A visit to Villa Vizcaya

The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, previously known as Villa Vizcaya, is the former villa and estate of businessman James Deering, of the Deering McCormick-International Harvester fortune. It’s located on Biscayne Bay, in the present day Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Florida. Deering used Vizcaya as his winter residence from 1916 until his death in 1925.

The estate property originally consisted of 180 acres of shoreline mangrove swamps and dense inland native tropical forests. The villa was built primarily between 1914 and 1922, at a cost of $15,000,000, while the construction of the extensive elaborate Italian Renaissance gardens and the village continued into 1923.

The estate’s name refers to the northern Spanish province Vizcaya (In English Biscay), in the Basque region along the east Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay, as ‘Vizcaya’ is on the west Atlantic’s Biscayne Bay. Records indicate Deering wished the name also to commemorate an early Spaniard named Vizcaya who he thought explored the area, although later he was corrected that the explorer’s name was Sebastián Vizcaíno. Deering used the Caravel, a type of ship style used during the ‘Age of Exploration’, as the symbol and emblem of Vizcaya. A representation of the mythical explorer “Bel Vizcaya” welcomes visitors at the entrance to the property.

Vizcaya is noteworthy for adapting historical European aesthetic traditions to South Florida’s subtropical ecoregion. For example; it combined imported French and Italian garden layouts and elements implemented in Cuban limestone stonework with Floridian coral architectural trim and planted with sub-tropic compatible and native plants that thrived in the habitat and climate. Palms and Philodendrons had not been represented in the emulated gardens of Tuscany or Île-de-France.

James Deering died in September 1925 on board the steamship “SS City of Paris” en route back to the United States. After his death Vizcaya was inherited by his two nieces, Marion Chauncey Deering McCormick and Ely Deering McCormick Danielson, and that’s where the tale turns even sadder, at least for me. I do wish heirs could hold on to these grand estates after they inherit them. Surely they also got some money as inheritance. Couldn’t they have become proper stewards of the place? History answers that question with a no. Over the decades, after hurricanes and increasing maintenance costs, they began selling the estate’s surrounding land parcels and outer gardens. In 1945 they sold significant portions of the Vizcaya property to the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, to build Miami’s Mercy Hospital. 50 acres (200,000 m2) comprising the main house, the formal gardens, and the village were retained.

In 1952 Miami-Dade County acquired the villa and formal Italian gardens, needing significant restoration, for $1 million. Deering’s heirs donated the villa’s furnishings and antiquities to the County-Museum. Vizcaya began operation in 1953 as the Dade County Art Museum. The village and remaining property were acquired by the County during the mid-1950s. In 1994 the Vizcaya estate was designated as a National Historic Landmark. In 1998, in conjunction with Vizcaya’s reaccreditation process by the American Alliance of Museums, the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens Trust was formed to be the museum’s governing body.

Visitors can now see the villa, estate and surrounding gardens at 3251 S Miami Ave, Miami, FL 33129, USA. You can get tickets and consult visiting hours at the official website.

I have prepared a gallery of 103 photographs we took there, and I hope you enjoy seeing them!

A visit to The Breakers in Palm Beach

Back when we visited the Flagler Museum, we also visited and stayed at The Breakers in Palm Beach, an historic hotel. I honestly thought I’d published these photos long ago but no, I forgot. I did publish a short video clip I filmed on the beach with a new camera I was reviewing at the time, the PEN E-P2.

So… eight years later, here are the photographs I’ve taken at The Breakers. In case you’re interested in the fleeting red light of the setting sun and how it can be used for portraits, there’s a wonderful spot right outside the hotel, on one of the walkways, where it filters through the palm trees and shines on a spot that’s right at face level. You’ll see it in the photos and yes, that is exactly the kind of red light it is, I did not make it redder in post-processing. If you want to catch it, you’ll have to be there watching, because it only lasts for about 10 minutes each evening. Good luck!

Enjoy the photographs!

Cars from the Milhous Collection

Back in 2010, Ligia and I had the privilege of seeing a unique collection of vintage and classic cars in South Florida. It was not open to the public, and although we were allowed to take photos and graciously shown around, we were asked not to mention the name of the collection. Instead, we needed to refer to it as “a private, exclusive South Florida organ and car collection”. I abided by those terms all these years, until now.

It is no longer necessary to do so, because in 2012, the Milhous brothers auctioned off the entire collection. Everything went. The entire collection was auctioned off in February 2012 for a total sale price of $38.3 million USD. Since the collection no longer exists and is now spread among various other collectors located who knows where, and it’s been more than three years since the sale and dissolution, the terms of our agreement no longer apply.

This means you are fortunate enough to see immaculately restored cars that few people have ever seen, cars so rare they sell for millions of dollars and for some models, fewer than five exist in the world altogether.

The car that sold for the most money at the auction was a 1912 Oldsmobile Limited Touring. But there is one car prominently featured in the gallery you see here, a car I fell in love with right away, a car I consider to be the most beautiful in the world, a car so special I had to stand at a distance from it and take it all in before I could approach it and touch it. That car is a butter-white 1934 V-16 Cadillac Fleetwood Roadster. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous example of streamline moderne design and it’s a car that will forever hold a special place in my heart.

I truly hope you’ll enjoy these photos. You don’t get to see stuff like this every day.

The Spanish Monastery in Miami, FL

The Monastery of St. Bernard de Clairvaux (also known as The Spanish Monastery or The Cloisters of The Ancient Spanish Monastery) was built in Sacramenia, in the Province of Segovia, Spain, during the period from 1133 to 1144. It is now found at 16711 West Dixie Highway, in North Miami Beach, FL.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you’re in South Florida, please make time to visit this monastery. It’s like stepping back in time. It’s easy to miss it as you drive by. It’s hidden by large trees, it’s in the middle of a large garden, and if you don’t know where to look, you won’t see it.

Upon the canonization of the famous Cistercian Monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, a leading influence in the Church during that period, the Monastery was renamed in is honor. Cistercian monks occupied the monastery for nearly 700 years. From then on, the history of this monastery got very interesting and very complicated.

In the mid-1830s, the Cloisters were seized, sold, and converted into a granary and stable due to a social revolution in that area. In 1925 William Randolph Hearst purchased the Cloisters and the Monastery’s out-buildings. The structures were dismantled stone by stone, bound with protective hay, packed in some 11,000 wooden crates, numbered for identification and shipped to the United States.

About that time, hoof and mouth disease had broken out in Segovia, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fearing possible contagion, quarantined the shipment upon its arrival, broke open the crates and burned the hay, a possible carrier of the disease. Unfortunately, the workmen failed to replace the stones in the same numbered boxes before moving them to a warehouse. Soon after the shipment arrived, Hearst’s financial problems forced most of his collection to be sold at auction.

The stones remained in a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, for 26 years. One year after Hearst’s death in 1952, they were purchased by Messrs. W. Edgemon and R. Moss for use as a tourist attraction. It took 19 months and almost $1.5 million dollars to put the Monastery back together. Some of the unmatched stones still remain in the back lot; others were used in the construction of the present Church’s Parish Hall.

St. Bernard’s Church, as we know it today, started out not on these grounds but at a savings and loan building on N.E. 167th Street as “The Mission of St. John the Divine,” and services were held at that location for approximately one year under the leadership of Rev. Harold L. Batchelor (1963-64). The Mission of St. John the Divine became the Church of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, named in honor of the great Saint who had been a leading influence among the Cistercians 847 years ago, and whose feast day is commemorated on August 20.

In 1964, Bishop Henry Louttit purchased the property for the Diocese of South Florida, later to become the Diocese of Central, Southeast and Southwest Florida. Shortly thereafter, when the three dioceses ran into financial difficulties, the Monastery was put up for sale and the parishioners of St. Bernard feared a second move. During the Bishopric of the Rt. Rev. James Duncan, Col. Robert Pentland, Jr., a multimillionaire banker, philanthropist and benefactor of many Episcopal churches, purchased the Cloisters and presented them to the parish of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, thus ensuring the monastery’s survival and its permanent location.

The text of this post has been re-published (with small modifications) from the original found on the monastery’s official website. The story is so interesting I couldn’t cut it any shorter, so I hope the folks from the monastery don’t mind it. The photos are entirely original. I took them, edited them and published them. 

Father and Son: STS-1 and STS-135

Here’s Chris Bray and his father at the space shuttle launch, in 1981 and 30 years later, in 2011.

Excerpts from an interview with him done by the Flickr staff:

Early on the morning of April 12, 1981, after a couple of delays, the space shuttle Columbia was finally getting ready for lift-off to the first ever shuttle mission into space. One of the spectators, Flickr member arockalypse, was standing in the crowd, being terribly excited and anxious. He told us he grew up loving astronomy and following the space program, but until that day he had only seen Apollo launches on TV, so this was a huge thrill.
30 years later, when STS-135, the last space shuttle mission before retiring of the program, was planned, arockalypse and his family entered a lottery for tickets and managed to score passes to the Astronaut Hall of Fame viewing area.
When the launch finally took place, “it was bittersweet. We are big supporters and followers of the space program, and it is somewhat sad to see this great era come to an end. However, the Shuttle was a fantastic program and despite 2 horrible tragedies, it was an amazingly successful one. I’m looking forward to what comes next!”

via Father & Son « Flickr Blog. Photo by Chris Bray.

Miami Beach in 1964

A tourism film from 1964, promoting Miami Beach, culled from the travelfilmarchive channel on YouTube.

For one who grew up in the area, it’s interesting to see how the place has changed since, and how many resorts popular then still exist (or don’t) today. Some scenes in the film are natural, some are staged and awkward, but it is fun to watch.

It’s also worth noting that the same studios that made cartoons (Van Beuren Films, Castle Films) also made travel films.

The plaster bagworm

We found this tiny little striped bug in South Florida, USA. It had a silken brown cocoon which it dragged behind it. It was a tiny little larva with minuscule legs, and its cocoon had two entrances. It would hide inside, then emerge out of either end to begin moving along.

I’ve never seen a bug like it, and would love to know what it is. Updated 6/4/10: it’s a plaster bagworm, and that wasn’t its cocoon, but its home — and it’s a pest. Thanks Andrew!