Born on November 12, 1859 to one of the wealthiest families in America, James Deering never had the charisma of his father, a businessman and investor who snapped up thousands of acres of land in the then underdeveloped western United States. William Deering had made a fortune when he acquired a farm equipment manufacturer and implemented a technology that allowed for harvesting an acre of grain in an hour—increasing both the value of the business and of his land investments.

James, William’s younger son, suffered from anemia and was described by his contemporaries, as recounted in the 2012 film The Light Club of Vizcaya: A Women’s Picture, as “colourless, meticulous, pedestrian, sedate, dyspeptic, proper, fastidious.” He was considered a “lifelong bachelor,” likely code for gay, and, as often as he threw parties and moved in large social circles, he seemed forever ill at ease.

“I don’t think he was really comfortable with his guests,” said the actress Lillian Gish in an interview that featured in the film. Gish described an April evening at Deering’s Villa Vizcaya on Biscayne Bay in Miami, when the fireflies were out and they’d just returned from a gondola ride. Upon returning to dry land all Deering wanted to do was watch a movie about “microbes and germs.” “Can you imagine that?” said Lish. “I had the impression that he was a man who wanted to have beauty around him in his house and gardens, but that he didn’t know what to do with it.”

Deering might not have known “what to do with” beauty quite as Lish wanted, but he had a knack for creating it: The Villa Vizcaya is one of the most stunning villas and gardens in the United States. It’s arguably even more impressive than its better-known kin—the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California. (Though Vizcaya may be less of a name brand, it has appeared in a number of movies, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Any Given Sunday and Iron Man 3. It was also used by Ronald Reagan to receive Pope John Paul II in 1987 and by Bill Clinton for his First Summit of the Americas in 1994.)

Constructed between 1914 and 1923, the Villa Vizcaya is surrounded by roughly 50 acres of gardens. They draw predominately from French and Italian Renaissance styles while incorporating the plant life of southern Florida’s subtropical ecology, like palms and philodendrons. There is Cuban limestone stonework, and the villa’s architecture—much of which looms over the indoor gardens and courtyards—combines the Baroque with Mediterranean Revival architecture.  “Turn-of-the-century grand gardens were generally quite formal and symmetrical, with matching borders and often a water feature in the center—pergolas and arbors were much in evidence,” says Page Dickey, a garden designer and author of books including Outstanding American Gardens. Vizcaya is nothing like this. It is an aesthetic jumble, what some critics at the time called “a laughable pastiche.”

But most experts today admire Deering for the singularity of his vision. In Vizcaya: An American Villa and its Makers, authors Laurie Olin and Witold Rybczynski describe it as a “Gilded Age triumph.” “All of these ideas are molded together as a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, Italian Baroque and French Renaissance garden styles,” says Ian Simpkins, deputy director of horticulture and urban agriculture at the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. “This is all united through a very American idea—that we can take something, adapt it to our own uses and make it better.”

A trio of designers worked for Deering to create Vizcaya. Deering’s friend Paul Chalfin, who’d trained as a painter in Italy, travelled with him throughout Europe; together they bought up pieces of beautiful villas for Vizcaya, from ceiling murals to doors. While in Italy, they met Diego Suarez, “a 25-year-old gardening dilettante who became involved in the project more or less by accident,” according to Rybczynski; and, on a trip through New York, Chalfin introduced Deering to F. Burrall Hoffman, a failed painter turned Beaux-Arts architect.

Chalfin, though, was always the key puzzle piece, “responsible for 90% of the beauty” of Villa Vizcaya, writes Rybczynski. “He appeared to be of singular, laser-like focus and took on this enormous project while remaining focused on detail,” Simpkins says of Chalfin. “Without that, Vizcaya would not be nearly as elaborate and would not sing in harmony as it does now, despite pulling its influence from a wide range of sources.”

Vizcaya has undergone a number of challenges since its completion. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 destroyed much of the gardens and some features, including the rose garden, were never rebuilt. In 1971, there was a robbery, in which three jewel thieves stole artworks and silver. Time itself has taken its toll, too. “Trees grew out of scale, things fell apart or disappeared—pretty much the type of attrition you’d expect from a garden that was not particularly well maintained,” says Simpkins.  In the 1980s, a roof was added over the courtyard to better preserve fabrics and furniture.

Since 2008, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Vizcaya as one of America’s eleven most endangered historic places, there’s been an increased effort to restore the gardens. Because of Deering’s anemia, doctors advised him to live in a warm climate and to be in the sun as often as possible. At Vizcaya, he tended to his gardens and boated (he had three yachts.) A Latin quote is inscribed in the villa: “Take the gifts of the hour. Put serious things aside.” But the experience of being in the gardens is ultimately not one of hedonism; it is, rather, evocative of nostalgia and melancholy.

The gardens have manifold influences—Italy, France, the 17th through 20th centuries. They are a time machine, a flip-book of eras and possibilities. Like an impossible bouquet, they cannot all be had at once. Walking through them is
to experience a certain sadness. Its beauty must be concocted. It cannot exist
in nature.

“This garden isn’t unique in expressing its nostalgia for another place and time,”
says Simpkins, “[but] I don’t know of any other garden whose creator intended to induce melancholia.”