MIAMI — Every year, 300,000 visitors tour the spectacular, century-old Italianate palace of Vizcaya and its 32 lavishly decorated rooms in Miami’s Coconut Grove. They stroll through the extensive formal gardens and take in the panoramic views of Biscayne Bay. Yet they don’t get to see the half of it.
For decades, an integral piece of industrialist James Deering’s grand, incongruous winter estate was hidden away, mostly out of the public’s sight, behind tall walls, giant ficus trees and a pair of imposing gatehouses across South Miami Avenue from the mansion’s bayfront site.
But now what was once Vizcaya’s working farm village is about to pop back into view in a big way.
By next summer, Vizcaya Village and its 10 historic, picturesque and mostly vacant buildings should begin welcoming visitors on a daily basis — free of charge — as the museum embarks on a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort to expand its offerings and provide a verdant, culturally-minded new haven for Miamians to use and enjoy.
The first major step: the impending demolition of the unlovely old Miami Museum of Science building, which since 1960 has occupied a big chunk of Vizcaya’s little-known other half. Empty since what’s now the Frost Museum of Science moved into a new downtown home in 2017, the building, which has no historic or architectural value, will be taken down this fall. It will be replaced by a strip of recreated scrub pineland — the ecosystem Deering found on the farm village site when he began building Vizcaya in 1912.
That will pave the way for an ambitious plan that aims to return what remains of the once-extensive village — which included a farm and nursery that grew produce and plants for the gardens, the main house and its guests — to a semblance of its heyday during Deering’s brief tenure at Vizcaya, which ended with his death in 1925.
His heirs sold 130 acres of the estate, comprising an expanse of gardens and the farm, to the Catholic Church for a nominal sum. The church then sold the farm for several hundred thousand dollars for development of the Bay Heights residential subdivision. But in the early 1950s the heirs turned over the rest of the village, including charming quarters for Vizcaya administrators, architecturally distinctive maintenance barns and a collection of quaint farm buildings, to Miami-Dade County, which paid a bargain $1 million for 50 acres of house and garden, furnishings and antiquities included.
Chickens, horses and cows won’t be coming back to Vizcaya, which is still owned by the county but managed by a nonprofit trust. Nor will there be recreations of village workaday life in the style of Colonial Williamsburg, Vizcaya executive director Joel Hoffman said.
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The plan will, however, bring back a nursery and expand a fledgling produce garden already established on the village grounds. Visitors will get a taste of urban farming. The museum’s horticultural operation will move from the bayfront to larger and more suitable quarters in the village’s former paint-shop building, home to an injured-bird sanctuary until the science museum moved out.
To reintroduce locals to the village, Vizcaya already has launched a weekly Sunday farmer’s market that has proven highly popular.
But the master plan’s goals go well beyond agriculture. It calls for turning the village into a new gateway to Vizcaya. The historic buildings and gardens would be restored and converted for the use of visitors and the local community in ways that recall the site’s history, but also provide new spaces for managing the estate and its treasures, and for public congregating, learning and simply savoring, Hoffman said.
Over the next several months, work will begin to restore the villa that once served as the estate superintendent’s residence. In the house’s double-height great room. under a vaulted wood ceiling, will be a cafe serving healthy snacks and refreshments. Passersby will be invited in through a side gate that opens to Southwest 32nd Road, neighboring homes and the ramp to the pedestrian bridge leading to the Vizcaya Metrorail Station across U.S. 1.
The commodious, architecturally striking automobile garage, now used occasionally for public meetings, will be turned into a new visitor’s center for Vizcaya, which has long lacked one because the treasure-filled main house can’t accommodate it.
A second alluring villa, once home to Vizcaya staff, will be restored as headquarters for the museum’s artifacts team and an archive to house thousands of pages of architectural drawings and construction documents. The staff house will include exhibition space to show objects that can’t be displayed in the main house.
Eventually, a quadrangle of farm buildings that once housed stables and a hen house will be converted into classrooms and workshops for kids, college students and adults to try their hand at art or learn about art history, Vizcaya, Miami history, the local environment and sustainability. That’s an always relevant topic for the historic estate, which has been repeatedly battered by hurricane winds and flooding and is increasingly threatened by sea-level rise.
The low-slung brick hen house, which features a row of egg-shaped windows, will become the new home for Vizcaya’s essential conservation team and a conservation lab where staff can work to preserve the estate’s architectural features, garden statuary and its vast collection of art and furnishings. Visitors will be able to watch conservators at work.
The idea is to expand activities and exhibits for ticket buyers, encourage repeat visits and attract casual drop-ins from surrounding neighborhoods. Hoffman noted that South Miami Avenue and the Commodore Trail, which is slated for a significant upgrade, bifurcate Vizcaya’s two halves and are heavily used by cyclists and pedestrians. That traffic is only expected to increase once the planned Underline, a path for cyclists and pedestrians now under construction beneath the Metrorail tracks across U.S. 1, opens later this year.
“We’re creating access to a new civic and cultural center,” Hoffman said, while giving a tour of the village to reporters. “The goal is to invite pedestrians, bicyclists and neighbors to enjoy this incredible space.
“Our visitors can get a much better and broader understanding of the history of the property, the people who built the estate, and those who worked and made sure that it functioned on a daily basis.”
The renovation project’s initial phase, which includes the science museum demolition, conversion of the paint shop building, renovation of the superintendent’s residence and installation of the cafe, is fully funded through a $500,000 federal grant, to be used on the super’s house, and nearly $5.9 million in county general obligation funds earmarked for Vizcaya. The costs for subsequent improvements, including the planned new visitor’s center, are still being worked out, Vizcaya administrators said.
After the county took over the village property, its buildings became home to the Miami-Dade parks department, but have been largely unused and fenced off to the public since the agency moved out years ago, except for occasional special events, like a recent antique-car show.
Some renovations, comprising new roofs for village buildings, were already completed as part of $8 million worth of repairs of damage from Hurricane Irma, which ransacked the estate in 2017. The village’s pair of elaborately decorated gatehouses underwent extensive restoration a decade ago and serve as staff offices.
But the damage from Irma was so extensive that repair work didn’t conclude until last year, delaying the start of the Vizcaya Village project, which was approved by the Miami-Dade Commission that same year.
Preliminary work has begun. Construction fences have gone up on the grounds where contractors are installing full water and electrical service for the village.
Vizcaya grounds crews have also gradually replanted some open areas with scrub pines. An herb garden occupies a building courtyard.
Once the old science museum comes down, a 40-foot-wide buffer of scrub pines will be planted along a new masonry wall on the property’s eastern boundary with Bay Heights to shield abutting homes from village activities.
The famous Pan Am Airways globe that once greeted visitors to the science museum is safe. The Frost donated the iconic 1934 globe to downtown’s Miami Worldcenter, which restored it and reinstalled it in a public plaza at the multiblock development earlier this month.
The science museum’s parking lot will remain because Vizcaya can no longer accommodate all visitors arriving by car on the bayfront property. The estate’s main parking lots sit amid a thick tree hammock and can’t be altered or expanded, Hoffman said.
In a future phase, though, a section of asphalt at the village entrance will be replaced by a new building that would serve as Vizcaya’s new front entrance, with ticketing and an auditorium. Trams would take visitors across busy South Miami Avenue to the house and gardens.
“This could be a really bustling place,” Hoffman said.
By ANDRES VIGLUCCI