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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | FLORIDA

Grand Mansions of the Gilded Age

Like a String of Pearls, Lavish Estates, Pools and Hotels Dot the Tropical Playground of the Turn-of-the-Century's Rich and Famous

October 17, 1999|LUCRETIA BINGHAM | Lucretia Bingham last wrote about Connecticut for the magazine

Stone ornamentation highlights the doors, the windows, even the drainpipes of the three-story Italianate mansion. A giant lead frog shoots water into a trough that trickles into a reflecting pool. Muscled statues flank the entrance to a grotto hidden deep in a sunken garden. A tiny arched bridge leads the way to a stone Roman barge. Where am I? Not even close to Italy, but just south of Miami, in Coconut Grove.

I have come to Florida to see the remnants of the Gilded Age, to revisit an era in which mansion-raising became a blood sport along Biscayne Bay and other untouched shores. Quirky millionaires, including my great-grandmother, threw their money--hard-won, pre-income tax fortunes made in oil, railroads, jewels--into vacation trophy houses. Only ennui and the stock market crash cooled their enthusiasm. (Ends of centuries are not known for minimalism, as today's technology billionaires can attest.)

Lured by the beauty and winter warmth of sparsely populated Dade County, these millionaire homesteaders, starting in the 1890s, ran hundreds of miles of track from Jacksonville, the southernmost railroad stop, to the glittering waters where they would build. Having cultivated a taste for Renaissance architecture on trips to Europe, they fancied themselves "new Venetians" and commissioned palaces, hotels, even whole cities, as grand as the originals in Spain or Italy. Vast lawns and elaborate gardens framed their monuments to luxury.

I flew to Miami late in the day and drove south through downtown to the charming 93-year-old Miami River Inn, part of which once housed construction workers who would leave the humble lodge each day to ply their Old World trades at the nearby estates-in-progress. I visited their handiwork the next morning at Vizcaya, minutes away. On my final approach to the mansion, built by International Harvester founder James Deering, I descended a long cascade of steps to the grand front patio that owes its lovely pale gray to coral limestone. The coral's grainy surface replicates years of erosion and creates the illusion, achieved on many of the local structures, that this sprawling home from 1916 is hundreds of years old.

Deering asked his architect, F. Burrall Hoffman, to design Vizcaya as if succeeding generations had added on to it, thus justifying his shopping sprees abroad to fill the many sitting rooms, the music room, the Renaissance hall--34 decorated rooms in all. Hoffman had carte blanche, yet Deering would follow him around, asking forlornly: "Must we be so grand?" His vision outspent his fortune. After his death in 1925, the money gone, Vizcaya fell into gloomy disrepair.

In 1952, Dade County bought the showplace for a song and opened it to the public. It has become a popular wedding site. While roaming the gardens, I watched one prospective bride lift her balloon skirt as she drifted down from a bay-side gazebo. A photographer snapped pictures of her, capturing the glamour of another era, if only for a moment.

I had visited Vizcaya as a child and remembered its elegance being a bit tattered and mildewed. Not so now. As I ranged through the restored bedrooms, each more tasteful than the last, I struggled to choose the one in which I would most like to sleep. The 18th century chinoiserie that evoked ladies dressed in papery white lying languidly in the afternoon heat? Or the space with an exquisite Biedermeier desk and pale green silk walls that conjured up the image of a visiting Yankee industrialist, stiff in his boiled shirt fronts?

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Mansions once stretched north from coconut grove along Biscayne Bay like a string of mismatched pearls. All but a few have been razed for condos and apartment buildings. Yet in reels of childhood memories, I see Moorish castles, Italian villas, Spanish cortijos. My great-grandmother, Anna Olivia Tiffany, was the daughter of the jewelry store founder. In the '20s, she and her younger brother, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the renowned glassmaker, bought land bordering Biscayne Bay. In a spasm of sibling rivalry, Anna raced to finish her Arts and Crafts-influenced mansion, called Sweet Way, before Louis could finish his. Afternoons, each would walk to the other's site on Brickell Avenue and inspect the latest developments. Louis always had his "friend in yellow," as Granny called her, on his arm. "He doesn't bother to marry them anymore," she complained in her journal. After one visit, Granny wrote that she had to countermand orders that Louis had given to her builders.

The house that she eventually would bequeath to my father boasted windows that slid up into domed ceilings; a covered bridge supported by Roman columns and all kinds of loggias. Like the queen of her own colony, Granny wore a bundle of tiny keys on a diamond-studded chain. They opened the built-in cupboards, scattered in guest houses throughout the property and filled with fine linens and silver.

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