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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    Maritime Vizcaya – Boats and Boating Culture at the Estate (December 2016)


    Presented by Nathaniel Sandler, Writer,
    with Gina Wouters, Curator

    James Deering spent some of his leisure time piloting around Vizcaya in a 10-foot runabout boat, cutting in and out of the swampy waterways surrounding his estate. One day, the fancy painted little skiff died on him somewhere deep in the mangroves and Deering—who was not pleased with the day’s nautical misfortune—told his staff upon his return to, “go get the thing, I don’t care if you burn it up.” Deering is known to have preferred larger yachting and cruising vessels. It was common knowledge that he had always wanted a bigger boat and he often looked jealously upon his peers with larger yachts than his.

    The wealthy Miami pioneers of the early twentieth century frequently used boats for leisure. Before roads were well established, traversing the city by sea was sometimes a physically easier way to get around. Watercraft could be used for a variety of reasons: leisure, yachting, fishing, racing, shipping, transportation and everyday living. Boats are important to the symbolism of Vizcaya and appear frequently throughout the house. Outside, the Biscayne Bay entrance to the estate is adorned with an immobile 158-foot barge carved from local limestone rock. The sculpture, designed by Alexander Stirling Calder, is by far the most iconic visual symbol of the house and most people familiar with the estate think of the barge as synonymous with Vizcaya.

    Indeed Deering saw the waterfront as the main entrance of the house. In a 1916 letter to Paul Chalfin, the house’s main designer, he mentions their disagreement over the symbol of the house, by asking to put a caravel beacon on a (now nonexistent) sand island in Biscayne Bay for those arriving by boat. Deering wanted the caravel boat to be the primary symbolism of the house, yet Chalfin resisted. In extant blueprint drawings for yacht flags, both the seahorse and the caravel are elaborately illustrated, a maritime reminder that the argument was never properly settled. The massive and ornate 1916 model caravel hangs gracefully in the East Loggia, made by lawyer and model maker Henry Culver, perhaps as an unintended compromise. It would have been one of the first artworks a guest would encounter upon entering the estate from the seaside.

    Thankfully, Vizcaya has a recorded interview with Deering’s boat captain Joseph Santini that offers insight into the maritime activities of the estate. The interview was conducted in 1956 when the captain was 80 years old. Santini was from an “old Key West seafaring family,” and worked at the estate from 1916-1924, taking Deering fishing in the Keys and Shark River, “where Deering loved to fish.” Each year he would arrive in November and stay through April. Twice a year, around the times when he arrived and when he left, Deering let the house staff go on the boats for a cruise.

    Santini and Deering shared the ailment of having a sensitive stomach and spoke of it often. Apparently Deering was very fond of fishing but didn’t have much stamina for it because he was “delicate.” Pictures of Deering on a shark fishing trip survive. According to Santini, Deering was often disturbed by daily stress of building a massive estate in South Florida and he was happiest away from it all onboard a boat. He preferred week long trips or 10-day cruises aboard his yacht Nepenthe.  

    For shorter jaunts, there were smaller boats aplenty, such as the one Deering wanted burnt. Famously there were gondolas at the estate, which Deering requested with a bit of Romanticism in a 1915 letter to Chalfin stating, “we will, of course, have at the place a canoe, in which young lovers or any others can paddle through the canals or anywhere else they wish to go.” According to Santini, the gondola stayed in the Boathouse nearly all the time and in the 8 years he worked at the estate, he never saw Deering aboard.

    The seafaring boats and yachts of Vizcaya have fascinating stories of their own. On April 2, 1914  Chalfin wrote a letter—now quite ominous—aboard the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, about one year before she was scuttled by a German U-boat torpedo. The letter had a list of the kinds of boats that Deering wanted at Vizcaya:

    Here is Mr. Deering’s list of boats.
    He has just bought a small yacht 10-6’ beam 17 tons
    He will have a 30 foot motor boat.
    A small sail boat  
    A sea sled of 30’ 5-½’ beam.
    A (very) small launch for the canals.
    A canoe for two.
    A row boat or two.
    Perhaps a gondola.

    Deering owned at least three christened boats: the Nepenthe, Psyche and Sayonara. The Nepenthe is the yacht Chalfin describes, though he appears to be incorrect about the boat’s footage. From the archives we can glean that the War Department seized the 80-foot houseboat Nepenthe during World War I for undisclosed reasons, but it appears the Navy found little use for her. It’s possible the ship was used to house officers off of Key West, but this cannot be confirmed. The Psyche was a smaller fishing boat primarily used for leisure jaunts in nearby South Florida, while the Sayonara was a racing yacht purchased from Carl Fisher, the father of Miami Beach and founder of the Indianapolis 500.

    Fisher started the Miami Regatta, a boat race intended as a sort of publicity and real estate pitch for the brand new city of Miami Beach to the rest of the country. In the 1915 iteration of the race, Deering won with Sayonara, beating Fisher with his own boat. Two trophies remain in Vizcaya’s collection celebrating her victory. They are a beautiful silver goblet and pitcher combination set with highly stylized script commemorating the event in relief on the sides. Though he never put it in writing, it hard not to imagine Deering taking great pleasure in the victory.

    Fisher appears to have been a major influence on Deering’s nautical life; he consulted on the construction of Vizcaya’s Boathouse. In the same Lusitania letter that lists the boats to be on sight, Chalfin beautifully sketches out the Boathouse from conversations with Fisher. Indeed in an earlier reference to the Boathouse Chalfin suggests it “doubtless ought to be like Mr.Fisher’s,” further showing the sway Fisher had on the boating elite of Miami at the time.

    Chalfin lived aboard a houseboat named Blue Dog that he designed himself during work on the estate. The boat’s name is mentioned incessantly in the estate’s archives, as most of his correspondence was sent there, but one curious citation is in reference to an article Chalfin published about the vessel. He sends a few letters off to the boat builder feeling out the potential for business opportunities to produce more boathouses like the Blue Dog for retail. Unfortunately, the article could not be located, but the fact that his boat stirred this much interest shows that people in Miami were aware of the Blue Dog and it was a fashionable vessel.

    Of course, the business of boats was crucial to the building of an estate such as Vizcaya. Shipping by boat—the S.S. Bacon—brought the massive first shipment of booze to Vizcaya valued at approximately $637,900 in today’s money. During the years that Vizcaya was under construction, Deering established transportation routes over land as well as by sea to enable the estate’s creation. He built a railroad track that connected to the Florida East Coast Railway to transport building materials to the site, and he dredged a channel in Biscayne Bay so that boats could deliver supplies, furnishings, works of art and passengers. The Tiffany & Company dishes on display in the ground floor pantry were the second set made for the house; the other set sank aboard the RMS Titanic. These dishes, along with the letter from the Lusitania, link Vizcaya to the two most famous passenger liner disasters in twentieth century history. Indeed the history of boats on the estate was only very occasionally glorious and was most often met or surrounded by some tragedy.
    In September of 1925 somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, James Deering expired at sea. His home life so highlighted by sea craft and boats also became the place where he took his last breath. Aboard the SS City of Paris and on his way back from France, James Deering passed away. A year later to the day, the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 sank both the Nepenthe and the Psyche along with several smaller watercraft. Though the Nepenthe was salvaged and sold, insurance covered the ships in full and leisure yachting at Vizcaya all but ceased. With the boathouse gone, the only remnants sit on view in the pantry, the service ware for the boats, never to be used again.