James Deering (1859–1925) was a retired millionaire and a bachelor in his early fifties when he undertook the challenge to build an elaborate estate in South Florida. He was afflicted with pernicious anemia, a condition for which doctors recommended sunshine and a warm climate: Vizcaya became the place where he hoped to restore his health. He loved sailing and boating—he owned three yachts—and was greatly interested in landscaping and plant conservation. Both hobbies were to play an important role in the design of Vizcaya. The project began modestly, but it grew to become the engrossing pastime of the last years of Deering’s life.
James Deering was born in South Paris, Maine, the son of William Deering and his second wife, Clara Hammond Deering. William Deering, who had inherited a family woolen mill, invested in land in the western United States and financially backed the development of agricultural machinery to make his property more valuable. In 1873, he moved his family to Illinois and assumed control of a farm equipment manufacturer, renaming it the Deering Harvester Company. Deering Harvester enabled farmers to harvest an acre of grain in an hour—a dramatic increase in productivity that allowed commercial agriculture in the West to be more profitable. As more reapers were sold, Deering’s land investments grew in value, and, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Deerings became one of America’s wealthiest families.
James attended Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before joining the Deering Harvester Company in 1880. By the turn of the century, James Deering owned homes on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago and in nearby Evanston, as well as in New York City and at Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris. His name appeared in social columns as an active partygoer, traveler and cultural ambassador, hosting visiting French dignitaries at his homes in New York and Chicago. For his work in promoting agricultural technology, James Deering received the French Legion of Honor in 1906.
In 1902, in a deal brokered by banker J.P. Morgan, the Deering Harvester Company merged with the McCormick Reaper Company and others to form International Harvester, the largest producer of agricultural machinery in the nation. James Deering became vice-president of the firm, charged with oversight of the Illinois manufacturing plants.
As William Deering’s health weakened, the family began spending winters in St. Augustine, Florida. By 1910, however, William Deering purchased land and built a home in Coconut Grove, just south of Miami. In 1912, James Deering began to plan his own house on Biscayne Bay.
Deering’s health began to fail even before Vizcaya was completed. He enjoyed several winters at the estate and, in September 1925, Deering died onboard the steamship Paris en route to the United States. Deering left Vizcaya to his half-brother Charles (1852–1927).