Diving into the Design of the Swimming Pool Grotto

One of a kind

Vizcaya’s Swimming Pool Grotto is one of the most distinctive and engaging spaces at the estate. It’s also easy to miss. The grotto is tucked away between the Vizcaya Café and Shop and the Orchidarium on the North side of the Main House. An indoor-outdoor space, half of the pool is nestled underneath the first floor of the Main House, directly under the Living Room to be exact. From any vantage point outdoors, visitors can look down to the pool and peer inside the grotto. In real life, or virtually, the space is a sight to be seen. 

The swimming pool grotto functioned as a decorated room with antique furniture, stained-glass doors, decorative wall sconces and a boldly patterned marble floor. The grotto was conceived of as part of the original design of the Main House, which was completed in 1916, but was later embellished by the tremendous ornamental ceiling mural that hovers over pool. According to Vizcaya’s archives, the mural took an additional year to complete and was finished in early 1917.

Vizcaya is the result of a creative team of people, with a variety of expertise. Paul Chalfin was Vizcaya’s artistic director, working closely with Vizcaya’s owner James Deering, recommending artists for commission to contribute to the design of the estate. The grotto and the ceiling mural are one of Vizcaya’s most celebrated historic commissions. 

An underwater fantasy

An immersive and highly decorative space, the grotto was intended to make the visitor feel submerged in water. This effect was magnified by the ceiling mural that hovers over the pool, created by American artist Robert Winthrop Chanler. 

The scene is an underwater fantasy that includes plaster casts of seashells, alongside fish, marine plants and coral. One hundred years ago the scales of the fish shimmered due to Chanler’s use of metallic paint and the reflection of the pool water.

Chanler created the mural with painted plaster, a poor choice for Vizcaya’s sub-tropical marine environment. In 1992, 2005 and 2017 hurricane storm surges submerged the mural and grotto. Preservation of Chanler’s ceiling is a challenge and priority, since the mural is one of only two in the United States that still exist and are accessible to the public.

The Man Behind the Mural

During October 2014, Vizcaya hosted a two-day symposium examining the life of the great American muralist responsible for the Swimming Pool Grotto’s ceiling mural.

As Chanler’s work is equally unique in approach and subject matter as it is in use of materials, the program brought together professionals who have studied Chanler from a variety of perspectives. The symposium was the first of its kind and a groundbreaking contribution to the understanding of Chanler’s oeuvre and the unique conservation approaches his work necessitates.

Dive deeper into the man behind the mural with the playlist below, which features all the different lectures from the symposium.


Want to get a close look at Vizcaya’s Swimming Pool Grotto? Check out the virtual tour.


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