“I thought BelGioioso is a brand of cheese from Wisconsin…” remarked the elderly lady jokingly to her companion. We were viewing the bedroom facing the scenic Biscayne Bay on the North Tower of the Vizcaya Museum in beautiful Miami.
This secret bedroom nestled on the second floor of the Vizcaya Palace overlooked the boat landing that brought so many goods over the years to this palace. The bedroom was named Belgioioso, after a small town in Italy, south of Milan. There are secret doors and passages connecting some of the rooms. And there is a mystery or two hanging in the air. The furniture in the room looked old and dusty. The decorations were a throwback to the Italian renaissance period. I looked at the vast blue expanse outside the grand old windows…I could almost see the Bahamas (just kidding – that is more than a 2 hour flight from Miami).
Who built this grand palace?
The Vizcaya palace was built by James Deering (1859-1925) a Chicago businessman. He built this as his winter residence and it later became his retirement place. Today it is a national historic landmark. Deering was clearly inspired by the palaces of Europe, particularly in Italy. A few letters that Deering wrote are on display, these range from business as usual topics such as the letter written to a wine merchant complaining about the shortage of a certain kind of ingredient for cocktails; to the planning of a bird sanctuary like atmosphere on the grounds. Vizcaya was built in 2 years (1914-1916) but the gardens containing sculptures were completed later in 1922, the delays were caused due to WW1. It us rumored that during its construction one tenth of Miami's working population was engaged there.
I think the planning of the gardens is truly awesome and they reminded me of Versailles several times during the tour of the grounds. There are sculptures, bridges and canals that make for nice background to pictures. In fact many weddings take place here. There is a little tea house on the southern side, overlooking the bay, that has stunning views of the palace. A stone barge appears to float in the water, perhaps used to break the waves and for yacht landings. I can only imagine that watching the sunrise or sunset in such a scenic setting would have been a real treat to Deering and later for his heirs. Later his nieces sold the property to the County, and that is how it became a museum.
After my brief visit I wondered - Who would have thought that there was such a place hiding in plain sight in Miami?!
From the archives I read that Deering hired Paul Chalfin (1873-1959) as the artistic director for the entire project. It was Chalfin who came up with the names of the rooms such as Belgioioso, Manin and Espagnolette, that were linked to the Italian historical setting. Apparently Deering had little appreciation for such hard to pronounce Italian names, he was immersed in his farm equipment business, but he trusted Chalfin’s judgment. They had travelled together extensively in Europe before making up their minds on how to build this historic palace.
Paul Chalfin had earlier worked as a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and he had travelled to Europe aided by a fellowship in painting. It is clear that he did observe a thing or two about architecture and art in Europe and later he adapted the concepts to build a modern variation.
Deering spent the last several years of his life at the Vizcaya Palace. After his death, the maintenance of the 180 acre property became a big liability. Unfortunately there was also a hurricane in 1926 that devastated much of it.
Today 50 acres of the original property remain as a museum for public enjoyment.