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Historic Vanderbilt mansion gets new life on Miami's Fisher Island


There are many Vanderbilt mansions, all of them grander, and certainly larger, than the manse on Miami's Fisher Island that bears the famous family name.

Ah, but if only you could see it — the beautifully proportioned stone and stucco Mediterranean Revival exterior, the octagonal entry, the soaring living room and the old dining room paneled in antique oak and mahogany, all of it extensively and exquisitely restored — then you might want to stay a while.

Alas, the 1930s estate, a designated Miami-Dade County historic landmark, sits at the heart of an ultra-private club and hotel on this island off the tip of Miami Beach that's accessible only by ferry.

Or if you're going to buy something or stay at the uber pricey Fisher Island Club. You can actually tour the mansion for free if you call ahead for openings.

In spite of the plush setting, though, the mansion had received little more than cosmetic care since the island was turned into a club and resort community about 25 years ago. The home, which has long served as the club's hub, had come to be plagued by leaks, wood rot, structural issues and unkind adaptations.

The Fisher Island Club embarked on a full restoration last year, the culmination of a $60 million program of upgrades to the grounds and facilities. The work, now nearly complete, has brought the house back to the relaxed elegance of the few short years in which it served as the winter retreat for William K. Vanderbilt II, great-grandson of Cornelius, the railroad baron and begetter of one of the great American family fortunes.

"There were quite a few structural issues that were not readily apparent in a building that otherwise looked glamorous," said renovation architect Richard Heisenbottle, whose team crawled under the house, opened up walls, and replaced ceilings and the roof. "The good news is, it's really in top-notch condition now. It really harkens back to the time of Vanderbilt."

Preserving the past

At a time when numerous waterfront Miami Beach homes from that same period are being demolished and replaced by megamansions, Heisenbottle says, the Vanderbilt restoration demonstrates how architectural landmarks from a bygone era can be adapted to the expectations of today's Bentley set while keeping what made them worth saving in the first place.

Miami Beach, in fact, recently approved the demolition of a North Bay Road home by the Vanderbilt mansion's original designer, Maurice Fatio, a Palm Beach architect still regarded as among the best.

Since Fatio designed it in 1935, the Fisher Island house had been added on to, including a ballroom and kitchen, and a restaurant and lounge. But Heisenbottle said the additions were done sensitively and kept the focus where it belongs — on the original two-story, L-shaped house, which faces the Atlantic.

Though certainly opulent — the dining room and Vanderbilt's second-floor study, for instance, are lined in antique paneling he brought from Europe, and its rooms boast marble fireplaces — the house was never meant to be Vizcaya. It had just two bedrooms, for Vanderbilt and his second wife, Rosamund. Her daughter, Rosemary, stayed in a cottage the size of a small house, with an ornate stone doorway, that flanks the mansion. Another cottage served as Rosamund's painting studio.

"This was really a getaway bungalow," said Virginia Hanley, assistant project coordinator for the club's renovation master plan. "Vanderbilt loved coming down here."

"Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt and his many descendants were prolific builders of extravagant Gilded Age mansions, all designed by the best architects of the age. Cornelius' Manhattan home, the largest ever built in New York City, was demolished, but many others survive, some as publicly accessible attractions, including the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., the largest home in the United States, and the "Hyde Park" home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Great-grandson Willie K., as he was known, was a dashing sailor and yachtsman who had navigated all over the world by a young age and launched the first organized auto races in the United States. His summer home, a 24-room mansion on a 43-acre estate on Long Island, N.Y., was designed by the architects of Manhattan's Grand Central Station, which was built to serve the Vanderbilt rail empire. It, too, is a public museum.

Match made in money

In the 1920s Vanderbilt, who frequented Palm Beach and Miami on his yacht, met Carl Fisher, the colorful, hucksterish developer of Miami Beach who had started the Indianapolis 500 auto race and the South Dixie Highway. He also owned Fisher Island, created when dredging of Government Cut split off the Miami Beach peninsula's tip. The two agreed to a swap: 7 acres of the island for Vanderbilt's yacht.

At first, the Vanderbilts stayed on another yacht Willie K. owned when they visited the island, where little had been built, Hanley said. It's unclear precisely when the $1.5 million estate was constructed, but Fatio began his plans in 1935 and county records suggest it was done by 1940.

A celebrity in New York, where he had a townhouse on Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt looked to Long Island and Fisher Island for peace and quiet, said Stephanie Gress, curator at the Vanderbilt museum.

"They built these to get away from everyone," Gress said. "They had only very intimate gatherings."

But Vanderbilt was not to enjoy the estate for long. He died in 1944, and his widow sold it to a U.S. Steel heir the next year.

The historic estate is now at the center of a 200-acre island community that encompasses more than 700 villa-like condos, a handful of free-standing homes, a nine-hole golf course, 18 tennis courts, two deep-water marinas, its own post office and firehouse, an astronomical observatory and a spa. Not to mention several restaurants, an upscale food and wine market and a day school.

Sprucing up

Fisher Island's reputation took a bit of a hit over the past few years amid disagreements over control between club members and developers. Most facilities, including the mansion, had not received an upgrade since 1987. Last year the New York Times published a peculiar, much-circulated travel piece in which the author equally shellacked the service in the hotel and the behavior of her own daughter.

While calling the New York Times piece unfair, the club's leadership, in control of most of the island since reaching an agreement with the developers in 2006, brought in a new CEO to revamp the operation and guide the master plan for the mansion's restoration and other improvements, which had been launched in 2007, to a conclusion.

"It's quite a change. We intend with the renovation to make a statement. We are completely rejuvenated, refreshed," said the new CEO, Bernard Lackner, who scaled back the hotel to a 15-room boutique operation to keep quality high. The guest cottages and servants' quarters, also recently restored, are part of the hotel.

>>if you go

Vanderbilt mansion

The Vanderbilt mansion is on Fisher Island, a barrier island just south of Miami Beach.

In the 2010 census, it had the highest per capita income in the United States.

Visitors can stay at the Fisher Island Club, which has a private beach, spa and golf course. There are a variety of accommodations including cottages that are upward of 2,000 square feet and start at about $650 a night in June. For information, call toll-free 1-800-537-3708 or go to

Free tours of the mansion are available by appointment. Call (305) 535-6000 for times and dates.

Historic Vanderbilt mansion gets new life on Miami's Fisher Island 05/24/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 24, 2013 12:25pm]
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