Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Photo by: Averette, CC

The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami is a park in the Coconut Grove district of the city. It was formerly a villa belonging to James Deering, a successful and prominent Miami businessman. The estate dates back to the early part of the 20th century. Its extensive gardens include both native woodland and heavily styled Renaissance areas. There is also a compound containing historic outbuildings. The property is now open to the public and it is owned and maintained at public expense by Miami-Dade County.

Historical Background

The Vizcaya mansion was built just before World War One, although certain parts of the garden landscaping were not finished until 1923. Deering, who was noted for his works as a conservationist, made sure to preserve the extensive tropical forest that ran along the shoreline, as well as the native mangrove swamp areas. Since wartime restrictions made it hard to obtain certain building supplies while the villa was being constructed, Vizcaya includes a number of European elements subtly adapted to fit in with Floridian culture. For example, many of the garden’s sections are produced with Italian or French designs.

Vizcaya was used as a winter home for Deering from the completion of the villa in 1916 until he died nine years later. He named it after a province of the Basque Country in northern Spain, hoping to also commemorate an explorer of a similar name, since he was an enthusiast for the Renaissance age of exploration. Paul Chalfin, who Deering selected as the director for the entire project, worked closely with him and helped with Deering’s collection of artwork and antiques. The house itself was designed by the renowned architect, F. Burrall Hoffman.

Deering died on board a ship taking him home in the fall of 1925. The property passed to two nieces, but after a number of problems, including hurricane strikes, they began to divest themselves of large parts of the estate. Some of this was sold in separate parcels of land, but a substantial part was donated to the Mercy Hospital and to the Catholic Church. Only around 50 acres of the original grounds, as well as the villa itself, remained in family hands. Miami-Dade County took ownership of the villa in 1952, and it opened as an art museum the following year. Since the 1990’s, it has been operated by a governing trust.

Layout and Improvements

Of the 50 acres which now comprise the estate, about a fifth is made up of the formal gardens in the Italian style, with the rest being largely native jungle forest, known as “hammock.” In the villa itself is a museum sprawling over more than 70 rooms, each of which is decorated in a particular architectural style. Most of these rooms contain antiques and furnishings spanning the 15th to the 19th centuries. To this day, the museum remains closed on Tuesdays in order to allow alterations and repairs to be carried out with the minimum of disruption.

The bayside location of Vizcaya, together with its exposed courtyard, has left it rather vulnerable to the elements. The Miami area is susceptible to damage from hurricanes, and there have been three major episodes of this, the most recent coming in 2005. The county has allocated around $50 million in order to help with restoration, while FEMA and other bodies have donated similar sums. Even so, insufficient funds have prevented Vizcaya’s complete redevelopment. In particular, an ambitious project to transform the historic village into an educational and exhibition area is still at the planning stage.

Recent Developments

The cafe and shop at the museum have been the first areas to benefit from the donated funds, and these have now been rebuilt to modern standards which are more resistant to storm damage. The Gate Lodges on either side of South Miami Avenue have also been renovated, and the orchid nursery has been restored in line with its earlier use. Vizcaya’s gardens hold an extensive collection of sculptures, and these have received some badly needed conservation work, although more remains to be done before they can be considered entirely protected.

Vizcaya was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States in 2008. Part of the reasoning behind its inclusion on the list was the proposed development of neighboring land, which would include the building of high-rise blocks. The Trust’s statement on the matter included a comment that the proposed construction work could lead to serious damage to the historically important vista available from Vizcaya itself. After court decisions in the Trust’s favor, the City of Miami passed a new zoning code which included provision for the protection of historic views.

Miami Famous Landmarks

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