August 16, 2009
Author: Shari Edelson
Photographer: Keelin Purcell
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a beautiful Renaissance-style estate located on the outskirts of Miami, was the first stop on our week-long journey to the public gardens of south Florida. When we arrived at the front gate this morning, we were welcomed by Ian Simpkins, Vizcaya’s Chief Horticulturist, who oriented us to the garden’s history and spent the next several hours touring us around the 54-acre estate.
Vizcaya was built between 1914 and 1916 as the winter residence of James Deering, native Chicagoan and Vice President of the International Harvester Corporation. Deering initially purchased 180 acres of land upon which to build his estate, paying the then-exorbitant sum of $1000 per acre. At the time, Miami was little more than a wilderness outpost, with a population of only 10,000 living among extensive black and red mangrove swamps.
Vizcaya has been a public garden and museum since the mid-1950s, when Miami-Dade County purchased the estate from Deering’s nieces. Today, the garden welcomes 180,000 visitors per year, and serves as one of Miami’s most well-regarded public horticulture institutions.
Vizcaya’s natural beauty owes much to James Deering’s ethic of environmental conservation. Unlike most other wealthy landowners of the era, Deering chose to preserve much of the native woodland located on his estate. To this day, the tropical hardwood forest, known as a rockland hammock, lends Vizcaya’s landscape a unique and beautifully lush quality. The Miami Rock Ridge, a coral-based limestone formation, forms the area’s geological substrate and enables this locally-endemic forest type to thrive.
Deering hired several experts to direct the design and construction of his estate. F. Burrall Hoffman, architect, designed the mansion and other buildings; Diego Suarez, noted garden designer, created the landscapes; and the landscape architect Paul Chalfin served as artistic supervisor of the entire endeavor. The mansion and its surrounding gardens were built in a style reminiscent of French and Italian late Renaissance design, and were furnished with European artifacts and statuary Deering collected on his trips abroad.
The Center Garden, located just to the east of the mansion, serves as a main focal point in the landscape. Its central feature is an elongated central pool flanked by an allee of stately live oak trees and twin parterres of orange jasmine. At the far end of the garden is a multi-tiered fountain behind which is an Italianate garden structure known as a casino.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Vizcaya, and only wish we could have stayed longer! As it was, we had to get on the road to travel to our next destination, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.