Miami is the place to go if you want some fun in the sun and frolicking on the beach, but it’s also full of historical places that are worthy of your attention. There are a little more than a dozen of these notable historical landmarks in Miami, but the one treasure that stands out foremost in the minds of many visitors and residents alike is Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.
Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, located at 3251 South Miami Avenue in the north Coconut Grove area, is one of the most magnificent museums in the continental United States, as it contains an extremely important collection of artwork and historic artifacts unique among such collections. Additionally, the glorious exterior of the main house was constructed with local coquina limestone, yet has the timelessness of Florence, the gaiety of the Rococo and the glory of Rome combined in one grand design.
An interesting fact about this estate is as follows: half-brothers Charles and James Deering, sons of wealthy industrialist William Deering, with Charles’ mother being Abbey Reed Barbour and James’ mother being William’s second wife, Clara Hammond Deering, both fell in love with the tropical landscape of Southeast Florida, as many people do, as their father had a winter home in Coconut Grove. After their father’s death they both built their monumental estates in the area: Charles constructed the Deering Estate and James developed Vizcaya.
James, a member of the social elite and an antiquities collector, left a legacy that has enthralled many and will do so for generations. He developed one of the most beautiful places on earth. Consisting of 180 acres on Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the European-inspired estate included the Main House, ten acres of formal gardens, lagoons and islands to the south, and a village that had fruit groves, vegetable and flower gardens and staff residences. Today, this National Historic Landmark preserves 50 acres, 10 acres which includes the European-inspired formal gardens, and 40 acres of native hardwood hammock. The villa's museum contains 34 rooms of distinctive architectural interiors decorated with numerous antiques, with an art and furnishing collection that spans 2,000 years.
Construction began in 1914 and took two years to complete, with Deering wintering there from 1916 until his death in 1925. Vizcaya is distinguished for its Italian Renaissance-inspired Mediterranean Revival architecture gardens, and a lavishly designed, detailed, and executed interior containing architectural elements with European, Asian, and American furnishings, art and antiquities that span two millennia. The numerous sculptures in the gardens and main house are of ancient Greek, Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance, and origins and the styles reflect James' desire to showcase art along with indigenous natural beauty. Unlike other historic house museums, Vizcaya contains the original antiques, furnishings and art thanks to its Deering’s heirs, who allowed this to happen as long as the estate is used as a public museum in perpetuity.
Designated a National Historic Landmark since 1994, Vizcaya’s expansive skylighted courtyard overlooking Biscayne Bay has been undergoing a restoration. This renovation included installing a minimalist glass canopy to replace the protruding glass-and-steel pyramid that has covered the courtyard since the mid-1980s. The canopy now lets in more natural light and is coated to block out heat and ultraviolet radiation.
This $2.7 million project was completed as part of a $50 million renovation of the museum. Joel Hoffman, Executive Director of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, discusses this renovation of the skylight in Vizcaya’s Main House.
Marla E. Schwartz: How will the renovation of the courtyard skylight be different from its previous incarnation?
Joel Hoffman: Vizcaya was built as a winter home and, after it became a public museum, operations extended year-round. Although South Florida is known for its appealing climate, the heat, humidity, sunlight and salt air don’t exactly make for a museum-quality environment. Vizcaya’s Courtyard was first covered in the 1980s to protect the collection from destructive natural elements. At the same time, air conditioning was installed in the house, providing substantially improved conditions for our collections and those who came to see them throughout the year. Conservators recently conducted a comprehensive survey of our interior collections and the good news is that our artworks and furnishings appear to be stable. So our predecessors did a wonderful service for Vizcaya, our community and the art world at large by undertaking that project more than 25 years ago.
We decided it was time to replace the original skylight because it was leaking and not compliant with Miami-Dade County’s stringent hurricane requirements, put in place after Hurricane Andrew. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted us $1.4 million toward this project, with the balance of funding coming from Miami-Dade County’s Building Better Communities General Obligation Bond. We also were excited about building a new skylight that would be more sympathetic to Vizcaya’s historic architecture.
While we can’t re-open the Courtyard to the exterior, we focused our redesign efforts on making the new skylight as transparent as possible. We’d like to think our visitors will feel like they’re standing outside when they’re in the Courtyard under the new skylight. We know that’s not possible beneath an enclosed structure of metal and glass. But, happily, the new skylight will be much lighter and brighter than the first thanks to technological advances. The 2012 skylight, for example, will have glass panels that are about three or four times larger and much clearer, a substantially simpler structure, and a light, off-white surface that we think will blend with the sky far better than the dark brown metal of the original skylight. These qualities should also provide better views of interesting rooftop elements from within the house.
We’re also using this opportunity to install larger, native trees and other plants in the planters that surround the Courtyard. These are based on research into the original plantings in this space and are intended to re-connect the house with the natural forest that surrounds it.
One of the most complicated aspects of this project was devising a system for protecting our architecture, artwork and visitors during construction. The protection began with the installation of plastic dust barriers around the perimeter of the Courtyard and the enclosure of vulnerable artifacts in bubble wrap and plywood. The contractor, Thornton Construction Company, then filled the Courtyard with scaffolding and suspended a plywood wall around its edge to create another layer of protection. A most important part of this structure is the platform that was built atop the scaffolding to provide a place for workers to dismantle the old skylight, repair the roof, and erect the new skylight piece-by-piece. And, yes, the summer was a challenging time to do this project, given the constant threat of rain and hurricanes. To prevent the Courtyard from filling with water, the platform was built with a waterproof membrane and drainage. The evening after the first panels of glass were removed we experienced not only intense Miami showers but also a hailstorm, and miraculously the Courtyard remained dry. After worrying for some time, I realized that evening that I might actually manage a good night’s sleep while the project was underway.
MES: In terms of the renovation, how did the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust choose master planning consultant LORD Cultural Resources and Richard J. Heisenbottle Architects to advise them on the interpretation and development of Vizcaya, with the goal of advancing Vizcaya as an unparalleled heritage site?
JH: LORD Cultural Resources literally “wrote the textbook” on museum master planning. And Richard J. Heisenbottle is an eminent preservation architect with intimate knowledge of local conditions. Together they did a wonderful job of guiding the process to envision an exciting plan for uniting the east and west sides of the Vizcaya property and creating new learning opportunities for residents of and visitors to South Florida. Key to this process was the preservation and presentation of Vizcaya’s tremendous art, historical and environmental assets.
MES: What can people read about in your blog (http://vizcayamuseum.org/learn-updates.asp ) that touches upon the skylight renovation?
JH: My blog provided brief updates on the construction project, with snapshots of the work each week. I also wanted to give our visitors a sense of what to expect when they come to Vizcaya, based on each stage of construction. Thankfully, the most disruptive, noisy work—the demolition of the old skylight and its concrete columns—was completed at the end of June.
Vizcaya is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For more information and exact driving directions go to: http://vizcaya.org/