Web Exclusive: The Elevated Place

July 1, 2009
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An entrance to the villa.


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of America’s wealthiest people built lavish homes, and many still stand today. One such home is Vizcaya in Miami, Fla. Built by James Deering, a vice president of International Harvester, Vizcaya, which is Basque for “elevated place,” is a composite of many Italian villas Deering visited in search of his dream home. Deering spent some $22 million creating what is today an official United States Landmark. The American Association of Museums also accredits his much-loved villa.

A grand room in the villa.

Deering made several trips to Europe where he bought furnishings, fireplaces, doors and gates. He brought back styles and decorations that represented different periods of European history covering 400 years. Evident are the period styles of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classic. Deering’s idea was to build the home in such a way that it would appear to span the 15th through 19th centuries. With different period designs in all the furnished rooms, Deering accomplished the creation that gave to the villa an appearance that the villa went through several renovations during those periods, even though it was a new structure.

Besides the self-sufficient 70-room villa, the 180-acre estate included a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, a small farm, a village, a greenhouse, a staff residence and formal gardens.

Getting Started

Construction began in 1914 and finished in 1916. Biscayne Engineering Co., which is still based in Miami, Fla., performed the surveying and engineering for Deering’s estate. According to George Bolton, the company’s current president, Deering retained the services of Biscayne Engineering around 1910 when the project was getting started. Deering designated Biscayne’s J.J. Bennett, who was 21 years old at the time, as resident engineer, and he stayed on the job for the next 10 years. Bennett was the first person to arrive on the project and the last to leave. He became one of the leading engineers in Florida and eventually president of Biscayne Engineering.

A photograph of J. J. Bennett taken in 1977. Bennett was the first person to arrive on the project and the last to leave.

Bennett worked in concert with the project’s architect. The architect decided where to place roads and drainage. Then, the survey crews moved in. To establish the boundary survey for this parcel, surveyors used Biscayne records from 1892 created for the Mary Brickell survey.

Since the area was at the edge of the Biscayne Bay, some ideas just didn’t work. Much of the labor included revising the drainage plans. “When they saw a problem, they went to work and solved it,” Bolton said. “The new information went to the architect and became part of the master development plan.”

All in a Day’s Work

It was hot work. Air conditioning did not exist. Ice was not plentiful, and mosquito repellant was many years in the future. Cooling down usually consisted of taking a swim in the bay or standing in the occasional showers that are prevalent in Miami. One of the bright spots in their days on the project was fresh food. The survey crew, under the direction of J.J. Bennett, John A. Moore or E.E. Harvey, would get up early in the morning to hunt and fish on the site. Fresh food was usually available for everyone.

A construction photo.

Aside from the heat, the worst problems included heavy vegetation, alligators, snakes, flying insects, spiders and an occasional panther. It was a survey team’s worst possible situation.

Elevations across the land presented another problem. Running levels required cutting lines through the dense vegetation. Surveyors ran test pits over the site for soil samples and percolation tests for water drainage to prepare drainage plans. Deering had one rule for trees: Do not cut down any trees. However, this one tree stood dead center where the roadway was to go. Being the clever man he was, Bennett went to the tree late one evening, dug it up and moved it a few feet out of the way. He replanted the tree, covered the fresh dug dirt with leaves and no one ever knew.

Bennett also had a good sense of humor. Around 1971, a former surveyor named Paul, who worked with Bennett on Vizcaya, called Bolton and related this story: Survey crew members would flip coins to see who would buy the MoonPies and soft drinks. It was an odd-man-out situation. Paul was working as a rodman with Bennett and E.E. Harvey, Bolton’s grandfather. Paul said they would somehow make sure he was the odd man out, and he always had to buy the MoonPies and colas.

It turned out that Harvey was the biggest jokester of the group. Harvey was always pulling tricks such as hiding someone’s lunch or machete. He was famous for tying a plumb bob string to a sleeping person’s shoe. His favorite joke was throwing a dead snake on one of the crew.

The Deering Farm at Vizcaya.

From Dream to Reality

Bennett and Deering became good friends, and when Bennett started his family, Deering helped him buy his first house by holding the mortgage. A few years later, Bennett visited Deering’s office and asked how much he still owed on the house. Deering took out the folder and said “$2,500.” At the same time, he wrote in large letters across the mortgage: “PAID IN FULL.”

Work stopped briefly in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. The war ended in 1918 and Biscayne Engineering resumed work, this time to design and provide construction supervision of the foundation for the Cape Florida Lighthouse and to maintain checks on the foundation. This project was part of an agreement Deering made with the Army Corps of Engineers, which in turn granted permission for the dredging of a channel to Deering’s beloved Vizcaya.

Through all the years, the surveyors, architects and 1,000 workers from various parts of the world completed the task, and plans for the gardens, the farm, the roads and the drainage slowly came to fruition. Vizcaya was a dream no longer; it was a reality.

The formal gardens at Vizcaya are still in existence.

The final project that brought it all together was the completion of the formal gardens in 1922. Vizcaya became Deering’s winter home, but only three years after the project’s completion, Deering died in 1925 at the age of 66.

Documenting Vizcaya

Much of the estate fell into disrepair after Deering’s death, and in 1952, Dade County (now, Miami-Dade County) purchased the house and gardens. The county restored the property, and every year, thousands of visitors visit the Vizcaya Museum.

The machine that produced Deering’s blueprints is still in existence.

During those early years, Biscayne Engineering acquired a large quantity of artifacts and memorabilia from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The machine that produced Deering’s blueprints is still in existence. The company donated much of it to the Southern Historical Museum in Miami and plans to donate records and other memorabilia particular to the Vizcaya project to the Vizcaya Museum.

George Bolton, president of Biscayne Engineering, met with Linda Corley, senior producer, at Biscayne’s Miami headquarters and showed her some of the memorabilia from the Vizcaya project.

“Vizcaya,” a documentary produced by Linda Corley, senior producer of PBS Channel 2 in Miami, premiered locally in May. The documentary, which includes interviews with Bolton, will air nationally this fall on public television. “The memorabilia really helped put things into perspective as to what people had to work with during this period of Miami history,” Corley said. “It’s amazing they kept as much as they did.”

For more information on Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, visit www.vizcayamuseum.org. More information on the PBS documentary “Vizcaya” is available at www.channel2.org/vizcaya.

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