Author’s family history tied to Vizcaya


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Special to the Miami Herald

My father came to the Magic City in 1916 at the tender age of 3. His mother had taken a new job and moved from Chicago. She wanted to start a new life in what was truly a “frontier” on Biscayne Bay.

With perhaps only 10,000 people calling Miami home, it was a tropical paradise with inexpensive land and crystal blue waters teeming with marine life.

My grandmother, Althea Altemus, brought my father Robert to Miami after accepting the job of James Deering’s private secretary at the new “Gilded Age” mansion, Vizcaya. She spent seven years attending to the wealthy industrialist’s business needs while he was in South Florida.

I vaguely recall stories of my grandmother “rubbing elbows” with the Deering brothers (James and Charles), Phineas Paist (associate architect of Vizcaya, who would later design many landmark Coral Gables buildings) and the politician, William Jennings Bryan, who was once Deering’s neighbor and a major contributor to Miami’s real estate boom of the 1920s.

Dad would graduate in 1931 from the then high school, Ponce De Leon. He would go on to become a prominent CPA and banker. My brother Robert, who passed away earlier this year, and I started our own journey in South Miami, living east of U.S. 1 on Kendall Drive, across the street from where Gulliver Academy stands today. I rode my bicycle to Pinecrest Elementary at Southwest 104th Street and Red Road.

There was no development for miles, which left peaceful woods and fields to explore and fuel a child’s imagination. No one bothered to lock homes or car doors when going into South Miami to shop or eat. I drive by my first school, Pinecrest Elementary, every workday morning on my commute to my Coral Gables office. Seeing the children in the playground reminds me of a “simpler Miami.”

My father’s generation, often called the “greatest generation,” was tough-minded and persevered through one of the most difficult periods in U.S. history. As I enter the fourth quarter of my business career, I now realize what my father passed on to me. I am a banker who has survived over 40 years in the financial service industry. After navigating six bank mergers since 1980, I am still employed. Thank you Dad, for your silent and enduring strength and what it stands for.

My father was not a “communicator.” What little I learned about him and his mother strangely came from my mother Rosemarie.

In 1985, when I got married at Vizcaya, the destination was solely based on its beauty. At that time, I had little knowledge of my father’s and his mother’s intimate experiences at Miami’s landmark residence. My father would ride his bicycle after school to Vizcaya to wait for his mother to get off work. Fishing off of Vizcaya’s famous barge would quickly yield a boat full of fish and lobster. Miami then was the Bahamas of today.

Last year, my limited knowledge of my father and grandmother’s role in early Miami history quickly changed with a discovery of a long-forgotten manuscript, written by Althea Altemus, following a chance encounter with Joel Hoffman, the current executive director of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

The encounter has contributed to a wealth of knowledge about Deering and his famous actor guests and other industrialists who would come to inspect the newest home of the “Gilded Age.”

Althea Altemus was employed at Vizcaya for seven years, leaving in 1923 to return to Chicago before returning to Miami a second time to retire.

The discovery of my grandmother’s ties to Vizcaya and its famous people in early 1900s Miami has driven a renewed interest in our family tree. Think of the excitement of the moment, if I had known more about my father’s relationship to this grand estate! I can only hope that he felt some nostalgia for his youth and early Miami experiences.

Miami is a very young city, unlike Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., with their excess of written history. Now that Miami is an important international city, it is important that families contribute to “her story” by sharing their experiences. Without the knowledge of how our city came to be, Miami cannot be truly appreciated.

As our city continues along its evolutionary timeline, don’t forget to speak to your sons and daughters.

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