In 1912, James Deering bought 130 acres of land in Coconut Grove with frontage on Biscayne Bay. Two years later he purchased an additional 50 acres. Construction of Vizcaya began in 1913 and was inspired by an Italian villa - the baroque Villa Rezzonico -- in Bassano del Grappa. James oversaw the details in building Vizcaya just as he managed his factories: he studied the problem, involved himself in every detail, made his wishes known, and expected his employees to deliver. Construction was completed in 1922.
The main house at Vizcaya is distinguished for its Italian Renaissance-inspired architecture and its interiors filled with European, Asian, and American artifacts spanning two millennia. Unlike many other house museums from this era, Vizcaya still possesses almost all of its original furnishings, offering an experience of great historic and cultural integrity.
The gardens are notable for introducing a European design aesthetic to a subtropical context—a daring premise that resulted in early and ongoing experiments to identify appropriate plant specimens. While Vizcaya’s style evokes faraway places, local stone, soil and plants reflect Deering’s desire to showcase Miami and Florida’s native, natural beauty.
In 1917 Architectural Review magazine devoted its entire July issue to Vizcaya. Articles also appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar extolling the house, its furnishings, art and sculpture, the stone barge in the Bay, and the beautiful and serene lagoon, gardens and statuaries. A complex of buildings called “The Village” was completed some distance from the house. Resembling a small Veneto town, it contained maintenance buildings, garages, stable, dairy, a poultry house and greenhouses. The estate also included a working farm and citrus grove.
James Deering built the village with the intent of making Vizcaya virtually self-sufficient. This idea evoked the spirit of European precedents while compensating for the limited services and commodities available in early twentieth-century Miami. The village’s buildings housed staff quarters, an automobile garage, workshops, and an array of barns for domesticated animals. Fortunately, the village survives, and is in the process of being restored for public enjoyment.
By 1923, the gardens were open to the public on Sundays and Deering reportedly watched the crowds from his private balcony, curious to know the numbers who had attended but very humble and unwilling to take credit for his hospitality in person.
Hurricanes devastated Vizcaya in 1926, and again in 1935. The gardens along with many outdoor sculptures and furnishings were destroyed along with a significant loss of trees. Some areas were ruined, never to be repaired. However, much of the native plants and palms survived and flourished.
In 1945 the archdiocese of Miami purchased 130 acres of Vizcaya, filled in the lagoon, and built a hospital, school, and housing. Dade County exercised an option to purchase the house, with a very favorable price and terms to the county. It issued revenue bonds to fund the purchase of the main house and gardens and the remaining Farm Village and surrounding grounds in 1951. The Deering heirs loaned Dade County funds for essential alterations and improvements in order to open Vizcaya as a public museum.
Vizcaya dates its anniversary from 1952 when the contents of Vizcaya, including the garden structures and ornamentation, were first put on loan to the county. In that same year, Vizcaya was opened to the public as a museum. Over the next four years, the heirs executed deeds of gift, gradually donating thousands of objects -- from fine art to furniture -- to the county.
Hurricane Andrew swept through in 1992, flattening the mangroves, stripping and toppling trees, smashing the Barge again, and damaging railings and terraces. The house survived intact. In 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma damaged the interior of the home and caused serious damage to the Barge and extensive destruction to the garden and tree canopy. After renovations, it was opened to the public again.
Today, Vizcaya is host to weddings, galas and fundraisers and occasionally serves as the backdrop setting for exotic and glamorous films. Children and adults tour the property and gaze in amazement at the magnificence of the end of an era. James Deering’s legacy lives as a monument of the Gilded Age, and thanks to his vision and the Deering family’s generosity and commitment to preserving that vision, Viscaya remains a place for everyone to visit and enjoy.