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Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Keeping the Partridge Table

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    The Animals of Vizcaya

    The wild, the domesticated, the representational

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

    A particularly distraught James Deering, Vizcaya’s owner, sent a pleading telegram from Vizcaya to his artistic director Paul Chalfin on February 2, 1915:


    Keep in mind that telegrams were sent in all capital letters, so reading too far into nuance, whether joking or truly desperate, is difficult. The fact that Deering—one of the wealthiest Americans of his day—was “WILLING SACRIFICE ANY ARTICLES” is telling. Vizcaya, before modern mosquito suppression techniques, was miserably abuzz. The little biters have plagued South Floridians forever; even the rich fall prey.

    The encroachment of natural pests on Deering, the Miami pioneer (and native Midwesterner) is an entertaining saga. A year before this telegram, the plague facing Vizcaya was land crabs. When looking for a solution that didn’t involve poisoning the invading crustaceans, Deering asked Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher what to do about the abundant scourge of crabs; Fisher’s suggestion was to build a four- to five-foot wall. When explaining this possible solution to his employees, Deering noted, with some confusion, “This is hard to understand.”

    Coming across these accounts in Vizcaya’s archives raises the question: what was the animal world’s footprint at Vizcaya? We can assume, given its subtropical setting, that there were pests and other natural visitors, but Vizcaya also utilized domesticated beasts for food, companionship and manual labor. What faunae roamed the grounds? And what presence do animals have in the object collection?

    The native landscape of Florida was vibrant with life. Imagine birds humming through the brush, the squeak of insects and rodents, scampering deer, and the occasional mega fauna such as bears or big cats lurking carefully for their next meal. The great American artist John Singer Sargent, a guest at Vizcaya in 1917, sketched alligators here. A hundred years ago the massive reptiles laid their eggs heavily in Biscayne Bay’s mangrove muck. Artists then and now have found inspiration in Vizcaya’s setting, disproving Sargent’s proclamation that “palmettos and alligators don’t make interesting pictures.” Despite his disinterest, the sketches and watercolors Sargent made during his time at Vizcaya remain a powerful and beautiful testament to South Florida’s natural world. Unfortunately none of his Vizcaya pieces are in the museum’s collection.

    Nevertheless, animals are well represented within the walls of Vizcaya. There are several examples of mythical beasts in the object collection, including the fabled Chinese Foo Dog, a mythic guardian lion, which is found in four earthenware pieces in front of the Breakfast Room.

    Of the many non-mythical animals found carved and painted and otherwise replicated in and around the Main House, one of the most prominent is the valiant seahorse.

    A disagreement between Deering and Chalfin about what symbol the great house should carry resulted in one of the ocean’s most noble creatures dotted throughout Vizcaya. Its curled tail floats on the walls and ceilings swimming through the estate, creating a potent symbol.

    Deering wanted the caravel of his fantasy Spanish explorer Vizcaino to be the dominant symbol of the house, but Chalfin pushed for the seahorse, arguing that it was a nod to the fact that, “the old gentleman [Vizcaino] was as you say, a sea horse.” The two never properly settled their difference of opinion in the letters in Vizcaya’s archives, but Chalfin clearly prevailed. The caravel ship appears in some impressive places—such as the finials in the garden and the magnificently crafted 1916 model in the East Loggia made by Henry Culver, a New York-based model maker and lawyer. Chalfin thought the caravel model was a major success. But while the caravel makes guest appearances, the seahorse’s presence could be likened to a small herd.

    Chalfin managed to introduce seahorses into the scheme of the house wherever he could. In addition to the two Forecourt Gates, which each feature a pair of large seahorse embellishments designed by Chalfin and carved out of native coral rock on top of ironwork by Samuel Yellin, there is a massive, Chalfin-designed raised gilded seahorse painted on the ceiling of Deering’s Sitting Room. It is rumored that Deering spent nearly eighty-five percent of his time in this room while at Vizcaya, so despite his preference for the caravel, the seahorse swam above his head in the room he was in the most. The Main House itself is topped with a subtly majestic seahorse weathervane that watches over the grounds. The weathervane was created by blacksmith Samuel Yellin, who also made several other items for Vizcaya.

    Then there is the ceiling of Vizcaya’s Dining Room—a fascinating maze that incorporates the equine sea creatures. It was inspired by a labyrinth ceiling in the Palazzo Ducale di Mantova in Italy, the royal residence of the powerful Gonzaga family, which ruled Mantua for nearly four hundred years. The palazzo’s Hall of Labyrinth room bears a massive gilded maze with the family’s inscription and the words “forse che si, forse che no” (“maybe yes or maybe no”) painted within the lines of the maze. For the Gonzagas, the maze was a family emblem and a heraldic claim to power. In Vizcaya’s grand ceiling Chalfin introduced seahorses, snakes and olive branches in place of the noncommittal Italian phrase in the original.

    Despite the abundance of seahorses and other species represented in the collection, the presence of animals is most evident the letters and photos in Vizcaya’s archives. Animals, like their owners, die. But we know dogs, monkeys, birds and iguanas frolicked amongst the grounds from documentation in the archives.

    There are pictures of several unnamed best friends among the extensive papers. There is also a fascinating advertisement from House & Garden magazine mailed to Chalfin in 1917 claiming a dog to be good “protection during war times.” America had joined the Great War two months earlier; the advertisement serves as a reminder that while Deering was building his subtropical paradise on Biscayne Bay, the First World War raged across the Atlantic, anfd it was surely the talk of society on most days.

    The wartime protection advertisement arrived at Vizcaya four days after a note from Chalfin to a pet cemetery, making a donation for upkeep.  And on June 18, 1917, Chalfin received a telegfram about the convulsions and death of “Irene.” The name Irene is not instantly familiar even to those Vizcaya staffers well versed in the correspondence of the estate’s construction, but the archives reveal her identity. That same day a terse response came from Chalfin to “dispose of monkey as best you see fit.”

    Yes, there were monkeys— simian amusement—at Vizcaya. One close-up picture remains (it is unknown if this is Irene), but most of the letters on the subject seem to revolve around where and how to house the monkeys. A hand-drawn sketch by Phineas Paist, assistant architect at Vizcaya and one of the primary architects responsible for the initial construction of Coral Gables, depicts the location of the monkeys in 1917—apparently they were housed alongside a menagerie of birds in the Vizcaya Village, where most of the domesticated animals were housed. The sketch also suggests relocating the monkeys.

    Apparently Chalfin was not fond of monkeys, because he responded with vehemence to the sketch. He deemed the placement too close to an area known for children’s affinity to play, writing definitively, “I vetoed this idea at once, for it seems to me nothing is more unsuitable for a children’s play yard than the obscene presence of monkeys.”  The monkeys were eventually moved to an island in the South Lagoon (the island, which came to be called “Monkey Island,” was originally part of Vizcaya but no longer exists).

    In addition to being hand drawn by an important Miami pioneer, this sketch is interesting for confirming the presence at Vizcaya of caged birds not used for sustenance. Paist’s sketch shows an owl, two macaws and two doves near the unappreciated monkeys.

    Despite the caged birds, the archives reveal Deering to be quite adverse to birds—even paintings of them. Before settling on the decorative screen Vizcayan Bay by renowned artist Robert Winthrop Chanler, Deering had been sent a Chanler screen painted with birds, which he rejected, allegedly because he was “not particularly fond of bird pictures.”

    Indeed, when Deering learned in 1915 that Chalfin was planning to have free-roaming birds inside the Main House he flatly stated in a letter:

    I do not believe that we can keep any kind of birds other than domestic birds about the place without cages, and do not know that you propose this. I greatly fear that I could never reconcile myself to having inside the house birds that make any kind of noise. Perhaps I may state the idea by saying that I have habituated myself into a strong prejudice against the harsh notes, or indeed any notes, of birds.

    But eventually Deering changed his song, at least to a degree.  Much mention is made in documents in the archives of a project to breed domesticated pigeons on the property. James enlisted the help of his half-brother, Charles Deering, an avid naturalist, and purchased ten birdhouses from Charles’s estate in South Miami. An August 1918 letter from an unnamed superintendent at Vizcaya referenced165 pure white king pigeons, a number up from merely twenty a year earlier, but that winter the pigeons died because of  a parasite, which caused Deering to squelch the plan entirely the following December.

    Soon thereafter, Deering lamented the absence of the macaws in a 1919 letter to Chalfin. Perhaps in homage to yesterday’s macaws, there is a birdcage displayed on the second floor of the Main House, its beautifully crafted bars of dark green today housing no avian friends. The piece is an ornately crafted iron and wood Venetian piece, listed as “very rare and elaborate,” in Vizcaya’s purchase ledger. Not much else is known about the birdcage, but its empty presence seems symbolic of a partially lost natural world.

    These days at Vizcaya the invasive iguanas still scamper by and the manatees occasionally loll in the bay, but the cacophony of monkeys, birds and dogs is left to our imagination. The animals of Vizcaya, as represented in the archives and the object collection, offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily existence of those who lived and worked at the estate in Deering’s time. Through the animals encountered and cared for at Vizcaya, we can touch upon the world of early twentieth century Miami and can unfold mesmerizing realities about a magical place crawling with life. 

    Keeping the Partridge Table is not finished exploring the natural world at Vizcaya. Still to come: farm beasts and the buildings that housed them, as well as the living collection, which includes plants still thriving from the estate’s inception. Check back soon for more on the animals and plants of Vizcaya.

    —July 2015

    For more information on the series “Keeping the Partridge Table,” contact