tv Sino News Magazine PBS January 30, 2011 8:30pm-9:00pm PST
deering, a lover of the sea insisted on a symbol that harkened back to the days of the great spanish explorers. >> deering had this idea the object was to be the spanish caravel. there are caravels here, there are caravels everywhere. in fact, the great model of a caravel that hangs in the loggia overlooking the bay is that of ponce de leon's ship. everything was the caravel to mr. deering. >> after being charmed by the image of a seahorse, chalfin had his own ideas. soon seahorses appeared in various materials and locations around the property. >> but chalfin, i can almost hear him, "i'm tired of that little boat here, there and everywhere." he liked the seahorse. "so whenever i get the opportunity, i am going to put my seahorse here and there." i always point out the doors, overlooking the gardens, the caravel, but on the either side
the artist genius was not to be left behind. he put a seahorse. both men are satisfied. i don't know if chalfin got the last dig though, because here in mr. deering's sitting room upstairs in the oval ceiling piece, the center cameo, a seahorse not a caravel. >> deering's thoughts were beyond thinking of caravels and seahorses at that point. he was growing tired and impatient. four years had passed since he first conceived of the house. "the various things i have to do," he wrote chalfin, "to keep myselalive and plus the social obligations i canot escape, plus the work i have done on the house have made me tired and nervous." >> considering the great war that was raging in europe,
deering anxiously wondered if his furnishings and artwork would ever make the passage safely. >> deering and chalfin bought in italy mostly, but also in paris and new york and since chalfin had lived in paris they had an extensive network of dealers where they bought statues, objects, furniture and even ceilings and it's pretty extraordinary that everything they bought arrived safe not withstanding the war. >> in december 1916, the barely finished house sat waiting for its ceremonial unveiling.
on christmas day, james deering would arrive by boat for the spectacular opening of his italianate villa. chalfin, the master of pageantry, ordered cannons fired to commemorate the day. in keeping with the renaissance theme guests, were instructed to wear italian peasant costumes. as the champagne flowed and the violins played, friends and family celebrated the debut of this truly extraordinary villa. it was a spectacle that would become legendary. there is a very descriptive magazine article that came out much after the fact talking about it. if that's what really happened, it must have been something. the guests were treated to a visual feast. every room in the home offered treasures, pieces of furniture spoke of pedigree, and tales of their previous owners. in the actual banquet room, the dining room, the tapestries, they belonged to robert and
elizabeth barrett browning when the poet and poetress were of course italian residents for awhile. everything was to bring a feeling of people and personality into the house. upon arrival the visitor passes through the entrance loggia and is greeted by a fountain composition that looks as if it was assembled by an italian connoisseur of the renaissance. atop a marble basin that dates back to the ancient roman empire, stands a 16th century statue of bacchus, the god of wine and hospitality. the adjacent entrance hall is adorned with a neo classic motif. symmetry plays an important role as the geometrically patterned marble floor echoes the coffered ceiling. 19th century french wallpaper panels grace the walls that lead into the library.
>> the adam library is a very important room in the house because it's the first room people enters in. however though it was the room chalfin was the least happy about because it is smaller proportions than other rooms, crowded maybe too many things in it. it's more predictable than other rooms in the house. traveling through the decorated rooms, one finds they are passing through centuries and styles, a course of history from renaissance to neo-classical is revealed throughout the house. the european treasures collected over the years now find their permanent home at vizcaya. the ceiling in the reception room is magnificent from a palazzo in venice. mr. deering sees the ceiling and says "got to have it". the story is that they brought it to this country in 13 section
and the artisans who installed it, installed so perfectly there's not a single crack in 90 years. now it doesn't measure correctly for the ceiling in the room as it was designed so chalfin again an opportunity to actually make it better something that is a european masterpiece builds a cove, ah the cove ceiling all about to draw the walls into the ceiling, the unity of the beautiful artwork that it is. >> dominating the living room is a massive 16th century caen stone fireplace from a castle in normandy, france. the ceiling height at vizcaya was set at 20 feet to accommodate the enormous piece, the single most expensive item purchased for the home. the walnut trestle table in the middle of the great hall was said to have belonged to a great dynasty of the italian renaissance. >> always wanting the feeling of home, deering insisted on a
custom organ. chalfin felt the organ inappropriate for the formal room and disguised the organ pipes by incorporating baroque columns and a 17th century religious painting. house, maybe the courtyards? there's something about this house, maybe the courtyards? i don't know you get this sense of belonging, a sense of being at home when you come here. and the minute you get here, you get the lush, you see the bay. and i think that's part of it. i think it's a unique, welcoming intimate home for the gilded age. >> the east loggia is where james deering would enjoy his view of biscayne bay and watch ships pass in the distance. the room was filled with wicker furniture which encouraged guests to linger and enjoy the morning sunlight. the once open air room is flanked by four pine doors made in the 1830's for the roman palace of the torlonia family.
one of the oldest and most impressive treasures of vizcaya is found in the dining room. a stone-topped table supported by two roman carved lion griffons is said to be from pompeii or herculaneum. the guestrooms upstairs offered an individual adventure and an identity that was all up to chalfin to decide. chalfin named everything and each room had a different name. it's rather interesting because they refer to rather obscure figures of italian history. deering played along because for him these figures were like, i don't know, characters of a goldoni comedy or something else. >> deering was a private man. he had insisted on a large wall that surrounded his property to keep out the curious. but what went on behind the walls led to enormous
speculation. as the great house filled with life, a mythology surrounded deering and his baroque fantasy fables told of vizcaya were palace. fables told of vizcaya were imparted in endless repetition. one story in particular centers around an ornate guests room called espanollette. personally i do not know of a romantic tryst or anything involved but it's just the fact that the room has a door that is totally concealed in the watteau ala watteau. paintings on the wall that wall can be opened to rendezvous on the balcony outside of mr. deering's bath which has an adjoining door from his bedroom, well - what was the intent? perhaps we will never know. it was also a pleasure house. the typical place that creates and stimulates people's fantasies and people you know invention and projections about
wildness even. well there's a lot of silly speculation about his sexual attitudes but you know in earlier periods of history a lot of people never married. you know there were a lot of maiden aunts and uncles and family members. so why didn't he not marry? i don't know. never had the chance, wasn't romantic, kind of stiff and awkward maybe. >> one fact is clear, deering loved his family and the house served as a place where he could enjoy those close to him. >> he loved his nieces, they thought of him as being doting and all those sort of things and somewhat indulgent so and his friends none of them said he was stiff and awkward. it's the public thought he was because he held himself aloof from them. although he may have been elusive at times, deering's good deeds and kindness to his staff and workmen did not go
unnoticed. jj bennett remarked to his daughters that james deering was the kindest man he had ever known. deering's generosity invoked loyalty from his staff and workmen. eustace edgecombe started working for james deering in the garden and continued on as a houseman for well over 50 years. >> my name is william deering edgecombe. my father started working for james deering in 1915 during that era and he loved working here so much he gave me deering as a middle name, and ever since then deering estate was his dream. >> beyond his household duties, eustace soon became the unofficial house historian. >> it was when people came to visit, if you wanted to know anything about the house, you
would call eustace edgecombe and he could tell you. the way the house was built you figure how can anybody have that much money to build a house like this and it just a beautiful place. paul chalfin once said "vizcaya had not to wait for the passage of centuries to invest her with memories and legends." soon after her debut, the estate was already making history as notables of the day were invited to pay a visit. lillian gish, the hollywood movie star supposedly came and there's stories she loved one little room she would dust the whole room and fill the room and there's just too many things to put her powder on all over. the fact that the house had 24 sets of china, i love it because it is a bit of attitude. if you were to stay seven days, the full stay, you never had to
eat off of the same set of dishes twice while you're at vizcaya. it's wonderful. >> one legendary guest would leave a lasting impression or impressions of vizcaya which now hang on the walls of famous museums. >> one day, one of the nieces, i believe, comes running in and says to the woman who is basically the housekeeper, "there's a hobo in the garden" and everybody's upset and excited and they go out and see and it turns out to be john singer sargent, the painter who was a houseguest. sargent had fallen asleep in the garden and they thought he was a bum. he recorded vizcaya in the most beautiful watercolors that show the flavor of what it was like when it was alive and when james deering was there, just to the point that the house was finished, the garden was although partly under construction he managed to do the views that made it look dreamy and complete.
>> deering's anemia was beginning to slow him down. rumors of all night parties were just fantasies. his depleting energy was spent on entertaining friends and family on his two yachts that were moored in the bay. >> he would take the yachts out on biscayne bay for lunches. he could actually tie them along side each other. thirty six for lunch on the bay like his own floating island. >> in 1918, deering looked sadly at his unfinished gardens. the war had taken its toll on vizcaya leaving its grounds a wasteland. suarez's vision was buried under mounds of dirt and the abandoned shovels of workman called to war. >> well, it would be interesting and probably attractive, a house that people would think very beautiful and worth going to see, but the fact is it's impossible to think of the house without thinking of the garden.
>> the costs for his finished home far exceeded deering's expectations. in a letter, deering coaxed chalfin to keep future expenses down as he wrote: "the worst blow that has fallen on me since we began our work was the information that you gave me about the cost of our formal garden." records today estimate the costs in the millions of dollars. >> they've set up stone yards on site where they have all these carvers most of them italian who are making urns, making baluster, making railings, carving you know the coping pieces and so the garden goes on, they're inventing pavilions, you know little tea houses and then there's the plumbing. so it continued. it just took a long time. >> as the war ended, workmen by the hundreds came back to aid in the massive construction project slowly and arduously the gardens, created out of the untamed sub-tropics, evolved
into a masterpiece of landscape artistry. ( music ) ♪ >> the casino at the top of the mound would serve as the crown jewel of the formal garden. it was a relaxing place to enjoy conversation and afternoon tea. ( music ) >> the secret garden with its rusticated stonework would display the fine craftsmanship of a renowned american metalworker worker samuel yellin. ( music ) >> the fountain garden contained an imposing fountain which originally stood in the town square of sutri in italy. the gardens unfold a sense of enchantment and seem to grow more adventurous as one travels further from the house. >> chalfin gets this idea that
is basically an ancient roman idea you see in the 1st century, where people in seaside villas would have fish ponds and salt water tanks with fancy fish but also for the table right. they end up having a big argument about it, deering and chalfin. deering is trying to cut money and says it doesn't have to be so elaborate and he's not convinced it's going to work and chalfin is pushing it. >> as if standing sentinel over the marine garden, eight graceful stone peacocks carved by artist gaston lachaise were found perched on top of twisted columns. the birds situated at the base of the "o" bridge signaled to all visitors the magic that lay beyond. it becomes very exotic once you leave this italian i guess it would be the architectural aesthetic version of pantheism; it's to worship all things. the casba gets invented and top the boat house is treated like something you see in tangiers or something or algiers with tiles and fountains and basins and
that sort of thing. it's really quite an exotic, dreamy world beyond in the water, in the lagoons. >> in 1922, james deering's dream was complete. the team of chalfin, hoffman and suarez transformed deering's request for a quaint country home into a legendary estate that was said to epitomize the twilight of splendor. vizcaya was completed on the edge of the gilded age, as the genteel and refined life as deering had known was coming to a close. inflation, income tax, and a housing boom was evident in the mid 1920s and the town of miami was quickly becoming a city, encroaching ever nearer to vizcaya's pink walled perimeter. in 1925, as he was crossing back from europe on the s.s. paris, james deering died. he was 65
he was 65 years old. darkness quickly fell upon the age of splendor. >> in 1926, we had the worst hurricane in our history, even worse than andrew if you count the loss of life. >> for 12 hours, vizcaya was tortured by 130 mile an hour winds which toppled priceless statuary, slashed deering's precious hammock and exploded windows throughout the house. james deering was not alive and had only a caretaker staff here. and since they didn't, you know, start tracking hurricanes off of africa like we do today, the
city was pretty much unaware and they probably didn't prepare much at all. and there was terrible damage to vizcaya. it's amazing it's still here, quite honestly after that. >> the devastated estate was now a great burden on james deering's heirs and beloved nieces, barbara deering danielson and marion deering mccormick. although they felt a great affection towards their uncle's home, there was immense responsibility to be assumed with the repair and upkeep of the 180 acre property. vizcaya quickly became an expensive white elephant as the great depression loomed and priorities shifted. >> it became evident to the two sisters that for vizcaya to survive, it would have to adapt to changing times. in the early '30s, they invited paul chalfin back in an effort to return the battered estate to it original brilliance and with the help of chauncey mccormick, marion's husband they prepared vizcaya for public life. >> if you think about the
sisters, they have a huge responsibility now, and i also think they had a sense of stewardship that it was also a really powerful vision about place. and so the combination of their sense of conservation and stewardship and philanthropy and the conditions of the climate and place brought together the possibility of vizcaya being opened to the public. >> the experiment however was a failure. there was little interest in a millionaire's opulent palace during the great depression years, nor was there interest from the local government to take over the estate and operate it as a museum. the heirs knew the time would come when the home would belong to the people of miami, but decades would go by before a solution was found. in the meantime, vizcaya waited for her future. >> well, i think part of this is i don't think people realized what was here. you could see it from the water but nobody was ever in it.
it was behind a wall. so i think trying to get the public interested in it, maybe was a little difficult. it was kind of silent, you know, like a wonderful silent thing over there on the water. >> the house sat nearly abandoned, used only occasionally by the family. the difficulty of upkeep and caring for the huge estate was forcing the sisters to make a critical decision. in 1945, the family agreed to convey 130 acres to the catholic archdiocese. bulldozers ripped through the lagoon gardens, destroying much of the breathtaking landscape and severing the exotic park from the rest of the estate. the house went through several hurricanes and there was damage to the house and damage to the gardens and so i think selling
land was a way of covering some of those costs. the heart of vizcaya, the house and formal gardens and the farm village remained however intact. the heirs had the options of dismembering vizcaya's treasures in return for great fortune or preserve the estate for the citizens of miami by turning vizcaya into a world class museum. the sisters stuck to their original plan and in the early '50s approached the county one more time. >> they were very, very generous. they let this house pass into public domain for a mere fraction over a million dollars. they're giving us a treasure. today, it's worth hundreds of millions. >> james deering's home opened to the public on march 11, 1953. one man's dream was now located in a major metropolis and accessible for the world to appreciate.
>> if you look at what his contemporaries built, none of them were as exquisite, none of them as well built, none of them as interestingly imagined. this works on so many levels of sheer pleasure. nearly 90% of vizcaya's contemporaries have vanished. taxes, maintenance and rising land value, compelled the heirs of these estates to give them up. long torn down, many exist only as ghost images on sepia. others such as lynnewood hall are forgotten, left to disintegrate. >> these houses were not seen as modern and so many are gone, ones that were seen as great works of art, and in many ways this one is an unusual work of art. societies don't produce many things like this you know. >> chalfin's first and last great artistic monument would be vizcaya. caught by the depression, his career was sadly over before it
ever gained momentum. years later, he would take full credit for vizcaya's creation, once stating in a new york times story that he was the architect, hoffman, he did the plumbing. suarez, he was omitted altogether. ironically, it would be the composite of these three men's extraordinary talents combined with james deering's vision that resulted in an ever-lasting treasure for the future and a powerful reminder of america's gilded past. >> vizcaya is a citizen of the world. it's not just a house in florida or a house in the united states. it is in the ranks of the great houses in the world, it really is.