A Dispatches Day Trip
Florida Follies/Bachelor Pads
From December through February, Miami and Palm Beach host the art and antiques fairs that make those months a good time to visit southern Florida and an ideal time to finish your hunting and gathering at two places that will clear your head: Vizcaya, the vast 1916 Italianate villa in Coconut Grove created by the heir to the International Harvester fortune, and Coral Castle, the dreamscape of a penniless Latvian émigré a little farther south in Leisure City (near Homestead). This is an unlikely pairing to be sure but it is more than a high/low experience. Seeing these two follies in one outing as I have done twice may rearrange your thinking on creating and collecting.
Neither James Deering (1859-1925), creator of Vizcaya, nor Edward Leedskalnin (1887-1951), Coral Castle’s visionary builder, ever married. Neither was healthy. Deering had pernicious anemia and Leedskalnin tuberculosis. They each created a heaven/haven, fueled by obsessions so compelling that only death could complete it, which is fitting since the presence of mortality was probably the prime mover for both visions.
Vizcaya is one man’s tribute to the past, the accumulation of fragments shored against his ruin. The sixteenth and seventeenth-century Dutch, French, and Italian paintings, the classical sculpture, the Italian furniture and formal gardens may seem like gilded age Newport but this is a far more personal and emotional paradise and more intriguing to my mind. Deering was a wide ranging collector whose reach extended into his own time: John Singer Sargent painted his portrait; Alexander Stirling Calder created the breakwater sculpture that juts into Biscayne Bay. He cultivated many rare plants that still survive. He was a rescuer.
The Vizcaya experience, now run by Miami-Dade County, is well orchestrated for the visitor who will not hear the word eccentric uttered in connection with James Deering. His worldview and worldly position were too recognizable for that, his collections too “readable.” But eccentric is the word routinely applied to Leedskalnin’s Coral Castle where nothing has come from anywhere save the creator’s highly personal philosophy as expressed in 1,100 tons of coral rock.
The engineering feats of one man working alone to create this garden of visionary shapes is well described on the castle’s website where you can also read about his crackpot theories on women, taxes, and health. What you can’t find online is what you will see for yourself: Leedskalnin’s sense of sculptural space and the play of light and shadow that are so carefully calibrated to dramatize it. Nor can you feel the quest for dominion here that is every bit as cuckoo as Vizcaya’s.
Essential Reading for Your Trip
John Beardsley’s Gardens of Revelation (Abbeville, 1995) is a superb guide to environments across the country that express a private vision of paradise. Coral Castle is among these though Vizcaya, quite naturally, is not. And yet I was surprised and pleased to see that Beardsley has a sentence suggesting that the two places share more than their location in south Florida.
Lyssa Goldberg’s guide to food and drink near Coral Castle and Vizcaya
Robert Is Here: A tropical fruit stand with wild fruits such as Asian guavas, black sapote, carambola (star fruit), guanabana, jackfruit, and others. Try a tropical fruit milkshake (a favorite is mango key lime. It’s like drinking a slice of pie) before spending the day at Coral Castle.
19200 SW 344th Street, Homestead/ 305-246-1592
Schnebly Redland’s Winery: A charming venue that produces tropical fruit wines. Instead of grape varietals you’ll find guava wine, coconut wine, avocado wine, passion fruit wine, and so forth. You can sample them in the wine tasting room.
Redlander: For a complete meal visit Schnebly’s farm-to-table restaurant.
30205 SW 217th Avenue, Homestead/ 305-242-1224
Glass & Vine: This is a fairly new spot located within Coconut Grove’s Peacock Park so dining on the patio amidst the greenery is highly recommended. It’s expensive but the food is by Giorgio Rapicavoli, one of Miami’s hottest chefs.
2820 McFarlane Road Coconut Grove/ 305-200-5268
Monty’s Raw Bar: This is a more casual spot right on the water with a great view, good atmosphere and fried seafood, raw bar, and frozen drinks. If it’s a weekday visit, come during happy hour.
2550 S. Bayshore Drive Coconut Grove/ 305-856-3992