Vizcaya’s four-person storm team was entrusted with a daunting mission: Shield the interior of James Deering’s magnificent, extravagant, eccentric recreation of an Italian villa from the fury of Hurricane Irma’s winds.
The Gilded Age estate sits on the threshold of Biscayne Bay — the better for Deering’s tuxedoed guests to pull up at the yacht landing for parties — as it has for a century.
So the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens endured the brunt of the storm, as Marvin Mora can attest. He spent 40 sleepless hours inside, and while that might sound like the world’s dreamiest house-sitting gig, having the run of a historic mansion — complete with pipe organ — Mora and comrades had to scramble from room to ornate room, mopping up water, checking on vases and tapestries, closing windows that flew open and propping their bodies against bowing doors in the Breakfast Room.
“All four of us were leaning against the doors with all our might for about an hour. It was tense, extremely,” said Mora, Vizcaya’s assistant security chief. “These are floor-to-ceiling glass doors that were rocking in and out, and with every gust we got thrown back.”
Later they had to run to the dining room, where the doors had burst open.
“It took all four of us to push them shut and the wind was so strong it was sliding us backward,” he said. “If that wind and rain was allowed to blow through, who knows?”
The rest of the time they were searching for leaks and puddles, armed with towels and buckets.
From the courtyard Mora witnessed the storm surge Sunday morning. Rising bay waters covered Vizcaya’s famous stone barge up to its railings and rolled halfway up the outdoor stairs. The salt water submerged the gardens, where the grass has already begun turning brown, and deposited seaweed everywhere.
“It was an astonishing sight,” he said. “I’d say it came up five feet above sea level.”
Mora has a passion for Miami’s iconic palace at 3521 South Miami Ave., which he calls “a significant part of my life.” He took his responsibility seriously. Even the slightest water intrusion would cause significant damage to the priceless art, furniture and decorative objects that Deering and designer Paul Chalfin chose for the International Harvester tycoon’s winter retreat.
Deering, who died on an ocean liner returning from Paris in 1925, would have been proud of how his house stood up to Irma. His builders used antique Italian marble and native coral rock as well as innovative poured concrete.
“It is a rock,” executive director Joel Hoffman said as he walked around the estate Wednesday, attending to repairs. “Its architects and contractors built a solid house meant to last, and it will be here for many generations to enjoy.”
Although Vizcaya was damaged in the 1926 hurricane, it held up under Katrina and Wilma’s duress, Hoffman said. The main problem, again, was flooding of the lower floor, which includes the swimming pool and the café and shop, which used to be Deering’s game room. Salt water was being pumped out Wednesday, and a layer of silt remained in the pool.
Part of the yacht-landing parapet was destroyed and its limestone pavers were dislodged “as if they were pieces of Styrofoam,” Hoffman said.
The barge was intact, but some of the balusters and caryatid statues will have to be restored. The tea house’s wooden elements were broken and scattered, but Vizcaya was in the process of replacing them already.
The bayfront façade, which had been refurbished in recent years with impact windows and doors and rebuilt columns, “came through beautifully,” Hoffman said.
The perforated metal screens on the windows eventually need to be replaced because they allow wind and wind-driven water to permeate.
“We need a stronger system,” said Hoffman, who was relieved that the generator was powering dehumidifiers inside. He was worried about moisture in the basement and throughout the house and anxious to get the air conditioning working.
The gardens fared much worse during Katrina and Wilma, when many of the 100 sculptures and decorative elements lost heads and limbs when trees and branches fell on them. After a major conservation program and careful pruning, the sculptures were fine this time.
But Vizcaya’s rockland hammock took a beating. It looked like a mad barber had gone through with a giant pair of scissors.
“It was a case of nature meeting nature instead of a designed environment,” Hoffman said. “Overall, we were quite lucky.”