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.
Because a giant crane will be stationed at the house’s main entrance, visitors will enter through the rear, bay-facing loggia.
Hoffman had hoped that, once the old canopy was removed, the courtyard could be briefly reopened. But the job will require construction of a platform just beneath the canopy that will cover the courtyard and remain in place until the new roof is installed, he said.
The canopy enclosure, which 25 years ago cost $3.5 million, allowed the house to be air conditioned for the first time to protect furnishings and interior finishes from South Florida’s salt air, humidity and insects.
But critics complained the canopy and its ponderous support trusses not only cut off the house interior from its intended connections to the bay, the gardens and the surrounding mangroves and hardwood hammock, but also cast unwelcome shadows on the courtyard. They also disliked that it dimmed the natural light, and obscured the view from inside the atrium of Vizcaya’s picturesque rooftop towers.
The canopy columns and structural pieces also failed to align with the house’s columns and geometry, giving the roof even more of an obtrusive look.
Vizcaya administrators at the time said they had considered keeping the courtyard open while closing off just the house’s loggias, rooms and arcades. But they discarded that option after deciding it would disrupt the continuous flow from courtyard to house interior that was central to the experience and design of Vizcaya.
Current management came to the same conclusion, and focused instead on a new design that would ameliorate the effect of the old canopy. Hoffman said.
Over three years, Vizcaya staff, their architects at MC Harry Associates and a team of consultants that included faculty from the University of Miami and Florida International University architecture schools, looked at a variety of possible structural designs. They eliminated some because their contemporary styling clashed too much with the house’s architecture, and others because they didn’t meet South Florida’s stringent hurricane standards.
“We couldn’t eliminate the skylight, so what’s the next best thing?’’ said MC Harry project architect Lourdes Solera. “We found lots of beautiful skylights out there, but they don’t necessarily have Miami-Dade County product approval.’’
The planners also considered completely flat designs, but renderings suggested that option would place structural pieces too much “in your face’’ in relation to visitors standing at the upstairs galleries, Hoffman and Solera said.
In the end, they settled on a simple design, a hipped-roof shape that preserves the feeling of volume inside the courtyard while reducing the canopy’s exterior profile. The flatter, lower top means the tower at the house’s rear will now be plainly visible as visitors approach the house, renderings show.
The four, slimmed-down support columns and the canopy mullions will also align with the courtyard’s colonnades and other architectural elements. Because the new structure will be of light aluminum, it requires only a slim support beam on all four sides instead of the complex truss that holds up the existing canopy.
Along with the new canopy, the courtyard’s stucco and coral-stone surfaces will be cleaned, and a new, improved and less obtrusive lighting system will be installed, Hoffman said.
Crews have already dug up historically inaccurate palms and foliage from the courtyard’s planters. Those will be replaced by native species of the type Deering enjoyed during his stewardship of Vizcaya, which ended with his death in 1925 — including Brazilian ironwood, Florida thatch palms and flowering joy perfume trees.
After all that, and before the plants and trees go in, though, administrators will confront one more chore that many South Florida homeowners dread.
They’re going to have to tent Vizcaya.