ASC See Miami Fall 2020: Trent Martino

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Who am I?

My name is Trent Martino. I am a junior at Florida International University, studying Electrical Engineering, and I am in the Honor College taking Professor Bailly’s Art Society Conflict class. Even though I am a STEM student, I like to think that I have a decent interest in the arts. Since I was a kid I have played musical instruments, and I have been known to doodle quite a bit in those boring classes. In short, I would like to clarify that even though I am a STEM student, I still do have a lot of respect for the arts.

Where did I go?

For my See Miami assignment, I chose to go to the historical site Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. This was originally built by James Deering, with the help of several key designers and architects, starting in 1910 and was completed in 1923 (Kidd, 2016). Today, the estate acts as a museum and vast garden, filled with historical artifacts, artwork, and many plants. It is located in Coconut Grove in South Florida, and is open to the public with the purchase of an admission ticket.


Historical Background

James Deering

James Deering was born to a wealthy family in Maine in 1859. After inheriting some of his familie’s wealth, he entered to several of his own busniness adventures. He moved his family all around the United States, invresting in many agricultural developments, most notably in agricultural machinery, which helped him expand his wealth. He ventually settled with his family in Illinois, and was able to retire when he was fairly young in his early fifties. Not long after retiring, he was diagnosed with anemia. At the time, doctors recommended living in a warm climate to help control the disease, so he decided to use his fortune to build an estate in South Florida (“Who Was James Deering?”, vizcaya.org). He employed some very prominent artists, designers and architects to help make this “winter home” as extravagant as possible. The most notable of these designers were Diego Suarez, Francis Burrall Hoffman, and Paul Chalfin. James had this vision of making a tropical paradise that he could escape to, and hopefully better his health while he was there. James first moved into the estate on Christmas in 1916, and it served as this winter retreat for him and his family until he passed away from his aforementioned health complications in 1925.

Major Contributors to Vizcaya’s Original Design

Francis B Hoffman was hired by James Deering in 1912 to be the main architecht for his estate, even though he was not trained as, or even studied architecture. Deering and Hoffman worked closely together to make Deering’s vision come to life. He is credited with the design of the entire property (however, the gradens were designed by Diego Suarez), and his work on Vizcaya went down as his most prominent accomplishment. Unfortunately, Hoffman had to leave the project in 1917 to join the army for World War I, so he was not able to see the project get completed (“Francis Burrall Hoffman, The Architect,” vizcaya.org).

Another major contributor to the development of the grandeur at the Vizcaya estate was Paul Chalfin. He was essentially the interior designer for the house. He was responsible for many of the unique design choices that you can see throughout the house. Two of my personal favorites being a painting that was converted into a cabinet to hide the pipes for a pipe organ, and a French fireplace that he added layers to to make it look even more magnificent. It is without a doubt that his contributions make the house a unique building altogether.

Another major contributor is the man who designed the extravagant garden portion of the property, Diego Suarez. Unfortunately, however, he did not get much credit for this until much later. Due to arguments between him and Chalfin, Suarez left the project in 1917, which lead Chalfin to take credit for the design of the garden. Thankfully, in the 1950’s, Hoffman acknowledged Suarez’s work, and he then received credit for making one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States and in the world (“diego Suarez, Landscape Architect For Vizcaya’s Gardens,” vizcaya.org).


Vizcaya Today

Vizcaya’s Mission

The Vizcaya Museum and Gardens organization works to preserve the estate as best as possible. Currently, they are undergoing a massive rennovation project, funded by the Save America’s Treasure’s grant that was implemented by the Trump administration. They were awarded $500,000 to preserve parts of the property, and they are using the funding to restore the Superintendent’s House (“Vizcaya Awarded $500,00…”, vizcaya.org). Many organizations are coming together to help with this project, including the National Parks Service (NPS) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Vizcaya is home to many great artworks, garden landscapes and some beautiful architecture, so it makes sense why so many people who want to help preserve it. It is very heartwarming to see so many organizations come together to help keep this treasured landmark standing proud in my home city of Miami.

Private Property for Public Consumption

This being a museum, almost the entire property is available to the public to consume its contents. While Vizcaya started out as a rich man’s winter escape, today it stands as a publicly-accessible museum where anyone can go. Although the ticket prices seem to be a little steep for a museum, compared to other similar organizations, the price of admission in my opinion seems fair. It is also worth mentioning that there seem to be sales on tickets right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so if you have been waiting to go, this would be a good time.

The beginning of the path leading to the entrance of the Vizcaya Museum. Photo by Trent Martino/ CC BY 4.0

Although you have to purchase ticket to get into the main part of the property, the walkway towards the property (basically the entire area surrounding it) is open to the public, and is filled with native plants, and even has some statues along the path. This public path really sets the tone for the entire museum, as there is a nice mixture of art and nature, and it’s very nifty that anyone can walk through this part of the property.

Visitor

While I was at Vizcaya I made an effort to talk to some people to get their opinions on the museum. But, due to the pandemic, a lot of people were not willing to get in close proximity to a stranger for the purposes of talking to them (which, if I am being honest, is entirely understandable). However, I was able to find one other guest that was willing to talk to me. Below is a loose transcription of the questions that I had for them, along with their answers.

What made you want to come to the museum today?
“I wanted to see the art and the beautiful gardens.”

Have you ever been to the Vizcaya museum before?
“No, this is my first time, actually!”

Okay, my follow-up question for you saying yes would have been how this experience due to COVID-19 is different, but if you would still like to give your opinion you can.
“I’d say my experience here, even with the pandemic going on, is still pretty good. There really aren’t that many people here, so the museum isn’t all that crowded, and there are even a lot of safety measures here in place. I like how they set up the rooms in the house as one-way paths.”

What is your favorite part of the museum?
“My favorite part is either the garden with all of the orchids, or all of the topless statues.”

What is your least favorite part, if you have one?
“There is a lot of construction going on, so it seems like we aren’t able to see a lot of the museum. Also, there are no bathrooms near-by.”

Do you have a favorite piece of art here, and if so, what is it?
“My favorite piece was the one of this statue with a woman kissing a bird. I would to hear the background story of that one!”

Would you come to the museum again?
“I would come again, just to be able to see and experience the parts that are currently under construction or renovation, whatever it is that they are doing.”

If you could describe the museum in one sentence, what would it be?
“Some dude got a lot of money to spend. (laghuter) But seriously, it’s a great picturesque place will take you back in time.”

On a scale of one to five, how would you rate your visit here?
“Probably a 4.”

Portrait – Response from a survey sent to an employee

While looking for guests to ask questions for this project, I also wanted to get opinions from an employee there. Most people I saw there were busy, but I was able to get one person to agree to fill out a survey that I sent them via email. here is a copy of that survey response:

What is your name, and what do you do here at Vizcaya?
My name is Jennifer Canals and I am a Visitor Services Associate.

How long have you worked here?
I’ve worked at Vizcaya for 2 years.

What lead you to end up working at Vizcaya?
I graduated from the University of Florida with a BA in the History of Art. I moved back home to Miami and wanted to begin my career in the museum field.

Can you describe what you normally do here?
My role has changed so much in the past couple of years and especially during Covid. My day-to-day mostly looks like enforcing mask policies while engaging with visitors. This engagement ranges from wayfinding and ticket sales to historic discussions and questions about archival material.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic effected the museum and your job?
The museum has mostly been affected economically. So much of our visitor base is foreign and tourist based. We’re also known to host elaborate and large community programs. With travel and large gatherings virtually impossible, we’ve taken a huge hit to our budget. Personally, Covid put me back in a frontline position. In February, I transitioned out of a position in education (developing content, providing tours, engaging with visitors) to an office job in Community Programming (more losigistical, data anaysis and visitor base focused). However, as Community Programming shut down, I transitioned to a role in visitor engagement. I stayed employed but lost my job in some ways.

What are some of your favorite parts of the museum?
I love that it’s a capsule for so many historic periods. The collection ranges over hundreds of years and over so many mediums. It’s also picturesque— not a bad place to come to work every day, that’s for sure. Lastly I love the community here. All of the employees are really connected.

If you could change something about Vizcaya, what would it be?
MONEY! I wish this place had more money. We’re finally getting some much needed capital projects done through funding from the Knight Foundation but I wish we had more money generally. Money grants you freedom to play and to experiment. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much at stake with everything we do here— it’s all very calculated.

Are there any future changes that are coming to the museum (that you are able to share with me)?
There are quite a few restoration projects under way. In the future, we hope to have the second floor open again as well as the Fountain Garden and Tea House. In the future future (looking much farther ahead) the museum has plans to open the Village to the public. It will increase accessibility as a free resource to the community just next to the Metro Rail. We hope to have changing exhibits and access to our archives there.

If you could describe the museum in one sentence, what would it be?
Vizcaya is a time capsule and a treasure untouched by time and nestled in history.

Summary

Overall, I think the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is a fantastic institution. It feels so welcoming on the way in, and has this gravitating allure to it with all of the history that surrounds you as you stroll the property. If it were up to me, I would have everyone visit this site at least once in their life. It combines so many historic periods and geographic influences, it really blows your mind when you see it.

Works Cited

C., William. “A Brief History of Miami’s Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.” Florida Insider, 25 November, 2019, https://floridainsider.com/travel/a-brief-history-of-miamis-vizcaya-museum-and-gardens/. Accessed 12 December, 2020.

“Diego Suarez, Landscape Architect for Vizcaya’s Gardens.” Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, https://vizcaya.org/posts/diego-suarez-landscape-architect-for-vizcayas-gardens/. Accessed 12 December 2020.

“Francis Burrall Hoffman -The Architect.” Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, https://vizcaya.org/posts/francis-burrall-hoffman-the-architect/. Accessed 13 December 2020.

Kidd, Lawrence. “A Brief and Fascinating History of The Vizcaya Villas.” The Culture Trip, 15 August, 2016, https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/florida/articles/history-vizcaya-villas/. Accessed December 12, 2020.

“Paul Chalfin – The Accidental Artist Director.” Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, https://vizcaya.org/posts/paul-chalfin-the-accidental-artistic-director/. Accessed 13 December 2020.

“Vizcaya Awarded $500,000 Grant for Resoration of Historic Superintendents House.” Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, https://vizcaya.org/posts/vizcaya-awarded-500000-grant-for-restoration-of-historic-superintendents-house/. Accessed 12 December, 2020.

“Who Was James Deering?”, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, https://vizcaya.org/posts/who-was-james-deering/. Accessed 12 December, 2020.

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