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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.