You can call it idyllic, bucolic or even pastoral, but the Deering Estate has the kind of history Miamians yearn for. It is a window to the birth of a metropolis; a time when the newly rich, men and women who made fortunes from hard work and ingenuity, discovered a new place to live and play.
A lazy breeze sifts through the swaying palms; from the water it comes to revive the memory of a place that was, that is. It has changed of course, but it offers a peak at a not so distant past that seems forever gone. You can still spot the migratory birds, or at least listen to their warble as others have done for centuries. Nature trails diverge through what once was the private realm of Charles Deering. The site is home to some of the oldest settlements known in the south of Florida, and recent excavations date human habitation within the boundaries of the estate to 10,000 years back.
What is known as the Deering Estate is the dream of industrialist, philanthropist and art collector Charles Deering, who was an executive with International Harvester, the company created by his father. In 1913 Charles bought himself the once thriving town of Cutler. The estate sits on 444 acres of pristine waterfront, a stone throw away from Miami’s oak tree lined neighborhoods. In 1916, Deering renovated the Richmond Inn and converted it into his winter residence. The dream of a fantasy land in the tropics was taking America by storm. Pioneers, tycoons, railroad barons, visionaries and speculators flocked to South Florida with the vision of making a wonderland rise from cheap swamp land. Time has proved them right; Miami is today a multicultural stew of many ingredients: savory, sweet and spicy.
The Richmond Cottage
The original inn was a fine example of Florida Frame Vernacular architecture, not really a style but rather a vocabulary of common forms subject to weather, landscape, available materials and the craftsmanship of the local talent. Builders found a way to circumvent the inclement weather, plagued with sweltering heat and an intense rainy season, by looking at Native American techniques and applying the new technologies available to them. The inn was built above ground, on stone pillars, to keep it dry and allow air to circulate beneath the floor; board and batten siding kept out the rain; large sash windows welcomed the cooling breezes, while high ceilings allowed hot air to rise, promoting air circulation throughout the house.
Deering dreamed of spending the winters in his South Florida home, but the rustic appeal of the house was to have a major overhaul. The waterfront façade was enriched, calling to mind a New England neoclassical look complete with columns, cornice and Chippendale railing, and the small rooms were converted into larger, airier living spaces. He installed indoor plumbing, gas and electrical hook ups; stone veneered chimneys were built, and the first floor verandah was screened to protect residents and guests from mosquitoes and other insects.
On the first floor, passing the verandah, the entrance hallway leads into the sitting room with the original fireplace installed by Mr. Deering during the 1916 renovation. There is also a study, breakfast room, dinning room, butler’s pantry and kitchen. Upstairs, on the second floor, are separate bedrooms for Mr. and Mrs. Deering, servants’ rooms and a botanist study, where Deering dedicated countless hours to his interest in local flora and fauna. The space is surrounded by another verandah that still holds one of the most dreamy, iconic views of all Miami. The top floor housed the guests quarters, and later served as storage for Mr. Deering’s books and treasures accumulated through his travels around the world. Once the primitive feel of the property was changed, Deering turned his attention into developing the rest of the property.
The Stone House
Ready to make Cutler his permanent residence, and after an unsuccessful attempt at renovating a ruined castle in Sitges, near Barcelona, Deering enlisted Phineas Paist to build his Mediterranean Revival Stone House, a style favored by the upper class at the turn of the 20th century. Paist had served as a supervising architect for the city of Coral Gables, and had garnered praise and attention from his contemporaries. Beside the Richmond Cottage, Deering constructed a 13,900 square feet addition inspired by the architecture of Catalonia, where he still owned several properties.
The Stone House would feature 18-inch thick reinforced concrete walls covered in limestone veneer to imitate the rugged, exposed stone of Tamarit, his castle in Spain. It would also have a roof of handmade Cuban barrel clay tiles, antique wrought iron window grilles, bronze and copper-clad doors and Romanesque arcades of hand-carved columns with capitals depicting mainly botanical and animal motifs – although some portrayed the likeness of his brother James and other human pleasures. The pointed Gothic and Moorish arches are also a reference to his predilection for Spanish architecture. To accomplish his goal of European elegance, Deering included coffered, groined and beamed ceilings of reinforced concrete and plaster stained to imitate wood; a Juliet balcony, an observation/sun deck, elevator, a cupola with weather monitoring instruments, including a platinum-tipped lightening rod and shell details on the ceiling.
The centerpiece of the first floor is the Ball Room with a 17-foot high-coffered ceiling that resembled the carved and painted wooden beams of Renaissance palazzos, made of concrete for fire protection. The 15th century Italian mantle over the fireplace was a gift from his half brother James who was building his own neo-classical palace, Vizcaya, also in South Florida. The mantle is flanked by a Ramon Casas painting entitled Ash Wednesday Procession in Barcelona. The foyer was once filled with sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. There is also a library on the first floor opposite the Ball Room, where Charles kept books of classical fiction, foreign language manuscripts and beautifully illustrated field guides. The Deerings had His and Hers dormitories on the second floor. It is said that Mr. Deering used to enjoy listening to the sounds of his beloved birds on the second floor porch adjacent to his bedroom in the opposite side of the study. In order to protect his precious art collection from fires, he had the Stone House built without a kitchen or dining areas. The Richmond Cottage continued to serve as the center for cooking and dining as long as the family owned the property. The cellar contained a vault, where Charles stored his collection of fine wines during Prohibition. A long time neighbor of the Deerings, Mary Warren Hudson described the home as a “warm and inviting place, beautiful, obviously a place of unpretentious wealth and fine taste.”
Charles Deering didn’t live long at his beloved estate in Cutler. He died in 1927 in his bedroom of the second floor of the Stone House. In his will he stipulated that the estate would be maintained held in trust as long as a direct heir remained. Upon the death of his youngest daughter Barbara in 1982, secondary heirs put the property up for sale. In 1985, the State of Florida and Metro Dade County (now Miami Dade County) bought the estate for $22.5 million.
Hurricane Andrew devastated the estate in 1992, destroying or severely damaging most of the estate’s grounds, including the historic homes. It remained closed for more than 8 years while the renovations, costing upward of $7 million, ensued. Today the Deering Estate is an archeological, environmental and historical reserve and is listed in the National Register of Historic Properties. ■