Main House

A Modern Interpretation of 18th-Century Italy

Vizcaya, the winter residence of James Deering (1859–1925), was built between 1914 and 1922 in the Coconut Grove area of Miami. The estate was entirely surrounded by subtropical forest—the Main House and the formal gardens appeared as a dreamlike vision in the midst of the jungle on the shores of Biscayne Bay. Today, Vizcaya is an oasis of silence and green, miraculously preserved just south of Miami’s modern skyline.

Vizcaya was conceived as a modern and subtropical interpretation of an eighteenth-century Italian villa, in particular, the country estates of the Veneto region of northern Italy. Its designers adapted traditional Mediterranean architectural elements to the subtropical climate with a remarkable sensibility for environmental issues. The heart and main living area of the house is the Courtyard, which was originally open to the sky.

The house was designed to take full advantage of its location on Biscayne Bay. Deering wanted Vizcaya to be approached and seen from the sea, and the east façade on the bay is the most monumental and the only symmetrical one—it opens onto a wide terrace that descends toward the water.

The other sides of the house have unique relationships with the surrounding grounds. The west façade, which has greeted visitors since Deering’s time, is simple and contrasts with Vizcaya’s elaborate interiors. The north façade accommodates one of Vizcaya’s most delightful inventions—the swimming pool that emerges from vaulted arches at the lower level of the house. The south façade opens onto the formal gardens with enclosed loggias on the first and second floors.

The Main House’s architecture could be explored at greater depths in a story post, to which this page could link.

Vizcaya’s Swimming Pool

The north façade of the Main House accommodates one of Vizcaya’s most delightful inventions—the swimming pool that emerges from vaulted arches at the lower level of the house.

Inside the House

On the first floor, several reception rooms, the Library, the Music Room, and the Dining Room surround the Courtyard. The second floor housed Deering’s personal suite of rooms and guest bedrooms as well as a Breakfast Room and the Kitchen.

The interiors of the Main House were meant to suggest the passing of time and the layered accumulation of artifacts and memories. The rooms were designed around objects acquired in Italy and assembled into new compositions by Vizcaya’s artistic director Paul Chalfin.

At Vizcaya, the reference to the past was coupled with an enthusiastic embrace of technology, modernity and comfort. Regardless of its Baroque appearance, Vizcaya was a very modern house. Many are surprised to learn that It was built largely of reinforced concrete, with the latest technology of the period, such as generators and a water filtration system. Vizcaya was also equipped with heating and ventilation, two elevators, a dumbwaiter, a central vacuum-cleaning system and a partly automated laundry room.

Both the house’s aesthetic significance and modern efficiency were celebrated in architectural and engineering magazines of the time. 

Art Collections in the House

The rooms in the Main House were designed around pieces of furniture, paneling and architectural elements such as gates and fireplaces. Every object contributes to the decorative context of the room in which it resides. As such, the objects and interiors played an important role in determining the architecture of the house.

Chalfin was an expert in Italian furniture and interiors, and the rooms in the Main House reflect his interest in different periods of history. The eighteenth century was the main inspiration for Vizcaya—ranging from the asymmetrical and highly inventive Rococo to the more linear and austere Neoclassical style.

The content in the following paragraph could be repurposed as captions for the gallery below.

Chalfin also wanted to evoke the style of different Italian cities, and so Vizcaya has rooms inspired by Milan (Music Room), Palermo (Reception Room) and Venice (the Cathay and Espagnolette bedrooms). In Deering’s personal suite, Chalfin assembled masculine, but yet ornate, furniture of the Napoleonic era, while in the Living Room and Dining Room he followed the fashion for “modern” Renaissance interiors popular among art collectors in Europe and the United States.

Chalfin was not interested in historical consistency and he was skilled at integrating new elements of his own design into old artifacts, creating eclectic ensembles. Vizcaya was, after all, designed as a vacation house, and the décor is consistently playful and whimsical.

Nonetheless, today, Vizcaya has one of the most significant collections of Italian furniture in the United States.

Historic Light Fixture Restoration

Through the support of American Express and The Villagers, Vizcaya Museum and Garden’s Collections Care division was able to restore two pairs of historic light fixtures that adorn the south and east facades of Vizcaya’s main house. Vizcaya’s Conservator, Lauren Hall, discusses the process, from assessment to reinstallation.

The Main House’s preservation could be explored at greater depths in a story post, to which this page could link.

Main House Preservation and Conservation

Thanks to grants provided by American Express and The Villagers, Vizcaya has completed treatment of two pairs of ornate metal and glass light fixtures that adorn the south and east façades of the Main House. A century of exposure to the marine environment took a toll on these decorative, functional objects. Vizcaya contracted Rosa Lowinger & Associates, a conservation firm with studios in Miami and Los Angeles, to lead a team of conservators, metal smiths, electricians, engineers and glass fabricators to bring these fixtures back to their former glory. Research revealed an unexpected bronze-colored paint was originally applied to the fixtures. Conservation included cleaning, corrosion removal, loss compensation and repair, refinishing, re-wiring, replacement of broken glass and reinstallation, as well as the development of a de-install method for removal and storage during hurricane season.

A series of preservation assessments conducted between 2005-2012 informs the prioritization of conservation at Vizcaya. Vizcaya was awarded a highly competitive grant from the federal government’s Institute of Museum and Library Services in 2010 to undertake a survey of art objects, many of which are integral to the architecture of the Main House. Conservators with expertise as varied as Vizcaya’s collections conducted research at the estate to develop a preliminary long-term conservation plan. Projects are addressed as resources are available.