Miami-Dade County

Vizcaya seeks ideas for new use of old Miami science museum site

A view from 1916 of the Vizcaya Village farm with the superintendent’s house and service buildings in the background. The buildings remain but the farm was replaced by the Miami science museum building and the Bay Heights subdivision.
A view from 1916 of the Vizcaya Village farm with the superintendent’s house and service buildings in the background. The buildings remain but the farm was replaced by the Miami science museum building and the Bay Heights subdivision. Courtesy of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

When industrialist James Deering built his ornate Villa Vizcaya on the edge of the wilderness on Biscayne Bay nearly a century ago, he did not confine his sprawling vision to the palatial house and its lavish gardens.

Across the road — today’s South Miami Avenue — Deering had a working village built to serve the house, in the tradition of the great old European estates he sought to emulate. The village encompassed a large farm and greenhouse that grew food for the house’s table and plants for its gardens, which once extended as far south as the site where Mercy Hospital sits today.

The village’s buildings remain, including restored barns, stables and staff housing, but the farmstead is long gone, plowed under for houses and the old Miami science museum and its parking lot. Now, though, with the science museum shut down and set to reopen next year in a new downtown home, Vizcaya administrators have grand designs on the six-acre property, which under a longstanding plan is to revert to the publicly owned institution’s control.

They want to bring it back to a semblance of something Deering might recognize. Meaning, in part, a farm. And no mere historic exhibit, but a productive “kitchen garden” to give visitors a truer taste of Vizcaya’s elaborate functioning when Deering was in residence and, very possibly, also to supply restaurants with a hot commodity: fresh, locally grown food.

To hone the idea, Vizcaya is launching a master-planning effort with a series of three public forums starting Thursday evening. Administrators also want to know how they might use the science museum and farm village site to enhance visitors’ experience and amp up educational programs. To do so, they say, they need a visitor’s center, an auditorium and exhibition and storage space — facilities most museums have but that Vizcaya’s main house, an architectural gem crammed with fragile art and antique treasures, could never accommodate.

The main house is filled with delicate artifacts, and we’re just out of space.

Vizcaya executive director Joel Hoffman

Vizcaya executive director Joel Hoffman stresses he’s looking to keep expansion costs modest and the emphasis on open public space. But he also notes that Vizcaya’s attendance has exploded in recent years, doubling to around 225,000 visitors annually, and the main house and its grounds and parking lot are often bursting at the seams.

So an important part of the brief for Vizcaya’s architectural and planning consulting firms, MC Harry and Quinn Evans, is figuring out how to re-integrate the two halves of the estate — both of which are included in its designation as a National Historic Landmark — across busy South Miami Avenue, he said. That might mean shifting parking and arrival to the village site, and coming up with a safe and appealing way to get visitors across to the main house and gardens, Hoffman said.

“The main house is filled with delicate artifacts, and we’re just out of space. We see the village as a way to create a better point of arrival for our visitors,” he said before adding: “Bringing back green space has always been part of our plan.”

And that brings up the question of what, if anything, to do with the old science museum building, its domed planetarium annex and its acres of asphalt-covered parking. Re-creating a farmstead could require demolishing a portion, if not all, of the structure, and it’s as yet undetermined whether the old building, a Modernist 1960 structure that was expanded and reclad in pseudo-Mediterranean stucco over the years, could even be compatibly adapted to Vizcaya’s needs, Hoffman said.

Vizcaya’s vision recently won the endorsement of one significant figure, Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the museum site. Suarez was initially leery of a plan by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez to turn over management of Vizcaya and both sides of the property to a new nonprofit board, rather than continuing to run it as a county agency with county employees. That arrangement, under which the county would retain ownership, would also help boost private donations for Vizcaya’s operation and improvement, Gimenez said.

Earlier this year, Suarez penned a letter to the Miami Herald with Miami-Dade school board member Raquel Regalado questioning Gimenez’ proposal and suggesting instead that the science museum site be turned over to the county parks department for recreational use.

But after meeting with Vizcaya administrators and learning more about their concept, including their intention to restore open space and seek public input, Suarez said he is now “copacetic” with Gimenez’s proposal. He had an aide with a flair for architectural renderings, J.C. Garrido, a volunteer guide at Vizcaya, prepare a suggested site plan that shows the science museum building gone and replaced with a farm field and a new greenhouse.

“This is very much along the lines of what they want to do there,” Suarez said of Vizcaya administrators. “Maybe the two sides of South Miami, the house and the old museum, should be under one governance, maybe not. But that’s up to the administration. I don’t really have any great concerns about the governance issue.”

But Regalado, who is running for county mayor against Gimenez, said she remains concerned about the proposed management change and opposed to turning over control over the expansion and construction contracting. She said most of the science museum building is in bad shape and should be torn down, but believes Vizcaya should retain the planetarium and the adjoining entry lobby building for community use.

She’s also skeptical of the idea of restoring the site for farming use, saying she doubts it would draw many repeat visits from Miami residents, and reiterated her call for it to be made available for broader community use.

“That’s a tough sell in a community where people haven’t been here that long,” she said of the historic farm-restoration concept, proposing instead a space for activities and festivals like those run by Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. “You need to have something that appeals to residents. It’s a public space and it should have a public utility.”

But Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, who has worked with the museum in the past, said revitalizing the village site would restore Vizcaya’s historic integrity and increase its appeal.

“That is so important to bringing the story of Vizcaya back together,” she said.

The Vizcaya Museum will host three public forums on the revitalization of the Vizcaya Village: at 6 p.m. Thursday; 9 a.m. Saturday; and 6 p.m. Tuesday. All take place at the restored garage at the village. Parking is in the adjacent old Miami science museum lot, 3280 South Miami Ave.