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Miami Icons: Vizcaya, Birthplace of Magic City Luxury

San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, writer Lee Zimmerman argues that Vizcaya offers a lesson in Miami luxury.

Any place that provides the setting for a meeting between the Pope and the President has to be pretty special, right? So it was no small surprise that the luxurious Villa Vizcaya was chosen as the location for President Ronald Reagan to welcome Pope John Paul II for the Pontiff's first visit to Miami in 1987.

Vizcaya has a certain regal presence that befits the world's royalty. When Bill Clinton needed a place to host a Summit of the Americas in 1994, Vizcaya again seemed the natural choice.

Vizcaya's pomp and prestige was ingrained from its beginnings, when businessman James Deering decided he needed a pad on Biscayne Bay befitting a man who made the kid of fortune he did at the helm of the Deering-McCormick-International Harvester conglomerate. He set aside 180 acres of shoreline, swamp, and forest to construct a mansion that would reflect opulence and indulgence, complete with formal gardens, expansive private lands, and lush natural foliage. Construction took place between 1914 and 1922, and when it was completed, Deering had one of the grandest homes in the known universe, a regal estate that reflected the influence of classic French and Italian Renaissance architecture.

He filled his palace with priceless antiques and art treasures collected from around the world, setting it off with spectacular scenic surroundings, sweeping verandas, intimate out buildings and a distinctive ship-like dock that could accommodate any overflow.

Deering chose the name Vizcaya after the Spanish province of Vizcaya, which lies along the country's Bay of Biscay. Considering the fact that Deering chose Biscayne Bay as the site for his home, the name was obviously a natural.

The over-the-top opulence of Vizcaya is an obvious parallel to the ridiculous luxury you'll find in Miami. But the building shares even more of its history with the city. Deering used Viscaya as his winter home until his death in 1925 — think of him as the original snowbird. After that, hurricanes also took their toll on the property, creating something of a maintenance nightmare — something every long-time local knows a thing or two about.

Miami-Dade County acquired the house and gardens in the 1950s and turned it into a museum. Today, the home hosts weddings, special events, fundraisers and even the occasional film crew. It's generally considered one of Miami's most scenic retreats and a top tourist spot that's operated by the county and maintained by a local trust.

Given its sumptuous trappings and otherworldly ambiance, Villa Vizcaya provides a not so subtle reminder of the spoils that can be reaped from wealth and imagination — and the many ways those spoils can be squandered. Here in Miami, that's a lesson worth learning.

Previous Icons:

The Colony Hotel, Ocean Drive's Most Famous Art Deco Building

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