Major renovations in Miami's historic Vizcaya Village

Major renovations in Miami’s historic Vizcaya Village | Pro Club Bd

By ANDRES VIGLUCCI, Miami Herald

MIAMI (AP) — Each year, 300,000 visitors tour the spectacular, centuries-old Italian-style Vizcayan Palace and its 32 lavishly decorated rooms in Miami’s Coconut Grove. Stroll through the expansive formal gardens and enjoy panoramic views of Biscayne Bay. But they don’t get to see half of it.

For decades, a substantial piece of industrialist James Deering’s magnificent, incongruously winter estate was tucked away, mostly out of public view, behind high walls, giant ficus trees, and two imposing gatehouses across South Miami Avenue from the mansion’s bayfront compound.

But now what was once Vizcaya’s working farming village is once again becoming visible in a big way.

By next summer, Vizcaya Village and its 10 historic, quaint, and mostly vacant buildings should begin welcoming visitors daily — for free — as the museum embarks on a multi-year, multi-million-dollar effort to expand its offerings and a green, culturally oriented new oasis for Miamians to use and enjoy.

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The first big step: the impending demolition of the ugly old Miami Museum of Science building that has occupied much of the little-known other half of Vizcaya since the 1960s. What is now the Frost Museum of Science has been vacant since it moved to a new home downtown in 2017. The building, which has no historical or architectural value, will be demolished this fall. It is replaced with a strip of replica pine forests – the ecosystem Deering found on the farm village site when he began building Vizcaya in 1912.

This will pave the way for an ambitious plan aimed at restoring a semblance of its heyday to what remains of the once sprawling village – which included a farm and nursery that grew produce and plants for the gardens, the main house and its guests to be awarded during Deering’s short tenure in Vizcaya, which ended with his death in 1925.

His heirs sold 130 acres of the estate, consisting of an acreage 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 Bay Heights housing development. But in the early 1950s, the heirs gave the rest of the village, including charming neighborhoods for Vizcaya stewards, architecturally distinctive maintenance barns, and a cluster of quaint farm buildings, to Miami-Dade County, which paid a million dollars for 50 acres of home and garden, Furniture and antiques included.

Chickens, horses and cows will not return to Vizcaya, which is still county-owned but managed by a charitable foundation. There will also be no replicas of everyday village life in the style of colonial Williamsburg, said Vizcaya Managing Director Joel Hoffman.

However, the plan calls for bringing back a nursery and expanding a vegetable garden already established on the village grounds. Visitors get a taste of urban farming. The museum’s horticultural operations will be relocating from the Bayfront to larger and more suitable premises in the former village paint shop building, which was a sanctuary for injured birds until the Science Museum moved out.

To reintroduce locals to the village, Vizcaya has already launched a weekly Sunday farmers’ market, which has proved very popular.

But the goals of the master plan go far beyond agriculture. It calls for turning the village into a new gateway to Vizcaya. The historic buildings and gardens would be restored and remodeled for use by visitors and the local community in a way that commemorates the site’s history, but also new spaces for the administration of the estate and its treasures, as well as for public gatherings, learning and simple Enjoy offers. said Hoffman.

In the next few months, the restoration of the villa, which once served as the residence of the estate manager, will begin. In the great hall of the house with double height. A café will be built under a vaulted wooden ceiling, serving healthy snacks and refreshments. Passers-by are admitted through a side gate that opens to Southwest 32nd Road, neighboring homes and the ramp to the pedestrian bridge leading to Vizcaya Metrorail Station via US 1.

Now used occasionally for public gatherings, the spacious, architecturally striking auto garage will be transformed into a new Vizcaya visitor center, one long lacking because the treasure-filled main house could not accommodate it.

A second alluring mansion, once home to Vizcaya staff, is being restored as the headquarters for the museum’s artifacts team and as an archive containing thousands of pages of architectural drawings and construction documents. The staff house will include exhibition space to display objects that cannot be displayed in the main house.

Finally, a quadrangle of farm buildings that once housed stables and a chicken coop will be converted into classrooms and workshops for children, students and adults to try their hand at art or learn about art history, Vizcaya, Miami history, the local area and learn more about sustainability. An ever-current theme for the historic property, which has been repeatedly hit by hurricanes and floods and is increasingly threatened by rising sea levels.

The low brick chicken coop with a row of ovoid windows will be the new home for Vizcaya’s key conservation team and a conservation laboratory where staff can work to preserve the property’s architectural features, garden statues and its vast collection of art and furnishings. Visitors can look over the shoulders of restorers at work.

The idea is to expand activities and exhibitions for ticket buyers, encourage repeat visits, and attract occasional visits from surrounding neighborhoods. Hoffman noted that South Miami Avenue and the Commodore Trail, which is earmarked for significant upgrading, divide the two halves of Vizcaya and are heavily used by bicyclists and pedestrians. This traffic is not expected to increase until the proposed Underline, a path for cyclists and pedestrians currently under construction under the Metrorail tracks over US 1, opens later this year.

“We’re providing access to a new civic and cultural center,” Hoffman said while giving reporters a tour of the village. “The aim is to invite pedestrians, cyclists and neighbors to enjoy this incredible space.

“Our visitors can have a much better and more complete understanding of the history of the property, the people who built the property and those who worked and made it work on a daily basis.”

The initial phase of the renovation project, which includes the demolition of the Science Museum, remodeling of the paint shop building, renovation of the Superintendent’s home, and the addition of the cafe, will be funded entirely by a $500,000 federal grant awarded to the Superintendent’s home and almost $5.9 million in county general commitment funds earmarked for Vizcaya. Costs for later improvements, including the planned new visitor center, are still being worked out, Vizcaya administrators said.

After the county took over the village lot, its buildings housed the Miami-Dade Parks Department, but have remained largely unused and fenced off to the public since the agency moved out years ago, except for the occasional special event, like a recent antique-car show.

Some renovations, including new roofs for village buildings, have already been completed as part of the $8 million repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Irma, which devastated the property in 2017. The village’s two ornate gatehouses were extensively restored a decade ago and serve as staff offices.

But the damage to Irma was such that repair work was only completed last year, delaying the start of the Vizcaya Village project, which was approved by the Miami-Dade Commission that same year.

The preparatory work has started. Site fences have been erected on the site where contractors are installing all of the village’s water and electricity supplies.

Vizcaya ground crews have also gradually replanted some open areas with bush pines. A herb garden occupies a building courtyard.

Once the old science museum is demolished, a 40-foot-wide pad of Scots pine will be planted along a new masonry wall on the property’s eastern boundary with Bay Heights to protect adjacent homes from village activity.

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 Miami Worldcenter, which restored it earlier this month and reinstalled it in a public space in the multi-block development.

The Science Museum parking lot will remain as Vizcaya can no longer accommodate all visitors arriving by car on the bayfront property. The property’s main parking lot sits within a thick tree hammock and cannot be altered or expanded, Hoffman said.

However, in a future phase, a paved section at the village entrance will be replaced with a new building that would serve as Vizcaya’s new front entrance with ticket sales and an auditorium. Trams brought visitors to the house and gardens along busy South Miami Avenue.

“This could be a really busy place,” Hoffman said.

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