March 9, 2014

Vizcaya Palace: Connections and Crossroads

A limestone urn with a brilliant, giant bromeliad, Aechema blanchetiana, of which there are many named varieties, each grown for it ability to develop a strong, coral color in the bright, tropical sunshine.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to take a couple of days 'off' in Miami, Florida,and while not a vacation, I can't lie and say that it was all work. The truth is, I was invited along with 5 other bloggers by Troy Bilt, to help create a community garden as part of their involvement with the Keep America Beautiful program, of which they ( and Lowes)  are a corporate affiliate of, as both corporations are sponsoring partners. The two and a half days were filled with tours, product updates, dinners and some fun, but mostly we all worked on planning this community garden, a venture which somehow all connected once I discovered the amazing connections which exist between Vizcaya, Florida's agricultural history, and with some incredible people who we met at our Keep America Beautiful project. In the end, it's all just another story about America, about it's many connections between people and a crossroad of cultures.

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Built between 1914 and 1917, Vizcaya Palace was the home of James Deering, an American industrialist who founded the tractor company today known as International Harvester, but who also created an Italian Renaissance villa worthy of any Tuscan hillside or Venetian sea side. All this, on the edge of Biscayne Bay.

Troy Bilt was kind enough to fly our entire Saturday 6 crew to Miami to help create and plant a new community garden in Perrine, Florida, a community just north of Miami.  It was great to see my now good friends, the Saturday 6'ers,  (who each happen to be six influential garden bloggers, garden authors and designers), and we all were looking forward to spending a couple of days, Thursday and Friday together.  Somehow they new that we all would enjoy having a day off before working on the project, so we spent Thursday touring the luxurious grounds of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Coconut Grove, FL. A magnificent mansion and garden created by the late James Deering.

At first glance, one may think that this is a formal boxwood garden, but every plant here is a sub tropical plant.

Constructed as a winter residence for Mr. James Deering, who's father was the founder of what became the International Harvester Tractor company, the estate is now one of the handful of classic grand residences built in the early 20th Century. Those were the days of first generation wealth, resulting in many Gilded Age leisure 'homes',- you know,  those 'cottages' of Newport, Rhode Island, and then of course, Biltmore, the Vanderbuilt's winter home in Ashville, North Carolina. What I connected with most while touring the home and gardens, as well as his impressive art collection, what that Mr. Deering wasn't just a man with a fortune building a home to show off with, he was one of the few who intimately was involved with every detail of this project, and not unlike his contemporary Isabella Stewart Gardner, he created a treasure that will live on for many lifetimes, for many people to enjoy.

Vizcaya was built on what was once known as Brickell Point, on Biscayne Bay, which is at the north end of Coconut Grove. I could not help but to continually make parallels between the actions of James Deering ( and his interior designer and companion, Paul Chalfin) and that of his contemporary, Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840 - 1924)  and her home  (now the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum here in Boston). Once home, I dug into my library and discovered that indeed, they all knew each other, although Mr. Deering never actually met Mrs. Gardner, there existed two significant links between Mrs. Gardner and James Deering -- most notable that of the artist John Singer Sargent, and that of Deering's designer, Paul Chalfin, who frequently stayed at Mrs. Gardners grand Boston home, Fenway Court. 

Vizcaya exists today with f 50 acres of Italian Renaissance formal gardens, designed for Mr. Deering by Columbian landscape architect Diego Suarez. It represents a rare example of European aesthetic formality combined with South Florida's subtropical ecoregion. Here you can see the influence of French and Italian gardens with Cuban limestone and Floridian coral all planted with sub-tropical plants and plants native to Florida.

One may make quick assumptions that both individuals were a bit eccentric, as both toured Europe collecting massive amounts of artworks,architectural relics, tapestries and furniture during the golden age of art collecting, but Deering wanted to keep a close hand on his project, as he did not have the art knowledge and connections that Mrs. Gardner did, so he careful selected the right people to manage the building of his home, and to help him collect. Oddly, he did not want a celebrated architect, even though he could afford the finest - according to Barbara Deering Danielson, Deering's niece, her uncle often said he wanted an up and coming designer rather than one that was well known: "if some famous architect were my architect, the architect would build what he wanted and not what I want". I think I can relate to that a bit ( just a bit).

John Deering (in a  portrait painted by Mr. Sargent). The artist and Deerings designer Chalfin had been friends along with Isabella Stewart Gardner. The early Deering tractors helped change the landscape and agriculture of South Florida in the early twentieth century. Mr. Sargent had painted both James Deering and his brother, Charles who had befriended Sargent in 1878, they remained life long friends.

Deering was used to getting his now way, and he definitely wanted to be a client who had, as Isabelle Stewart Gardner once put it "the fun of doing it himself". In the end, I think we can thank both of these visionaries for their prudent control over such personal projects.

In Vizcaya, once can clearly see multiple influences that cam from the many trips that Deering and Chalfin made to Italy, from the Medici villas in Florence, to the island villas of lago Maggiore. But clearest of all, was what Edith Wharton called in her 1904 book Italian Villas and Their Gardens, "the most enchanting bits of sylvan gardening in Italy", and that wasVenice, and everything Venetian. Venice is where both Mrs. Gardner and Mr. Deering zig instead of zag, for as most every architect hired by the wealthy referenced Rome, these two looked at the high, Dolomitic Alps, their secret Villas in the lakes regions and Venice, with its baroque architecture and Byzantine structures. In the end. both Mrs. Gardner's home and Mr. Deering's feel as if one woke up in Venice.

Tropical planting within an Italianate architectural scheme make Viscaya unique. This giant landscape bromeliad, Portea petropolitana 'Jungles' is a hybrid Portea with tall, colorful racemes worthy of any English border.
What makes Mr. Deering's Vizcaya even more special, is that it uses sub tropical plant material in a South Florida setting, all composed in a classical Italian and French design. Paul Chalfin helped Deering make most every design decision, even directing landscape architect Diego Suarez with details such as light, vistas and plant material. The garden may use classic archetype as a skeleton, but the real bones are very Florida - coral, native rock and limestone. Deering wanted to maximize the use of native plant material, although one must wonder what options they would have had given the site. The use of sub tropical plants, many new to American horticulture at the time, are indeed what defined a new approach to estates in tropical climates.

Aside from the grandeur and beauty of Vizcaya, I discovered that this is far more a story about the future of Florida, than just a talk about a rich man and his folly's.  The Deering tractor,  and his family's role and influence on South Florida agriculture became the real focus of my research. I was surprised to discover that the Deering McCormick tractor became the pivotal tool in the early success of Florida agriculture, an industry that connected directly to not only Troy Bilt ( originally and tiller company) but even to an nice, 80 year old lady who I met while planting the community garden, as she worked as a farm laborer in the 1940's on land made growable by the early Deering McCormic Tractors.

In Part 2, I will explore how the Deering Tractor and early 20th C. agriculture connects to our little community garden, and to Perrine, FL.( the tomato capitol of America), and to the early truck markets where  sweet woman I met while planting our garden, once worked picking cabbage, sorting potatoes and tending to  thousands gladiolus bulbs on a farm which was once America's gladiolus epicenter.

Near Hastings Florda, Cabbage, potatoes and Gladiolus could be grown for the new truck market, with produce being shipped to northern cities via train and truck year round, all thanks to the Farm-all Deering McCormick tractor. The community of Perrine thus became the epicenter for crop workers, near Miami it sat on land once known as the Perrine Grant. Learn about Dr. Perrine, his link to most of the crops now grown in South Florida, and about Ms. Townsend and her early years working in the gladiolus fields of Hastings, Florida.


  1. Stephanie7:45 AM

    Congratulations on your trip and experiences while creating the community garden and for sharing that here with readers. Vizcaya Palace will be on my list of places to visit next time I am in Miami! It is also interesting to learn more about the Deering Family and their legacy. As a plant science student at Northwestern, I was prodded into reading up about the family following the restoration of the gorgeous Charles Deering Library building.

  2. Hi, Matt:

    I am something of a nut about Vizcaya, having spent considerable time in my youth at a treehouse in Vizcaya property, off in the mangroves. We called it "the Kingdom nobody else wanted." As an adult, I've found that both James Deering and his creation grow only more interesting, the more one learns about them.

    I learned a great deal from you article, so I just wanted you to know that you have created a living gift that keeps on giving.




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