Coconut Grove

Vizcaya visitors can now tour a little-known area of the mansion grounds

ggarvin@miamiherald.com

Vizcaya Open House

The Vizcaya Open House on Sunday, May 21, 2017, focused on re-introducing the village across the street from the Vizcaya main house which is returning to its roots now that the Museum of Science has relocated to Downtown Miami.
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The Vizcaya Open House on Sunday, May 21, 2017, focused on re-introducing the village across the street from the Vizcaya main house which is returning to its roots now that the Museum of Science has relocated to Downtown Miami.

Miami got a look at the other Vizcaya Sunday — not the one of Renaissance tapestries, limestone mermaids or Marie Antoinette's harpsichord, but the one of busted oil pans, broken horseshoes and vast expanses of chicken poop — and liked what it saw.

"Tycoons and stuff like that, I like it," said Jose Cuesta, a Miami video editor, as he strolled through Vizcaya Village, the seldom-seen area where farm-machinery zillionaire James Deering a century ago stashed the vehicles, livestock and human servants who made his ornate mansion a few hundred yards away function.

"I like the sense of history. And I like that they're opening it up to everyone to see."

The mansion itself — now formally known as the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens — has been open to the public since shortly after the city of Miami acquired it from Deering's descendants in 1952.

But the little collection of 11 service buildings — everything from a blacksmith shop to a car-repair garage to a small chicken-farm factory — were long ago converted to offices for city employees. The only visitors who ever saw them were occasional stragglers looking for the old Miami science museum, which was located next to the village.

But with the science museum decamped to a new location in Museum Park, Vizcaya administrators decided to convert the village into an attraction of its own, offering a glimpse into the mansion's working side, along with facilities like urban-faming sites and greenhouses.

Sunday was a free sneak peek for the public. (One that will be repeated in June and July.) It attracted about 1,000 visitors, despite a scorching heat that made one of the volunteer tour guides, Miami nurse Sandy Frank, reexamine some of her life choices.

"I think I'll volunteer to work at a table handing out free cupcakes inside the air conditioning," she confided to her group of visitors. Instead, she stuck with her guide duties. The high — or perhaps low — point of the tour was the building that housed the chickens whose eggs provided breakfast for mansion guests and workers alike.

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Small cupcakes of different flavors were served to every guest in the "Garage" to welcome them to the reopened Vizcaya Village on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Bryan Cereijo The Miami Herald

"Chicken House had all kinds of fowl," Frank began her description, then quickly clarified as she saw the horrified looks of the visitors: "That's F-O-W-L."

Most of the visitors seemed to come from the Miami area, something of a contrast to the crowds at the nearby mansion, which generally are composed of about two-thirds tourists.

They included a cluster of architecture junkies who, observing Vizcaya's Mediterranean style, murmured darkly that Coral Gables founder-planner George Merrick had obviously stolen his city's look. (Though Coral Gables city fathers would doubtless prefer the phrase "influenced by," it is a fact that Merrick's top architect, Phineas E. Paist, had earlier in his career been the on-site architect at Vizcaya.)

There were also large numbers of families with small kids, who mostly ignored the buildings but had a grand time at the various activity stands and food trucks dotting the village. When 4-year-old Henry Bolz of Coconut Grove was asked what his favorite part of his visit was — "your favorite part besides the popcorn," his mother Mary Beth clarified as he plunged both hands into a giant bag from a vendor — he promptly replied, "Planting seeds."

"What kind of seeds?" his puzzled mother asked.

"They were seeds," clarified Henry before resuming his popcorn research.

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President and Founder of Urban Paradise Guild Sam Van Leer cuts butterfly cuttings for the crowd at Vizcaya Village in Miami on Sunday, May 21, 2017. Bryan Cereijo The Miami Herald

It turned out that while Henry's parents had been visiting a booth labeled Free Butterfly Cuttings, Henry had been nearby at a little garden where Vizcaya staffers gave them seeds to plant. That Free Butterfly Cuttings booth, by the way, is not exactly what it sounds like, despite the deadpan explanation of Henry's dad (also, in a surprising coincidence, named Henry): "You know, butterfly legs and butterfly fingers."

"They're cuttings from butterfly plants, the kind of plants that attract butterflies," explained Mary Beth, clarifying that her family is not the Hannibal Lecter of the butterfly world. "You take them home, plant them, and then butterflies come to visit." Oh.

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