is the stone barge which serves as a breakwater, but extends the art and beauty of the estate into Biscayne Bay.

James Deering moved in on Christmas day and spent his winters at Vizcaya until he died in 1925, nearly a year before the Stock Market Crash and Great Depression.

Miami-Dade County purchased the house in 1952, which ultimately preserved the estate intact, though it has lost much of the original acreage. The priceless collection of antiques was donated by Deering’s family.

It’s no wonder President Bill Clinton selected the estate for the historic Summit of the Americas in 1994 when 34 leaders of the Western Hemisphere met there. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II and in 1991; her majesty Queen Elizabeth II of England toured the estate.

So it is from the utilitarian or "art of need" that took a jouney to "art as status symbol" and progressing to "art as political statement" that makes Vizcaya more than just a beautiful old estate once built to look old and now fulfilling that prophecy. Go see it soon.

--Ruth Mitchell

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