Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 2, 2016

Villa Vizcaya, Florida; Millionaire Estate

Those who become millionaires face a pressing problem: what to do with all that money?

They can simply hoard their wealth and keep working to earn more, but, then, what’s the point?

Millionaires have the means to indulge in endless debauchery, but they risk losing the unburdened use of their money if they become incapacitated, imprisoned or dead. While they can afford a splendid funeral, they may not enjoy it quite so much as other pursuits.

A few choose the high road: donating it to do good works (variously defined). I’ve written about one remarkable such bequest by a man with virtually unlimited wealth, the Getty Museum. CLICK HERE.

Getty Center Brad Nixon 0254 (640x480)

The most common approach is to buy things: lots of them, and extremely expensive ones. Millionaires, though don’t call it “buying” or “shopping:” they call it “collecting.” They can collect Monets or Van Goghs or Ferraris or Elvis Presley special edition bourbon decanters or anything they want: They’re millionaires!

Eventually, another problem arises: They need a place to house their collection. (Ferraris, for example, take up a lot of space. So do portions of ancient temples and rooms from palaces, for those who collect architecture.) Ah, then another vista opens: They build an estate in which to display their collection … or multiple estates. Problem solved.

This occasional “Millionaire Estates” series of blog posts will visit a few such estates. To start, let’s travel to the shore of Biscayne Bay, on the south edge of Miami, Florida, in the part of town known as Coconut Grove. In about 1910, James Deering, who was born into the family that owned International Harvester Corp, already had homes in Chicago, New York, Paris and a country place outside of Chicago.

Deering, though, was an ambitious (renowned) connoisseur and collector, had lots of stuff, and needed another place in a climate suitable for his failing health. He set about building the Villa Vizcaya on the shore of Biscayne Bay (“Vizcaya” is the Portuguese equivalent of “Biscayne”). The house has more than 70 rooms.

IMG_3985 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x480)

The estate originally included 180 acres, and Deering established not only the Italian Renaissance-style mansion, but formal gardens, produce gardens, lagoons, fountains, statuary and other features in mind-boggling profusion.

Vizcaya arch view Brad Nixon 522 (640x480)

Construction of the villa took from 1914-1923, and Deering only lived there until he died in 1925. After that, the estate endured declining fortunes (it is particularly prone to hurricane damage). Heirs sold off some of the acreage and the villa fell into disrepair. Preservation efforts launched in the 1950s have paid off. Today, the estate is open to the public as the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. You can walk the grounds and tour the house, more than 70 rooms of which are chock-a-block with Deering’s collections. The interior contains a staggering array of things, but you’ll have to see it for yourself. I’ll focus on the exterior in this article.

IMG_3997 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x480)

To quote from the official website: “Vizcaya was a very modern house…. It was built largely of reinforced concrete, with the latest technology of the period, such as generators and a water filtration system. Vizcaya was also equipped with heating and ventilation, two elevators, a dumbwaiter, a central vacuum-cleaning system and a partly automated laundry room.”

IMG_4018 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x489)

The area surrounding the estate is, by nature, a subtropical forest. Deering and his designers added an elaborate scheme of plantings, exterior architecture, paths and water features that take some time to view. The geometric parterres are one portion:

IMG_4008 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x480)

There are other areas, including the Secret Garden, Maze Garden, Fountain Garden and the Theater Garden.

IMG_4000 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x480)

There’s also an orchidarium. Millionaires can build whatever they want. Statuary is always in fashion.

Vizcaya statues Brad Nixon 539 (640x480)

My favorite feature, though is directly adjacent to the plaza on the bay side of the mansion. Sited out in the water, accessed by a bridge, is the Stone Barge.

IMG_3989 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x380)

This is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate outdoor entertainment venue. Definitely put the band out there.

IMG_3996 Vizcaya Brad Nixon (640x417)

Do you have a favorite millionaire (or billionaire) estate? Schonbrunn Palace? Versailles? Biltmore Estate? I’m always glad to have your comments.

Vizcaya gazebo Brad Nixon 4020 540 (640x480)

Visiting Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

The museum, including the exterior grounds and portions of the interior and its extensive collections is open 9:30 am – 4:30 pm Wednesday – Monday (closed Tuesday), also closed on Christmas Day and Thanksgiving

Admission is $18 for adults, 62 and older $12, student and wheelchair entry $10, age 6-12 $6. (Updated December, 2017; check for any changes.)

The villa is in north Coconut Grove, just south of downtown Miami. Click on this link for public transit and driving directions.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2016, 2017



  1. Thanks for the Vizcaya tour. Hadn’t seen it before.

    1. Getty Museums. Good point about the Getty Museum. Your pix are of Getty Center, West Los Angeles, which houses a wonderful collection of European art, and a few antiquities. A delightful afternoon can also be spent at the Getty Villa in Malibu. The design of the Villa was inspired by a Roman villa in Herculaneum. It’s a beautiful museum overlooking the Pacific, and houses exclusively Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. Unlike the estates of your millionaires, the Getty Villa was never intended as a residence, but exclusively as a place to show Getty’s art collections.

    2. The Biltmore Estate. I’d call it a disappointment. Disappointing because, as one who has visited Blois Chateau in France, the Biltmore struck me as a poor, unfinished copy of Blois. To call Biltmore a pastiche of Blois would be giving Biltmore too much credit. Maybe the owner was in a hurry to just get the project done, but it’s no Blois, that’s for sure.

    3. Hearst Castle. Someone who wasn’t in a hurry to get his grand mansion finished, or to sacrifice quality for speed, was Wm. Randolph Hearst. Hearst Castle, as it is commonly known, is in San Simeon, Central California, not far from the coast. The property, the building of which started in 1919, and which took about 28 years to complete (I use the term advisedly, as officially, the estate is not yet complete), is nothing less than a spectacular Mediterranean hill town fantasy. This amazing estate gives new meaning to the phrase “power of the press.”

    Of course, everyone knows about the two legendary Neptune and Roman swimming pools that are unique in the world — the exquisite tile and mosaic work is simply staggering. But I’m not going to focus there.

    Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to the art one can see at this estate. Hearst loved Spain, and especially Spanish art. Thus, the more formal name for Hearst Castle is La Cuesta Encantada (“Enchanted Hill”). The famous twin towers one sees upon entering the estate are based on those of a Spanish cathedral. I would note that U.S. museums generally don’t have much in the way of Spanish art collections. If you’d like to learn more about Spanish art and architecture, you can find plenty here. The range of art in this estate is amazing: antiquities, medieval tapestries, Renaissance furniture, 19th C. sculpture, decorative arts, and more.

    One really unique feature about some of the architecture found in the principal mansion is that it was uprooted from Europe and transported to California. That’s right: Hearst had his people search Europe for ceilings, arches, walls, etc., from European estates that were about to be sold, dismantled, or remodeled, and had the good stuff brought back to San Simeon. Ok, so that’s the art he COLLECTED.

    What about the art he had CREATED? This is where Julia Morgan comes in. Julia Morgan: architect, engineer, artist, genius. The person Hearst put in charge of creating, designing, and building his Mediterranean fantasy. Her creative genius was given free reign, without constraint of cost, client, or time. Needless to say, she made the most of that freedom.

    When you visit Hearst Castle, you will be overwhelmed by many things. I urge you to take your time, to slow down, and to look at some of the details, details that Julia Morgan created. She didn’t just design a fabulous set of buildings, she paid attention to EVERYTHING. Two quick examples: (a) look at the floor and wall tiles. You will see perhaps, little mermaids, seahorses, dolphins, or other animals. She designed all of those; (b) then there is the door grille of the Casa del Sol guest house. You might quickly pass by and think “Oh, that’s a nice piece of Art Nouveau work,” and move on. Not so fast. Look a little closer: you will see little medallions of portraits of famous people in what looks at first glance like round flowers sprinkled over the grille.

    So, if you’re going to take the time to drive to San Simeon, take the time to look at and marvel at the beautiful and astonishing details of Julia Morgan’s masterpiece.


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