Gardens of Miami No.2 – Vizcaya

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January is a month when many of us dream of an escape to the sun. If we’re feeling flush we might take advantage of discounts and book a holiday. A few lucky folk may find themselves in a position to buy a property abroad – perhaps a modern villa with a pool, or a quaint cottage in the backstreets of a fishing village. But few of us will ever have the means to realise our dreams as James Deering did at Villa Vizcaya on the shores of Biscayne Bay, Miami.

One of many orchids displayed in Vizcaya’s grounds

James Deering was a retired industralist, socialite, and collector of art and antiquities. Though his family had made a vast fortune manufacturing farm machinery in the Mid West of the United States, their lifestyle was not ostentatious in any way. Deering was cultured and taught himself to read all the major European languages. Yet like many other American industrialists of the time, he was obscenely rich and wanted for nothing.

A plan of Villa Vizcaya

Deering remained a bachelor, a subject largely glossed over in written accounts of his life. Reading between the lines and listening carefully to one’s tour guide, it seems likely that he was discreetly homosexual (Deerings guests were neither oblivious to, nor entirely comfortable about the interconnecting bedrooms which permitted movements to go unseen from the main gallery). In all other respects he was every inch the gentleman, ‘a reticent man with impeccably proper manners, leavened by a sense of humour’. Deering was blessed with taste and the means to indulge it. Had it not been so, Vizcaya almost certainly would not have turned out to be a triumph.

One of the cloisters flanking the central courtyard

Deering surrounded himself with beautiful, educated and flamboyant people, including the man he chose as his artistic advisor and travelling companion, Paul Chalfin. Chalfin studied briefly at Harvard before enrolling at the Art Students League of New York and subsequently the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied painting. Although he took great delight in being mistaken for an architect, he had no professional qualifications as such. He designed only one house, Villa Vizcaya, the magnificent mansion Deering would call home for just nine years.

The villa from the quayside

The problem was that Deering suffered from pernicious anaemia. Post retirement from the family firm (by now in the hands of banking firm J.P. Morgan) his doctors prescribed sun and sea air to counter the effects of his debilitating condition. So it was that in 1910 he purchased a vast swathe of mangrove swamp and rockland hammock* at Coconut Grove, just south of the fledgling City of Miami and close to the estate of his brother, Charles. Chalfin’s services were enlisted to devise a masterplan for the site, after which the pair promptly set off for Europe to collect architectural ideas, art, antiquities, and furnishings for Deering’s new Florida home.

Vizcayas interiors are as richly furnished as any Italian Palazzo

Rather than rush headlong into construction, the pair took their time over the planning stages. Money was no object, and the realisation of Deering’s ambition was to be deeply convincing, if not highly indulgent. Inspiration was gathered from all over Italy, in particular Florence and Venice, as well as from Spain and France.

Whilst the chosen style for his mansion was Mediterranean Revival and the garden is most obviously Italianate, Deering was not oblivious to the beauty of his sub-tropical surroundings. He made provision for the inclusion and preservation of indigenous materials and plants throughout, in doing so creating a new hybrid style, an exciting fusion between Old World grandeur and New World freedom of expression. Vizcaya was to be executed with such total confidence that today one barely questions the incongruity of its situation. Looking out from the main terrace across the gleaming limestone quay to a derelict stone barge ‘moored’ in front, one could almost be in Venice. As illusions go, it’s among the most convincing.

Dracaenas, codiaeums and bromeliads flourish in the sheltered courtyard

Since Chalfin’s skills did not extend to architecture, he employed ‘gentleman architect’ Francis Burrall Hoffman Jr. to do the donkey work for him. (Later, when Chalfin claimed that ‘Hoffman did the plumbing, I did the house’, Hoffman threatened a lawsuit and Chalfin was forced to come clean.) The villa could so easily have ended up an ugly pastiche, but taste prevailed and the result was a tour de force of cultural appropriation. With a façade inspired by the Villa Rezzonico in Italy and an Andalusian-style internal courtyard (originally open to the elements but now covered), Vizcaya rose from the mangrove swamps to command the admiration of the Amercian elite, including silent film star Lillian Gish and the painter John Singer Sargent.

A quiet moment in the cool shade of the central courtyard

I fully expected that I would dislike Vizcaya, but could not fault it. It is every inch the perfect pastiche, an extravagant folly of the highest order and very pleasing to the eye. The main rooms are constructed well above sea level in order to command the landscapes beyond, but the basement level, including the swimming pool, has been seriously damaged by a series of hurricanes: there is still much to be repaired in the house and garden following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Villa Vizcaya with the Venetian barge to the right. Conceived as protection from the ocean, it doubled as a venue for extravagant parties

Somewhat belatedly I arrive at the subject of the gardens, allowing me to introduce the fourth protagonist in the creation of Vizcaya and certainly the most overlooked. In 1914, shortly before building work was due to commence, Deering and Chalfin travelled to Italy. They were greatly impressed by the restored gardens at La Pietra, a villa owned by art and antiques dealer Sir Arthur Acton in the hills above Florence. The work had been completed by a young, Columbian-born landscape architect named Diego Suarez. Acton duly asked Suarez to show his American friends the best formal gardens in the region and the trio hit it off. Shortly afterwards, having travelled to the United States in the company of Lady Sybil Cutting, Suarez found himself unable to return to Italy due to the outbreak of World War I. Chalfin, adept at disguising his own lack of skill by surrounding himself with gifted people, promptly subcontracted Suarez to design Vizcaya’s extensive formal gardens.

The approach to the villa’s east and entrance front, flanked by stone cascades

Initially Suarez based his designs on the gardens at Villa Lante in Italy (the twin cascades that flank the approach to the house are clearly inspired by that garden). However, after visiting Miami for the first time, he was forced to make changes due to the low-lying topography of the site.

Looking towards the Casino from the south terrace of the villa
A formal pool flanked by clipped native oaks (Quercus laurifolia)
Parallel staircases, shaded by potted casuarinas, ascend towards the Mound

By constructing a raised feature called the Mound, he was able to create exaggerated perspective lines using low hedges and avenues of native oaks (Quercus laurifolia) rising towards a shady bosquet surrounding a triple-arched, open-sided Casino.

The Casino, now shaded by oak trees dripping with orchids and Spanish moss

Suarez worked solidly on the garden between 1914 and 1917, when he walked out following a series of disagreements with Chalfin.

At one point over 1000 workers were employed in the creation of the house and gardens. When one considers the population of Miami at that time was only around 20,000, this is quite remarkable. As in England a small estate village and kitchen gardens had to be created to house staff and provide sufficient fruit and vegetables for the house and its many rich and influential guests.

The Secret Garden was intended to be a theatre of orchids, but the fierce Florida sun made it entirely unsuitable.

Facing east toward the Atlantic, Suarez devised one of the estate’s most decadent and masculine features, the Secret Garden. Originally conceived as a protected space for the display of rare orchids, it quickly proved entirely unsuitable due to its proximity to the sea and exposure to the sun. Today it provides a scorching-hot haven for bromeliads, agaves, potted palms and salt-tolerant succulents, as well as being much beloved by fashion photographers.

A stone vase packed with succulents at the edge of the Secret Garden

The Secret Garden was not the only unsuccessful element of Suarez’s plan. A sequence of small, enclosed gardens on the seaward side of the plot proved too pokey. Recently these have been inundated by sea water, requiring them to be replanted with salt-tolerant species. The Rose Garden is larger but no longer filled with roses and the watercourses are dry. As a consequence it feels rather parched and unloved. Beyond the Rose Garden a canal filled with inky-black water leads to a bridge with an absurdly high arch. Should one take the trouble to cross it, one is immediately confronted with a prison fence. Beyond the fence once lay the Lagoon Garden, long ago lost to development. It’s a disappointing end to the garden tour and perhaps why some visitors find Vizcaya slightly melancholy.

Silvers and golds sing in the grand surroundings of the Secret Garden

Modest to the last, Chalfin took full credit for the gardens. Only in the 1950s did Francis Burrall Hoffman Jr. reveal the truth, allowing Suarez to be acknowledged as the creator of one of the most significant formal gardens in the United States. The irony is that for each of the main protagonists – Deering, Chalfin, Hoffman and Suarez – Vizcaya was to be the greatest achievement of their lives and certainly the only one for which they would be remembered. Having moved to Vizcaya on Christmas Day 1916, Deering enjoyed his fantasy for a mere nine years before dying aboard the SS City of Paris in 1925, aged 65. Despite earning high praise for Vizcaya, Chalfin never landed another major project, although he returned in 1934 to advise on repairs following a major hurricane. Hoffman went to war in 1917 and on return continued designing houses for wealthy clients, although none as remarkable as the one that made his name. Suarez married Evelyn Marshall Field, the department store heiress, in 1937 and appears to have gone into diplomatic service after that.

The David A Klein Orchidarium on the north side of the villa features a high, loose hedge to shelter tropical orchids from the midday sun.
Some of the many orchids to be admired at Vizcaya

Vizcaya today is a popular museum and tourist attraction, much as country houses are here in the UK. It is also Miami’s most sought after wedding venue. On any day of the week it’s almost impossible to avoid photographers and aspiring models draping themselves over crumbling walls or lounging on stone benches. The gardens are more than adequately maintained and by no means shabby, however Hurricane Irma took its toll, almost destroying the pretty tea house at one end of the quay and tossing obelisks and balustrades hither and thither around the breakwater barge. Many of the fountains no longer play and the wilder Lagoon Garden was lost in the 50s when Vizcaya was transferred to public ownership by Deering’s nieces. The cost of maintaining the estate in full would have been crippling in today’s climate, so it’s perhaps fortunate that parts were let go. The image below shows the lost portion of the garden in the top, left-hand corner, as well as fully-grown trees on the Venetian barge in front of the villa. When Deering was in residence guests would have been rowed out to this ornate artificial island on gondolas to dine beneath the stars.

The Vizcaya estate, perhaps in the late 1920s or early 1930s judging by the maturity of the planting.

What is perhaps saddest is that whilst the villa itself enjoyed its heyday, the gardens never did. They were completed in 1923, just two years before Deering’s death. Photographs from that time show a garden in its youth, all sharp, hard landscaping and lacking any softness.

Compare this image from 1916 to the one at the foot of this post taken in 2019

Both Deering and Chalfin had sought to recreate the sense of history and antiquity they had fallen in love with on their travels and yet only now, around 100 years later, can that really be experienced in earnest. For all his wealth Deering could not buy his health, but in Vizcaya he bestowed upon his country one of the greatest and most theatrical houses and gardens of its age. TFG.

* Rockland hammock is a rich tropical hardwood forest on upland sites in areas where limestone is very near the surface and often exposed.

The south elevation of the villa from the formal pond

Categories: Art and Design, Flowers, Foliage, Garden Design, history, Landscape Design, Large Gardens, Mediterranean Gardens, Orchids, Other People's Gardens, Photography, Plants, Tropical Gardens

Posted by The Frustrated Gardener

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20 comments On "Gardens of Miami No.2 – Vizcaya"

  1. I have driven through Miami several times but I have never thought about looking up a garden to tour. I am really glad that you have brought this to my attention. The next time we drive through I will insist on a tour. Funny that it took someone from England to show me a jewel of a garden here in the states.
    I think it is odd that when they made the secret garden for orchids they didn’t realize that orchids couldn’t take the sun. Who ever thought that up wasn’t much of a plantsman.

    1. There are some smashing gardens in Miami (I have a book featuring some of the private ones). I could recommend Fairchild Botanic Garden, The Kampong (needs to be booked in advance) and Vizcaya.

      The way orchids are displayed in little niches in the hedge in the new orchid garden is very clever. However the secret garden was an awful idea as far as orchids are concerned. Agaves and bromeliads with their architectural forms are much better suited.

      Monty Don is doing a BBC TV series about American gardens at the moment which is quite brilliant and very watchable. Not sure you can get it there? Maybe on You Tube?

  2. Thank you for sharing. My Father was English and although I have never been to England I love looking at the wonderful gardens and historic buildings. I am a keen gardener but dought in our country here and bush fires have taken care of a lot of gardens and also homes and lives.
    Best regards,

    1. It’s very sad to see how the fires have ravaged your landscape there in Australia. One hopes nature will work its magic and start the healing process once autumn arrives. Meanwhile, wishing you very happy Australia Day. Dan

  3. What a coincidence, I was just introduced to Vizcaya this week through Monty Don’s American Gardens. Your article has added so much more insightful information, both visual and written, that I’m quite mesmerized and would like to say thank you so much. I’d also like to take this opportunity to let you know how much I enjoy your garden, your entertaining and informative writing and the brilliant photography.

    1. Thank you Luise for your kind and generous comments. If I am absolutely honest you have Monty to thank for me completing this post, which had been in draft form since last May. I’ve one more garden to write up in the series so hopefully that will come soon. Dan

  4. What a wonderful journal entry. I just love the vase with succulents. Do you know what the trailing one is and if it would be hardy in the UK?

  5. A couple of years ago I heard the Deputy Dir. of Hort talk about the effect of hurricanes and climate change on the gardens. The future does not hold out a lot of hope for such a great site, located where it is.

    1. That’s probably (and sadly) quite true. It’s low lying and first landfall. Deering must have understood that, but perhaps not what the future might hold in terms of climate change. One can only hope that Vizcaya will get lucky for a while longer so that it can be enjoyed by future generations. Dan

  6. Your photos and writing style is just beautiful. Are you planning on writing a book anytime soon ? I would love to sit with a cuppa , enjoying that on a stormy day like this ! (Because sunny days are for getting our hands dirty in the garden eh !)

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