Biscayne Bay is lined with plenty of eye-popping structures fit for a sweet Architectural Digest spread, but none on that waterway is quite as impressive as Vizcaya Museum & Gardens. The Italian Renaissance-style former villa and estate of businessman and environmentalist James Deering was built on a seaside strip of mangrove forest in the early 20th Century. And, man, it has withstood the test of time.
In the 1980s and '90s, the grounds were the magical setting for the annual Ren Fest, where guests got gloriously greasy with a leg of turkey and had tarot cards read by a woman in a very tight corset. But these days, the fest has headed north, and Vizcaya is coming up with more original ways to display its house and gardens, such as the new Seersucker Game Night.
The night takes its cue from the 1920s, when the villa was occupied, and the games of choice during Wednesday night's inaugural event will include bowling, yard dice, and croquet. It will all be set to the sounds of live jazz, and guests are encouraged to match the celebrated time frame with their garb. And there is simply no place better suited for a game of croquet while donning flapper attire than Vizcaya — it's like F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Alice in Wonderland.
New Times spoke with Vizcaya's curator, Gina Wouters, and learning programs manager Rebecca Peterson for a blast into the property’s past. The organizers offered details about how the house's architecture allowed for easy access to leisure activities and what these old-timey people smoked. Only the essentials.
New Times: Can you describe a scene at Vizcaya out of the James Deering days?
Gina Wouters: Monogrammed and partially gilded cigarettes illustrate the level of indulgence Vizcaya witnessed in James Deering’s day. We actually do not know much about how the house was used by Deering or his guests. In a way, we can only deduce what happened in a social context by the material culture that remains. In addition to the fancy cigarettes, there are poker chips and billiard cues and spaces that once housed a bowling alley.
We know that several high-profile guests did come visit and stay at Vizcaya, and we can speculate at the fun they had. The south property, where Mercy hospital and La Salle High School now stand, provided much opportunity for exploration, respite, and leisure. Guests could navigate the area on gondolas that took them throughout the exotic evocation. Fishing was certainly another activity that guests enjoyed on one of Deering’s two boats.
Remember that the Prohibition era coincides with Deering’s residence at Vizcaya, but that wasn’t a deterrent. The overbearing presence of Bacchus, god of wine, and Bacchanalian iconography says something about the merry intent of the house.
What role did games play in the day-to-day of those living then?
Wouters: James Deering had tennis courts in the no-longer-extant south property part of the gardens. And, of course, the partially indoors/partially outdoors swimming pool that is adorned with a fanciful Robert Winthrop Chanler ceiling certainly must have brought much pleasure. The pool was next to the historic recreational rooms. These were located where the café and shop are now housed.
Was it likely Deering played any of these games?
Wouters: Although we don’t have any accounts of Deering using these spaces, the architecture of the house — which allows for quick access to these spaces from both his private suite on the second floor and from the main rooms on the first floor — indicate that good use was made of them.
It’s hard to imagine someone building a house equipped with these games and not playing them, even if only once! I think we can assume he did. The upcoming exhibition, "Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya," considers the historic use of the wonderful garden pavilion on the Casino Mound. With this project, artist Brookhart Jonquil speculates at how the room might have been used by Deering and his guests. His installation opens in November 2016.
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Why did you choose to do this night in particular?
Rebecca Peterson: Vizcaya often serves as a place for reverence and, in some ways, is almost paralyzing with the awe it inspires. This reverence is certainly appropriate, but it can mean that Vizcaya is not often seen as a home, designed and built to be a place of use by way of leisure and entertainment. As we strive to find ways to tell the entire story of this estate and its people, we continually encounter perceptions of Vizcaya as the backdrop for quinceañera photos or an attraction for friends and family from out of town. While these are both important and valued aspects of Vizcaya’s role in Miami, we are also trying to demonstrate that Vizcaya can, and hopes to, serve as a place for our locals to come for fun — for interesting, challenging, and enticing experiences and for respite from the busyness of our daily lives.
Vizcaya is precious, definitely, but it’s also a community resource unlike any other — a gem in the center of our city that doesn’t always need to be approached with kid gloves. What better way to convey that message than with a night of games, music, and general revelry à la the 1920s?
Will there be games people have never played before?
Peterson: Interestingly, the games that were played then are games we all know now, only in different form. Bingo, originally called beano because players used beans to mark their numbers, will be on the patio for people to play while having dinner. Bunco, which is a game Northerners might be familiar with, is a silly numbers game, all about luck, and uses a plush die because you toss it to your teammates. Hula hoops, now an exercise fad, have been around since the 1400s, and likely well before that, used in cultural ritual and practice. We are shaking up other games, like croquet and lawn bowling, with a location twist — think croquet on an island, or lawn bowling where it’s very possible your bowling ball ends up in the bay… and it’s only going to get more exciting as people avail themselves with Deering wine and local beer!
Will someone be teaching them?
Peterson: Yes! We will have a series of folks roaming to demonstrate how the games work. We will also have the dreaded instructions for those inclined to read. Or you can just make it up as you go along!
Any advice on how to dress?
Peterson: For those inclined to dress the part, it's 1920s all the way — seersucker suits, vests, spats, two-toned oxfords, bow ties, suspenders, and fedoras; drop-waist sheath dresses or jumpsuits, Mary Janes designed for dancing, featuring medium chunky heels with a buckle (stilettos are not the way to go for this night), hats and headbands, scarves, gloves, and, of course, pearls. Remember, the goal is to be free to move — badminton in a corset is not the best look!
Seersucker Game Night
6 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-250-9133; visit vizcaya.org.