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Building Vizcaya

Building Vizcaya construction Building Vizcaya construction

Deering began to purchase the land for Vizcaya in 1910 from Mary Brickell; and that same year he made his first trip to Italy to acquire antiquities with Paul Chalfin. In 1912, Deering purchased an additional 130 acres of land and construction on the site began in the following year. The estate’s construction was not completed until 1922.

As the project began, it became immediately apparent that the location presented enormous challenges. This was especially the case because Deering wanted the house built close to and visible from the water, resulting in the elevated, reinforced terraces that surround it. The Main House would have been easier, safer and less costly to build on the elevated ridge several hundred feet inland, but Deering insisted on preserving the rockland hammock (native forest) that covered it. This important decision linked Vizcaya intimately and dramatically to both Biscayne Bay and the local landscape. 

Deering built a railroad track to connect with the Florida East Coast Railway to transport building materials to the site. He also dredged a channel in the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay to allow boats to deliver passengers, supplies, furnishings and works of art. A stationary steam engine pulled materials in wagons on tracks snaking through the site.

The primary building material was reinforced concrete, but Deering opened quarries to provide the local coral stone so prevalent in the estate’s architectural details. Deering and Chalfin continued to acquire artifacts for the Main House and gardens from Europe, and they also commissioned sculptures, murals and architectural elements from contemporary artists based in the United States.

About a thousand individuals may have been involved in creating Vizcaya, with several hundred workers employed at the height of construction. These included Bahamian stonemasons from Coconut Grove and stonecutters and craftsmen from the Northeast United States and Europe.

When World War I started in August 1914, labor and materials became increasingly scarce, posing another challenge for the estate’s completion. It took almost three years to build the Main House, which was opened at the end of 1916, and construction of the gardens and Village continued until 1922, with Deering becoming increasingly frustrated over his investment of time and money. By the time of Vizcaya’s completion, Deering had spent several million dollars on his subtropical vacation home.