There were times when this verdant area along Biscayne Bay was roamed by mammoths, jaguars, and bison. There were other times, about 10,000 years ago, when Paleo-Indians called this section of the Atlantic Coastal Ridge home. Some 2000 years ago, the Tequesta set up residence atop the oolitic limestone highland. And in 1838 Henry Perrine received a federal grant to grow tropical plants here.
Perrine was killed a few years later during the second Seminole War, and by 1890 the settlement called Cutler enveloped the land. In 1900 the Richmond family added on to its house here and opened the first hotel between Coconut Grove and Key West. When Charles Deering bought the property in 1913, he built a keyhole-shape royal-palm-ringed basin for his yacht, and an ornate residence called the Stone House next to the Richmond buildings. In the early 1980s Deering's heirs put the sprawling site up for sale. (It was optioned for development, i.e., oblivion. The state and county stepped in and saved the estate, expanding it to 420 acres to incorporate more of its tropical hardwood hammocks and highly endangered pine rockland forests.) In 1992 Hurricane Andrew ripped out the majestic royal palms and many of the other 40-some species of trees and leveled most of the historic structures.
In fact since the government bought the Deering Estate at Cutler intending to create an educational and recreational center, it has been closed more often than it has been open. The public is invited to witness the current state of its resurrection during a daylong celebration Saturday.
Returning this remarkable place to the glory of its Deering days is a multifaceted challenge. Rodriguez, who knows and loves every inch and each historical nugget of the grand property, says he "feels like Bob Vila" as he stamps up the wooden stairwell into Charles Deering's bedroom, study, and bathroom. He is surrounded by an army: masons, carpenters, electricians, landscapers, painters, and twenty-member crews who have been working 40-hour weeks since 1993 just to remove nonindigenous pest plants.
Oxymoronically but accurately described as an industrialist-environmentalist, Charles Deering based much of his homestead on his castles in Spain and imported many of the materials from Europe. "We're working to make it like it was in 1922," Rodriguez says, pointing out hand-thrown Cuban roof tiles from the 1920s and interior crown molding that hides a fire-sprinkler system, "while meeting local, state, and federal building regulations." It's a deft trick requiring all of the $11 million (from FEMA, other government agencies, and private donations) budget and more. There are small victories: "No asphalt inside the complex," Rodriguez says with satisfaction.
What you'll encounter here now: a vast natural wonderland inhabited by gray foxes, spotted skunks, bobcats, manatees, a broad assortment of birds; an up-close look at the lifestyles of the olden-day rich and famous; and a spectacular view of the vibrant realm of Biscayne Bay.
What Rodriguez envisions here eventually: a canoe launch (so the public can visit the island annex of the property, Chicken Key), a quarter-mile boardwalk through the mangroves, and wheelchair paths. Further infusions of money could bring antique furnishings, artwork (Deering's priceless collection now rests with heirs and the Art Institute of Chicago), and restoration of the wine cellar, which was hidden in a vault behind a bookcase and contained 12,000 bottles, 8000 of which survived Andrew, albeit in poor condition.
What Rodriguez finds here indefinitely: "The good life."
-- Greg Baker
The reopening celebration of the Deering Estate at Cutler, 16701 SW 72nd Ave, takes place at 11:00 a.m. Saturday, March 27. Admission is free. Call 305-755-7800.