By now, few visitors take much notice of the glass-and-steel pyramid that covers the courtyard at Vizcaya and sticks out over the palace’s grand Italianate front like an alien space-pod.
But it wasn’t always there.
The controversial 1986 installation of the heavy spider web of black framing and tinted glass markedly changed the look and feel of industrialist James Deering’s lavish 1916 winter home. Until then it had been utterly open to South Florida’s alluring subtropical elements — a climate that turned out to be not so benign for a public museum chock-full of valuable art and furnishings, some centuries old.
Now the old skylight, leaking badly and no longer up to code, is coming down, to be replaced by a lighter, brighter, flatter canopy that Vizcaya administrators say should be a dramatic improvement over the unloved original.
Thank new materials and engineering, which will allow the use of slimmer columns and beams, as well as larger panels of clear glass, coated to let in substantially more daylight while cutting out heat and UV radiation. The result, architectural renderings suggest, will be a far less conspicuous structure, painted, to boot, in an evanescent “evening white’’ instead of brooding black.
“We’re using technology to cause the skylight to recede as much as possible,’’ said Vizcaya executive director Joel Hoffman, standing in the courtyard as around him workers carted out wheelbarrows of dirt from planters and assembled towers of scaffolding in preparation for dismantling the old canopy.
The skylight replacement, expected to top $2.7 million, caps a years-long, $50 million renovation of the publicly owned National Historic Landmark. It has seen its deteriorated 18th Century Italian outdoor statuary cleaned and repaired, gardens spruced up and replanted, construction of a sparkling new cafe and gift shop in Deering’s basement pool room, and — less visibly but no less significantly — badly overdue structural repairs and upgrades of electrical, fire-safety and security systems.
The bulk of the renovation cost has been covered by voter-approved Miami-Dade County bonds, with supplemental federal funding to repair damage from 2005’s Hurricane Wilma, which generated storm surge that flooded Vizcaya’s basement and destroyed the old cafe.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also will cover $1.4 million of the canopy replacement cost under a program that helps public facilities meet hurricane codes, with the balance coming from county bond proceeds.
Taking down the old skylight and erecting the new, a four-month job scheduled for completion in September, will require elaborate choreography. The goal: to protect the courtyard’s architectural elements and the home’s interior, while keeping the museum and gardens open for visitors and special events, the county institution’s chief source of operating income.
Plywood now covers the courtyard’s limestone flooring. The ground-floor arcades and second-floor galleries that surround it are sealed off with plastic sheeting.
Though the courtyard will be inaccessible to visitors, clear windows were put in the sheeting so that the curious can peek in on the work (also visible on a time-lapse webcam on www.vizcayamuseum.org). Admission will be discounted in the meantime.