Aug 25, 2010


After a few days in Miami Beach and a brief Atlantis drive by, we continued around Biscayne Bay to Vizcaya, the former estate of James Deering. Originally comprising an opulent mansion (constructed 1914-16), formal garden, and a working farm on 180 acres, Vizcaya remains today as a unique expression of Gilded Age America. While there were more ostentatious, and more expensive mansions commissioned by the ultra-wealthy (like George Washington Vanderbilt’s 255 room Asheville “chateau” Biltmore), Vizcaya’s self-conscious pastiche of historical references was stitched together with remarkable coherence by the unlikely design team of “artistic director” Paul Chaflin, architect Francis Burrell Hoffman, landscape architect Diego Suarez, and patron James Deering. Their juxtaposition of period styles with modern technology and lifestyle accoutrements was not unusual for the era, but their narrative sweep of European architectural and decorative history was. The design team was “performing”, as Witold Rybczynski put it, a repertoire of high design from Renaissance Venice to Beidermeier Vienna.

The banker of this extravagant performance, James Deering, was exceedingly rich. His entrepreneurial father, William Deering, owned the Chicago-based Deering Manufacturing Company, and brought James into the firm in 1880 as treasurer. In 1902, when financiers J.P. Morgan completed the deal that merged Deering Manufacturing with their biggest rival, McCormick Harvesting Machines, the resulting company, the International Harvestor Company, was one of America’s largest (behind only US Steel, Standard Oil and American Tobacco). Within a few years of the merger, James Deering effectively retired from business, a multi-millionaire with time on his hands. The Deering family had always maintained cultural connections, so when James bought a Lake Shore Drive house, he hired society decorator Elise de Wolfe to design its interiors. When she became too busy, she sent her assistant, Paul Chaflin, to complete the project. Impressed with Chaflin’s connoisseurship, Deering proposed they create a winter home near Miami: the future Vizcaya.

Chaflin had studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and later with James McNeill Whistler, before returning to the US in 1904 to take up a position as a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He was a frequent guest at Boston society hostess Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court, home to a circle of cosmopolitan aesthetes including expatriate critic Bernard Berenson, author Henry James and artist John Singer Sargent. Chalfin later worked for Elsie de Wolfe in New York, and thus by the time he met Deering, he was extremely well connected in the small but highly influential world of American taste-makers. This group of aesthetes, critics, and practitioners – including Gardner, de Wolfe, and their friends Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman – had a highly informed knowledge of European historical styles and objects, but, unlike museum curators or academics, were not above mixing decorative and fine arts from different periods in a single space, or blending the antique and modern together, so long as the harmonious whole reflected a refined personal taste. Wharton and Codman’s 1897 book, The Decoration of Houses, proposed a trilogy of suitable historical references: Italian Renaissance, French from the Louis XIV period, and English Neoclassicism (after Inigo Jones). These styles, combined with a sense of classical proportion and touches of exotic Orientalism, comprised the foundation of “good taste” for aspiring Americans at the turn of the century.

Out of this milieu, Chaflin and Deering took the first of many trips to Europe in 1910-11 to collect materials and inspiration for their winter home project. Over the next few years, they collected a vast horde of furniture, tapestries, flooring and ceiling materials, as well as decorative objects and architectural details. For an architect, Deering and Chaflin chose Francis Burrell Hoffman, a relatively young and unknown architect who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and served an apprenticeship with New York firm Carrère and Hastings. However, Hoffman’s first challenge was to design a plan that could integrate the horde of historical loot into some kind of logical whole. Although it was common practice in Gilded Age mansions to incorporate period architectural fragments and antiques into a new home, Deering, Chaflin, and Hoffman took this practice to another level. As Isabella Gardner had done while designing Fenway Court, Chalfin began arranging these objects into ensembles in a New York warehouse before plans for the building were conceived. Rybczynski writes: “… Chalfin created individual room settings in the warehouse, with temporary walls and ceilings supporting the paneling, door frames, tapestries, paintings, and so on. Hoffman’s daunting task was to integrate these predetermined tableaux into his design, without losing an overall sense of coherence.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 33)

Villa Rezzonico, Bassano del Grappa, C17th

Despite this restriction, Hoffman based his design for Vizcaya on Beaux-Arts principles (a balanced composition, though not perfectly symmetrical in this case), with an overall form borrowed from the 17th century Villa Rezzonico in Bassano del Grappa (see photo above). Although the façade is derived from the Italian Baroque, Vizcaya is planned around a Spanish-style central courtyard, and its various parts are held together by the continuity of Spanish-style terracotta tiles (also referencing the locally popular “Mediterranean” style). In a concession to the Florida climate, Hoffman and Deering included partially exposed arcades and loggias as well as the courtyard, both in order to regulate airflow but also to carefully control the relationship between inside and outside. The first floor public spaces were designed in a processional circuit around the central courtyard, while bedrooms for Deering, guests, and servants were located on floors above. The materials used were not, of course, Baroque or Renaissance materials, but included walls of concrete and local stone, as well as modern concrete floors reinforced with steel I-beams.

Ground Floor plan arranged in a processional sequence around the central Spanish-style courtyard. From the entrance at the bottom, guests proceeded to the Entrance Hall, then either into the Library or straight into the Reception Room, before proceeding up to the Renaissance Hall-styled Living Room.

The Entrance Hall includes real marble on the floor but fake "marbling" on the walls.

The Marie Antionette-styled Reception Room.

The interior of Vizcaya was a tour de force of Gilded Age taste – guests proceeded from the French 18th century Neoclassical entrance hall to the 18th century Robert Adam-inspired Library to the French Marie Antoinette-styled Salon (with a Venetian plaster ceiling), to arrive finally in the Renaissance Living Room. The latter space (see image below) embodies Chaflin’s eclectic design ideals – despite central heating throughout, the room’s focus is a massive French Renaissance fireplace (the height of which decided the room’s proportions). Above it, timber ceiling beams from a Venetian palazzo were extended to fit the room, and to one side sits a large (modern) pipe organ with doors made from a 17th century Neapolitan painting (cut in two vertically so the doors can open), while a further unlikely juxtaposition is a pair of electric candelebras mounted onto ancient Roman columns sitting either side of the door. Upstairs, each bedroom is a “themed” space, with Deering’s own an 18th century Neoclassical room, while guests could inhabit a Rococo room, a Chinoiserie room or a Biedermeier room. Of the interiors, Chalfin proudly wrote, “hardly a piece of contemporaneous furniture has found a place in any of its rooms, nor a single commercial lighting fixture; not a material has been purchased from a dealer’s stock, not a fringe, not a tassel.” (Chalfin, article on Vizcaya in Architectural Review, 1917, quoted in Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 91) Not surprisingly perhaps, the interiors of Vizcaya were inward-looking spaces, with little or no emphasis on connection with outside (despite the potential vistas from each room). Instead, guests could test their level of connoisseurship, or simply marvel at the intense colors, profuse textures, sumptuous materials and opulent surfaces.

French Renaissance fireplace in the "Living Room"

Dining Room with electric candelabras set onto antique columns.

James Deering's Napoleonic Neoclassicist bedroom.

While Chalfin, like most Gilded Age decorators, sought out objects with historical or cultural pedigree (wrought-iron gates from the Venetian Palazzo Pisani, or 16th century tapestries that once belonged to Robert Browning), he wasn’t above incorporating recent reproductions too, as well as antiques that were visibly “imperfect” (broken or weathered with age) – in fact, such imperfections added to the desired atmosphere. The exterior façade, for example, was roughly plastered so as to give it a rusticated appearance, and one hundred-year-old, irregular roof tiles imported from Cuba looked suitably old (apparently Chalfin was angry when workers started cleaning them). On the one hand, Vizcaya’s patina of history embodies the anxiety of the newly wealthy – here, appropriating European aristocratic traditions and creating the appearance of an ancestral home filled with objects accumulated over generations – on the other, it also implicitly critiques the strict chronological periodization of history favored by 20th century academics and museums. The Metropolitan Museum, for example, began exhibiting “period rooms” in 1903 with the purchase of a bedroom from Pompeii, while later purchases included a Baroque reception room from a Venetian palazzo, and an Italian Renaissance studiolo. In contrast to Vizcaya, these were “authentic” assemblages of furnishings and decorative details consistent with historical “truth” and supposedly representative of their respective periods. In contrast, Vizcaya represented not simply an appropriation of one particular European historical style, but, as Rybczynski argues, an attempt to “re-create the sweep of history.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 56) In contemporary terms, we might refer to it as a “high style Euro mashup”.

Beyond the villa, the formal garden was Italian in inspiration, but no less eclectic in its historical borrowings. Columbian-born landscape designer, Diego Saurez, was contracted to design the gardens, and was particularly well versed in Italian garden design given he spent some years studying and working in Italy. Beyond the various Italian and other European historical references, Laurie Olin writes that the garden was also a vast modern engineering project, as it “was completely built upon a costly structure of concrete walls, fill, dredging, embankments, revetments, manufactured soils, piping, wiring, bridges, walls, stairs, tanks, and basins.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 179) As well as the extensive garden with its statues, grottoes, rusticated walls, and comprehensive plantings, Saurez also designed a stone “barge” that sat in the bay beside the house, and functioned as both a breakwater and a picturesque picnic spot accessible by a Venetian gondola. Olin argues that Suarez was “working in a Classical language, not looking backward and copying, but looking forward and creating new things with a vocabulary and set of typological motifs ... as with the main house, this is not copying Classical architecture, but rather performing it.” (Rybczynski & Olin, 2007: 195)

View from the house of the stone breakwater/barge .

The indoor/outdoor pool. Deering had an Otis elevator installed beside his bedroom which went directly down to the pool level.

The performance was perhaps never truly finished – although the house was complete by 1916 and the formal garden by 1921, there was the larger property, including the working farm and its buildings, and the ongoing maintenance. In 1925, after only a few years enjoying his creation, Deering died, and his nieces inherited the property. Chalfin continued his involvement in the project, overseeing repairs after a hurricane in the 1930s, but unfortunately publicly excluded both Hoffman and Suarez from credit for the design of Vizcaya, and claiming all the credit for himself. After the nieces sold much of the land in 1945, the house and garden was finally sold to Dade County and opened as a museum in 1952. By this time, it was well and truly a relic from a past era, although in many ways it was already an anachronism before it began in 1914. By this time, Art Nouveau designers in Europe and Frank Lloyd Wright in the US, had created integrated interior designs that were stylistically consistent, spatially innovative, and freed from the burden of history, while architects associated with the Deutsche Werkbund in Germany (such as Peter Behrens, Henri Van de Velde, Bruno Taut, and Walter Gropius) were developing early modernist designs and theories that would soon sweep away earlier historical performances.

With its emphasis on taste, distinction and highly skilled craftsmanship, a project such as Vizcaya could be understood as a belated aesthetic resistance against a bourgeoning industrial culture that included ever-increasing mass production and consumption of household furnishings and decoration. But Vizcaya’s design does not represent simply a rejection of modernity, as Deering insisted that the latest technologies be incorporated into the villa’s design, including an electric telephone exchange, burglar alarm, central heating, an Otis elevator, and a synchronized central clock system. Additionally, Deering’s estate was designed for the modern man of leisure, and thus included a swimming pool, bowling alley, as well as several boats for day trips, fishing and longer journeys. Of course, it was as a space of leisure for the master of the house and his guests, while the servants, who numbered up to thirty for the house alone, were discreetly designed out of sight. Finally, from a contemporary perspective, we could view Vizcaya’s appropriated history and tradition as the logical flipside of modernity, and its ghostly spectre of pleasure and sensual delight a provocative foil to modernism’s ascetic functionalism. Chalfin expressed this sensual provocation in an article on Vizcaya a 1917 issue of Architectural Review, and its melancholic tone seems appropriate, even today: “Someone seems to lurk here, wearing creamy old satin, looking into dim mirrors at strings of pearls and corals upon a narrow and corseted bosom, ready with facile musical sighs.” (Chalfin, quoted in Aslet, 1990: 275)


Aslet, Clive, The American Country House, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.

Rybczynski, Witold and Laurie Olin, Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers, University of Pennsylvannia Press, Philadelphia, 2007.

Exterior photographs of Vizcaya by D.J. Huppatz.