Sunday, January 23, 2011

Family Florida Trip - Part 3: Vizcaya

The third garden my parents and I visited on our recent Florida trip was Vizcaya, the former winter estate of early 20th-century industrialist James Deering. His family had created the Deering Harvester Company whose machinery contributed significantly to the development of Midwestern agriculture and which, under the name of International Harvester, would become the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the United States. The estate was built between 1914 and 1916 by architect F. Burrall Hoffman and Colombian-born, Italian-trained landscape architect Diego Suarez, though its overall look as well as decorative details were determined mainly by Paul Chalfin, Deering's "general artistic supervisor".  An Italianate villa set in a whimsical, playfully formal landscape, Vizcaya seems weirdly out-of-place in tropical Miami but at the same time that makes up a big part of its charm. The house its impressive in its sheer size and sumptuousness but to be honest I found the interiors disturbingly gaudy in all their mismatched period-piece clutter. They are certainly worth seeing as a testament to their times and the men who created them but I could find very little of actual beauty in the Roman columns turned into candle holders or the 16th-century painting of the Virgin Mary sawed in half to create two panels to hide an organ. The grounds, however, are an entirely different matter. Somewhat more restrained in their decorations - and without too many re-purposed European antiques - they are truly beautiful, and the seemingly incongruous mix of Italianate formality and ornament with lush tropical vegetation is actually nothing but enchanting.

 The entrance court

 The house at Vizcaya as seen from the side of the garden stretching along the Bay of Biscayne

The stone barge

The tea house on the bay-front side of the property

The interior of the tea house

The largest part of the gardens lies south of the house, arranged on a series of different levels with extensive parterres and various garden "rooms", all connected by elaborate staircases and accented with various pavilions, plant-filled urns and terracotta pots, and tons of statues. Only a comparatively small stretch of garden lies east of the house facing the Bay of Biscayne, but it contains some of the most opulent decorative features on the property, namely a small island shaped like a barge that acts as a tide breaker and boat mooring and a tea house covered in turquoise lattice work reached via a Venetian-style bridge.

 The Secret Garden

A single variety of moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora) in one of the wall planters in the Secret Garden

Succulent arrangements in the Secret Garden

A view over one of the parterres

The theater garden

The entrance to the Fountain Garden

The Casino, surrounded by live oaks (Quercus virginiana) draped in Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides)

The water stairway

Fountains and specimens of Podocarpus macrophyllus trimmed into pillars

One of the many urns filled with colorful bromeliads

On the whole, the gardens are what really makes Vizcaya worth a visit, at least to my mind. They are quite over the top and with Vizcaya being one of Miami's premier attractions - as well as a very popular spot to take Quinceañera pictures - they are also not exactly empty or quiet, yet they are nonetheless impressive and oddly beautiful. The curious combination of Italianate formality and tropical foliage produces an odd sense of melancholy, as if one where wandering through the remnants of an abandoned structure being reclaimed by nature. If you want to find out more, you can visit the web site of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens here.


  1. Love the Florida pictures. I am on my way there shortly. Figure I need a little warmth from all this cold. I see by your profile you lived on the other side of Lake Michigan for a while, so you know my weather here. Though I must admit in spite of the cold, it is a beautiful place to have a garden. The backdrop is always excellent any season of the year - even when cold! I look forward to more great photos. Jack

  2. Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I indeed spent my high school years gardening in Michigan, though unfortunately without any lake views such as the beautiful ones you have. I still go back during my breaks and work on my parents' garden so it is still the gardening climate I am most familiar with.

  3. Your last two posts demonstrate again that visiting gardens can provide a great guideline for structuring a trip almost anywhere. I especially love the stone barge, although both it and the house as viewed from the bay look a little incongruous for Florida.
    Thanks for visiting my blog, and BTW, I think not only your mother, but also you - as someone who has lived in both cultures - would enjoy S. Hill's book "Europe's Promise".

  4. Wow! it looks so nice! remind me so much of some gardens back at my country. I hope you had a lot of fun!


Thanks for stopping by!