Thursday, January 5, 2012
James Deering's Vizcaya
I’m just back from a winter break in south Florida, and I visited the Vizcaya mansion on the shores of Miami’s Biscayne Bay last Sunday. Vizcaya was built over a span of two years, 1914-1916, by James Deering (1859-1925), co-founder and vice president of International Harvester. It is an Italian Renaissance-style villa used by Chicago-based Deering as a 34-room winter home, set among ten acres of formal gardens, which were not completed until 1921, because of the outbreak of WWI. During the construction, ten percent of Miami’s population worked at the Vizcaya site. The original 180 acres included a working farm, machine shop, staff residences, garages, greenhouse, and a paint and carpentry workshop.
Deering was discretely homosexual, but is referred to only as a “life-long bachelor” in the printed materials available at the site. There are no reports of his showing romantic or physical interest in women. In addition to making a fortune from agricultural machinery, Deering was a socialite and an antiquities collector. When he was phased out of daily company affairs by J.P. Morgan interests in 1909, Deering decided to go on a buying spree with his gay partner, designer Paul Chalfin (see portrait c. 1915 below), who made sure that Deering’s winter home did not resemble his brother’s plain-Jane estate a bit farther south. Deering served as Vice President of International Harvester until 1919 and remained a company director the rest of his life. But after the 1909 reorganization, he essentially retired – with a very fat wallet. The Deering family had come into $800 million (in today’s money) from the sale of a part of their company interests to J. P. Morgan bank.
Together, Chalfin and Deering sailed to Europe, snapping up fabulous antiquities (including doors, wall panels, mantels and ceilings) that would be incorporated into the creation of an opulent, over-the-top, decadent, and ostentatious fantasy villa in what is today north Coconut Grove.
Paul Chalfin was a New York based painter-turned-decorator who had worked as an assistant to celebrated designer Elsie de Wolfe. Chalfin was openly homosexual and affected in mannerisms and speech. He and Deering bonded immediately and made numerous trips to Europe to inspect villas and procure furnishings, including wrought iron gates, fountains and antique chimney pieces (one was 20-ft. tall). Chalfin and Deering spent two years formulating the Miami villa before handing the project over to a young, unknown architect, Francis Hoffman, who was in the unenviable position of having to please two clients: Chalfin, who was on site in Florida, and Deering, who was based in Chicago.
Liberace would have felt completely at home here. Trust me. There’s a 3-manual pipe organ, tea house, garden theater, statuary walks, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains, maze, indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, mangrove swamps, grottos and a room whose entire function was for arranging flowers. Did I mention the stone breakwater barge and yacht landing?
*John Singer Sargent (also discretely gay), who painted clothed women and naked men, was an intimate friend. While staying at Vizcaya, Sargent painted a series of watercolors of male nudes, using the African-American workers on the premises as models (see watercolor below). A further clue to Deering’s sexual orientation is a statue in the gardens that depicts Ganymede, the mythological gay youth who was the lover of Zeus. A tapestry hung inside the villa depicts a male lion with a raging erection. I’m not making this up. James Deering, that life-long bachelor, is speculated by many to have had a relationship with Sargent, as well.
I’m just sayin’.
Although most of the original furnishings remain intact, the south Florida climate took its toll. Of late the original open-air central courtyard has been covered with a glass pyramid so that air conditioning could be installed, diminishing further deterioration of fabrics and furnishings. Innovations at the time of construction include a central vacuum system (in 1916!), an automatic electric telephone switchboard and a fire control system. Upon Deering’s death in 1925, while returning from France on an ocean liner, the house was maintained by minimal staff after it was inherited by two nieces. Following hurricane damage and escalating maintenance costs, the women sold Vizcaya much below value to Miami-Dade County in 1952 to operate as a museum. Today the house and gardens are designated a National Historic Landmark.
The boat house, where Deering’s yacht Nepenthe was docked, along with various lagoons and canals, were lost when some of the acreage was sold off by the nieces. Today Mercy Hospital and a large Catholic church occupy the adjacent acreage where those features once stood.
Several movies (remember Pet Detective?) and documentaries have been shot here. Vizcaya is today a popular backdrop for quinceañera photos/celebrations by Miami’s huge Latina population and the scene of countless fashion photoshoots. During my visit several brides were being photographed in the tea house and gardens. The mansion and gardens may be rented for private functions.
Open daily at 3251 S. Miami Avenue. 305.250.9133.
As opulent as these photos seem, black and white photos from the 1920s indicate that the rooms contained many more decorative items and details than what visitors view today.
1. Staircase fountain leading up to garden folly/casino
2. Reception room
3. Bayfront (east) loggia
4. Mr. Deering's bathroom with tented ceiling & water views
5. Teahouse lattice & garden folly/casino interior