There are many Vanderbilt mansions, all of them grander, and certainly larger, than the relatively modest manse on Miami’s Fisher Island that bears the famous family name.
Ah, but if only you could see it — the beautifully proportioned stone and stucco Mediterranean Revival exterior, the octagonal entry, the soaring living room and the old dining room paneled in antique oak and mahogany, all of it extensively and exquisitely restored — then you might want to stay a while.
Alas, the 1930s estate, a designated Miami-Dade County historic landmark, sits at the heart of an ultra-private club and hotel on an island off the tip of Miami Beach that’s accessible only by ferry.
Or by a very large bank account.
In spite of the plush setting, though, the mansion had received little more than cosmetic care since the island was turned into a club and resort community some 25 years ago. The home, which has long served as the club’s hub, had come to be plagued by leaks, wood rot, structural issues and unkind adaptations.
The Fisher Island Club last year embarked on a full restoration, the culmination of a $60 million program of upgrades to the grounds and facilities. The work, now nearly complete, has brought the house back to the relaxed elegance of the few short years in which it served as the winter retreat for William K. Vanderbilt II, great-grandson of Cornelius, the railroad baron and begetter of one of the great American family fortunes.
“There were quite a few structural issues that were not readily apparent in a building that otherwise looked glamorous,’’ said renovation architect Richard Heisenbottle, whose team crawled under the house, opened up walls, removed and replaced ceilings and the roof to inspect and repair the mansion. “The good news is, it’s really in top-notch condition now. It really harkens back to the time of Vanderbilt.’’
The care lavished on the restoration extended to saving and refinishing, rather than replacing, the bronze-framed windows, the window hardware, and, whenever possible, even the original window glass, Heisenbottle said.
At a time when numerous waterfront Miami Beach homes from that same period are being demolished and replaced by mega-mansions, Heisenbottle says, the Vanderbilt restoration demonstrates how architectural landmarks from a bygone era can very much be adapted to the expectations — always eminently reasonable, one presumes — of today’s Bentley set, while keeping what made them worth saving in the first place.
Miami Beach, in fact, recently approved the demolition of a North Bay Road home by the Vanderbilt mansion’s original designer, Maurice Fatio, a Palm Beach architect still regarded as among the best ever to put pencil to a house plan in South Florida. The Swiss-born Fatio also designed Palm Beach-area homes for William Vanderbilt’s brother Harold and sister Consuelo.
Since Fatio designed it in 1935, the Fisher Island house had been added on to, including a ballroom and kitchen and a restaurant and lounge. But Heisenbottle said the additions were done sensitively and kept the focus where it belongs — on the original two-story, L-shaped house, which faces the Atlantic.
Though certainly opulent — the dining room and Vanderbilt’s second-floor study, for instance, are lined in antique paneling he brought from Europe, and its rooms boast marble fireplaces — the house was never meant to be Vizcaya. It had just two bedrooms, for Vanderbilt and his second wife, Rosamund. Her daughter, Rosemary, stayed in a spacious “cottage’’ the size of a small house, with an ornate stone doorway, that flanks the mansion. Another cottage served as Rosamund’s painting studio.