North American Experience – Day 1: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a beautiful Renaissance-style estate located on the outskirts of Miami, was the first stop on our week-long journey to the public gardens of South Florida.  When we arrived at the front gate this morning, we were welcomed by Ian Simpkins, Vizcaya’s Chief Horticulturist, who oriented us to the garden’s history and spent the next several hours touring us around the 54-acre estate.

One of the first views we saw as we entered Vizcaya.

One of the first views we saw as we entered Vizcaya.

Vizcaya was built between 1914 and 1916 as the winter residence of James Deering, native Chicagoan and Vice President of the International Harvester Corporation. Deering initially purchased 180 acres of land upon which to build his estate, paying the then-exorbitant sum of $1000 per acre. At the time, Miami was little more than a wilderness outpost, with a population of only 10,000 living among extensive black and red mangrove swamps.

The mansion as viewed from Biscane Bay.

The mansion as viewed from Biscane Bay.

Vizcaya has been a public garden and museum since the mid-1950s, when Miami-Dade County purchased the estate from Deering’s nieces. Today, the garden welcomes 180,000 visitors per year, and serves as one of Miami’s most well-regarded public horticulture institutions.

Our host, Ian Simpkins, shows Jon part of Viscaya's orchid collection, which includes over 4,000 specimens.

Our host, Ian Simpkins, shows Jon part of Viscaya's orchid collection, which includes over 4,000 specimens.

Vizcaya’s natural beauty owes much to James Deering’s ethic of environmental conservation. Unlike most other wealthy landowners of the era, Deering chose to preserve much of the native woodland located on his estate. To this day, the tropical hardwood forest, known as a rockland hammock, lends Vizcaya’s landscape a unique and beautifully lush quality. The Miami Rock Ridge, a coral-based limestone formation, forms the area’s geological substrate and enables this locally-endemic forest type to thrive.

A blue crab peeks out from behind cascading fountains.

A blue crab peeks out from behind cascading fountains.

Deering hired several experts to direct the design and construction of his estate. F. Burrall Hoffman, architect, designed the mansion and other buildings; Diego Suarez, noted garden designer, created the landscapes; and the landscape architect Paul Chalfin served as artistic supervisor of the entire endeavor. The mansion and its surrounding gardens were built in a style reminiscent of French and Italian late Renaissance design, and were furnished with European artifacts and statuary Deering collected on his trips abroad.

Apollo posing with Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia).

Apollo posing with Australian pine (Casuarina equisetifolia).

The Center Garden, located just to the east of the mansion, serves as a main focal point in the landscape. Its central feature is an elongated central pool flanked by an allee of stately live oak (Quercus virginiana) trees and twin parterres of orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata). At the far end of the garden is a multi-tiered fountain behind which is an Italianate garden structure known as a casino.

Stairway

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Vizcaya, and only wish we could have stayed longer! As it was, we had to get on the road to travel to our next destination, the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden.

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3 Responses to North American Experience – Day 1: Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

  1. Zoe Panchen says:

    Looks like your trip is off to a good start! Viscaya reminds me of Nemours in some respects!

  2. Kate B says:

    Sounds like ya’ll are off to a great start…I love the pic of the crab in the fountain. Can’t wait for Key West-Have fun! Are there bats in Florida?

  3. Laura says:

    I’m having a hard time imagining Miami as a wilderness outpost.

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