The lost stories of Vizcaya

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Tucked away behind lush green foliage, a winding concrete path dotted with grottoes and Italian Renaissance-style statues leads to one of Miami’s most beautiful, famous properties — the grandiose and spectacular Villa Vizcaya.

Built in 1916 as a private winter estate by industrialist James Deering, we can all imagine the lavish parties and the exotic guests who attended them. Many of us have read stories of Deering’s life, his history meticulously documented on the walls of the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens.

But there at least a few stories you haven’t heard — those of the the chefs, the maids, and the chauffeurs. And parts of the building that seem just a bit peculiar, like the empty moat that surrounds the mansion, and the out of place glass ceiling that rests above.

In other words, the “lost” stories of Vizcaya.

“The idea of ‘lost’ is both physical and conceptual,” explained Gina Wouters, curator of Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. “It’s not just design elements but also stories like staff life and kind of the social history of the space.”

Now in its centennial year, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is seeking to unveil parts of the house’s history with an art exhibit entitled Lost Spaces and Stories of Vizcaya, bringing to light people and places that have long gone unnoticed.

On housekeepers, chefs, and chauffeurs

This inspired local artists David Rohn and Frances Trombly to find a way to bring the staff back to life — reminding visitors that servants and Deering’s guests coexisted in this ornate villa.

Rohn’s has featured himself as everything from a maid to a property manager in the 15 portraits of himself dressed as staff members. The frames have been discreetly hung on walls or propped in the corners of the villa’s main rooms to make it look like they’re just there, hanging out, dusting and cooking.

Walking through the house you might notice bare metal hooks hung in corners. This is where bell pulls — devices that guests would pull on to ring a bell in the staff’s quarters, summoning them for help — used to hang. Trombley handcrafted 15 bell pulls and hung them around the house. Like Rohn’s, this installation once again brings the Villa’s staff into Vizcaya’s narrative.

Meanwhile, in the staff’s quarters, previously closed to guests, local filmmaker Magnus Sigurdarson will screen a telenovela filmed in two of the house’s rooms. The show will shed some light on how Vizcaya’s occupants walked through and used the home.

The story of the place

They’re also pulling back the curtain on the building itself, which has transformed over time. A glass ceiling has been added to the main house’s courtyard, which was entirely open air until 1987 when collections inside the building, like curtains, maps, and bell pulls were worn down by the elements. By 2012, after Hurricane Wilma hit, the ceiling was replaced with aid from a FEMA grant.

The impact of natural elements on the house also inspired local artists Juraj Koj, Duane Brant, and Lucinda Linderman. Koj and Brant will focus their energies on a moat that runs around the house and underneath the ticketing booth.

Using soundwaves, Koj hopes to bring the sound of water into the moat, which has become more of a nature trail, because the porous rock prevented Deering from actually filling the moat with water. Brant’s piece calls attention to the often overlooked empty moat’s length and depth by tracing a white reflective line through the path.

Linderman’s piece looks at the house over time — populating a row of antique map racks with soft maps tracing the history and future of Vizcaya, from the 1920s to 50 years from now.

The maps chronicle the how the property and surrounding area has changed with storms and how it might be impacted by sea level rise in the years to come.

“It’s so real for us … to see how sea level rise is impacting Vizcaya itself is terrifying,” admitted Wouters. “It’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot.”

Eleven Miami-based artists will feature their works at Vizcaya, telling scores of lost histories of people, places, and the spaces in between. The exhibit’s opening reception will be on May 5, at 7:30 p.m., and you can RSVP here.