Grand Mansions of the Gilded Age

Lucretia Bingham last wrote about Connecticut for the magazine

Stone ornamentation highlights the doors, the windows, even the drainpipes of the three-story Italianate mansion. A giant lead frog shoots water into a trough that trickles into a reflecting pool. Muscled statues flank the entrance to a grotto hidden deep in a sunken garden. A tiny arched bridge leads the way to a stone Roman barge. Where am I? Not even close to Italy, but just south of Miami, in Coconut Grove.

I have come to Florida to see the remnants of the Gilded Age, to revisit an era in which mansion-raising became a blood sport along Biscayne Bay and other untouched shores. Quirky millionaires, including my great-grandmother, threw their money--hard-won, pre-income tax fortunes made in oil, railroads, jewels--into vacation trophy houses. Only ennui and the stock market crash cooled their enthusiasm. (Ends of centuries are not known for minimalism, as today's technology billionaires can attest.)

Lured by the beauty and winter warmth of sparsely populated Dade County, these millionaire homesteaders, starting in the 1890s, ran hundreds of miles of track from Jacksonville, the southernmost railroad stop, to the glittering waters where they would build. Having cultivated a taste for Renaissance architecture on trips to Europe, they fancied themselves "new Venetians" and commissioned palaces, hotels, even whole cities, as grand as the originals in Spain or Italy. Vast lawns and elaborate gardens framed their monuments to luxury.

I flew to Miami late in the day and drove south through downtown to the charming 93-year-old Miami River Inn, part of which once housed construction workers who would leave the humble lodge each day to ply their Old World trades at the nearby estates-in-progress. I visited their handiwork the next morning at Vizcaya, minutes away. On my final approach to the mansion, built by International Harvester founder James Deering, I descended a long cascade of steps to the grand front patio that owes its lovely pale gray to coral limestone. The coral's grainy surface replicates years of erosion and creates the illusion, achieved on many of the local structures, that this sprawling home from 1916 is hundreds of years old.

Deering asked his architect, F. Burrall Hoffman, to design Vizcaya as if succeeding generations had added on to it, thus justifying his shopping sprees abroad to fill the many sitting rooms, the music room, the Renaissance hall--34 decorated rooms in all. Hoffman had carte blanche, yet Deering would follow him around, asking forlornly: "Must we be so grand?" His vision outspent his fortune. After his death in 1925, the money gone, Vizcaya fell into gloomy disrepair.

In 1952, Dade County bought the showplace for a song and opened it to the public. It has become a popular wedding site. While roaming the gardens, I watched one prospective bride lift her balloon skirt as she drifted down from a bay-side gazebo. A photographer snapped pictures of her, capturing the glamour of another era, if only for a moment.

I had visited Vizcaya as a child and remembered its elegance being a bit tattered and mildewed. Not so now. As I ranged through the restored bedrooms, each more tasteful than the last, I struggled to choose the one in which I would most like to sleep. The 18th century chinoiserie that evoked ladies dressed in papery white lying languidly in the afternoon heat? Or the space with an exquisite Biedermeier desk and pale green silk walls that conjured up the image of a visiting Yankee industrialist, stiff in his boiled shirt fronts?

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Mansions once stretched north from coconut grove along Biscayne Bay like a string of mismatched pearls. All but a few have been razed for condos and apartment buildings. Yet in reels of childhood memories, I see Moorish castles, Italian villas, Spanish cortijos. My great-grandmother, Anna Olivia Tiffany, was the daughter of the jewelry store founder. In the '20s, she and her younger brother, Louis Comfort Tiffany, the renowned glassmaker, bought land bordering Biscayne Bay. In a spasm of sibling rivalry, Anna raced to finish her Arts and Crafts-influenced mansion, called Sweet Way, before Louis could finish his. Afternoons, each would walk to the other's site on Brickell Avenue and inspect the latest developments. Louis always had his "friend in yellow," as Granny called her, on his arm. "He doesn't bother to marry them anymore," she complained in her journal. After one visit, Granny wrote that she had to countermand orders that Louis had given to her builders.

The house that she eventually would bequeath to my father boasted windows that slid up into domed ceilings; a covered bridge supported by Roman columns and all kinds of loggias. Like the queen of her own colony, Granny wore a bundle of tiny keys on a diamond-studded chain. They opened the built-in cupboards, scattered in guest houses throughout the property and filled with fine linens and silver.

In those days, family and friends motored around in a chauffeur-driven locomobile--to Miami Beach for bodysurfing or Hialeah for the horse races--that fetched them back in time for tea. It was always served on a loggia furnished with a blue-and-white Chinese porcelain table. Below, a lawn as long as a par three sloped to the water. When my brother and I were children, we would taunt the boatloads of curious tourists chugging by. We may have acted as if we resented being ogled like monkeys in a zoo, but we could always escape to the serenity of boundless gardens and views.

My great-grandmother's infatuation with Miami waned after a few years. She went on to build other mansions in other places, as did many of her neighbors. When my father decided to sell the property, in the '70s, there was no cry from conservationists. But I knew that Laurinda Spear, the architect behind the vaulting condo project on the property, had preserved remnants of Granny's place. I pulled up in front of the Atlantis, an easy find since its distinctive facade--cobalt blue glass with a giant peephole circling a palm--appeared in the opening montage of the TV series "Miami Vice." I tried to talk my way past the snooty manager. A nicer man at the far humbler complex next door let me snoop over his wall, and I could see the old covered bridge, standing fast on its columns. A clump of hammock, where my brother and I played Tarzan, swinging on vines from fig tree to fig tree, still shadowed the back door of what had been the servants' quarters.

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About a five-minute drive southeast of Vizcaya lies coral Gables. Back in the 1920s, the swath of raw land gave developer George Merrick a free hand to plan an aesthetic dream of a city. Its streets intertwine with man-made canals that lead to the sea. Its homes reflect Merrick's love of Mediterranean revivalism, with heavy stone ornamentation; terra-cotta tile roofs; and a plenitude of arches and towers. A lush canopy of mature trees softens the scene.

The Biltmore Hotel, opened in 1926 and restored in the mid-'80s, epitomizes the splendor of Coral Gables. Its 315-foot tower, a replica of the Giralda tower next to the Seville Cathedral in Spain, appears to bisect the hotel. The lobby's massive columns and hand-painted vaulted ceilings simulate the grandeur of the Moorish Mosque in Cordoba, while star-studded cerulean ceilings and giant cages filled with exotic finches inject a Florida frivolity that Merrick also loved.

He hired Johnny Weissmuller, before he was known as Tarzan, to give swimming lessons in what still is billed as the largest hotel pool in the continental United States. Bathing beauties, handpicked and imported like rare flowers, offered a distraction for golfers playing on the adjacent first-class course.

After the stock market crashed, the Biltmore slumped and later served as a veterans hospital. It took the economic boom of the mid-'80s to bring it back as a resort. As I entered its courtyard for lunch, a table of well-dressed Cuban gentlemen acknowledged my arrival with a toss of their heads. I smiled because their slicked-back hair didn't budge.

That morning I had visited the nearby Venetian Pool. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it opened in 1923 as a public hub of Merrick's wonderland. With barber-like Venetian poles, three-story pink stucco towers, vine-covered loggias and a whimsical bridge leading to a stone island, it fits right in with south Florida's fey take on history. I swam into a coral rock grotto that seemed to turn my skin a pearly blue, lolled on an island, climbed down fern-banked waterfalls, then jumped off cliffs into that delicious water. But then a black wedge of a cloud appeared, lightning flashed and I dashed for shelter.

After another night at the Miami River Inn, I crossed over to the Gulf Coast, skipping past highly developed areas to Anna Maria Island, which maintains the laid-back Caribbean feel of Key West in the '60s. Accessible by causeway, the island is dotted with simple wooden houses with screened-in porches. Paths lead to a glorious white-sand beach. I ate fried shrimp and Key lime pie at the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, perched on the end of the narrow old pier, before turning in at a budget motel.

The next morning I drove about 30 minutes to the Ringling estate. John Ringling, along with his brothers, started off in 1884 with a traveling wagon circus, then joined with Phineas T. Barnum to create a three-ring empire. Ringling not only built a fabulous mansion but also a museum to accommodate his vast collection of Italian Baroque paintings, purchased on his many European sojourns. With 21 contiguous galleries, it centers on a courtyard ringed with eclectic columns, some dating from the 11th century. The house, the pink and terra-cotta, crenelated Ca d'Zan, was loosely based on the Doge's Palace in Venice. Upon seeing the whimsical original sketches, architect Dwight James Baum reportedly went pale. In 1926, it cost an astronomical $1.5 million.

The Ringlings once docked his-and-her boats in the calm waters of Sarasota Bay, which lie just below the mansion's 200-foot-wide veined marble deck. Mable Ringling's folly was an imported Venetian gondola, while John kept a modern 125-foot yacht. I wondered which house guests rode with whom. I conjectured that Will Rogers cruised with the host, along with Flo Ziegfeld and famous sports promoters and the founder of Phillips Petroleum. I pictured the art dealers lounging with Mable.

Alas, the interior of Ca d'Zan was closed for renovations (it's scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2001). I wandered through its sculpture gardens, stopping to admire an opalescent boy standing frozen in mid-catch at the foot of a clump of dark banyan trees. A breeze wafted off the silvery bay.

On the road back to the Atlantic coast, I passed egrets and alligators, species almost wiped out by the fashion demands of the Gilded Age. I stopped to watch some of the great white birds fussing for the best perch on a bait bucket, their feathers flouncing like ballerina skirts, and understood why ladies wanted the feathers dancing from their wide-brimmed hats.

I cruised into Palm Beach, a 90-minute drive north from Miami, eager to splurge on a night at the historic Breakers Hotel. Standard Oil baron Henry Flagler built this resort along the coconut palm-fringed shores of Lake Worth, which is actually a bay. The original structure burned down, but its 1926 replacement is equally grand: huge barreled ceilings in the lobby, a giant glass rotunda in the dining room, enough couches in the lobby to seat several thousand tired ladies.

Out by the pool overlooking clear green breakers and pink sand, I oozed right into the world of the over-privileged. A woman made calls on her cell phone while her children drooped in the sun. "Life is good. Life is really good," I heard her say, though she paced like a caged panther. I wondered whether the ladies who once twirled parasols on this beach were any better at relaxing. I napped, the beep of cell phones registering as just one more vibrant birdcall.

That afternoon I rented a hotel bike and pedaled down the two-mile paved trail to town. I whizzed by the Flagler mansion, known as "the Taj Mahal of North America" and now a museum. Flagler had built the first railroads through the wilds of Florida, stopping every now and then to install a resort that would amuse golfers and boaters and also host a dizzying round of balls and afternoon teas. (His Hispano-Moorish hotel in St. Augustine, Alcazar, is now a museum dedicated to the Gilded Age.) Flagler's young wife wanted to live in a white marble palace; he accommodated her with the funds he had made alongside Rockefeller. She also had an eye for detail: A guest at a bridge party she threw in 1902 went home with a pearl hatpin hidden inside a bouquet of lilies.

During the '20s, architect Addison Mizner and others designed hundreds of Palm Beach homes. Unlike those built for millionaires' row in Miami, these mansions are extant, owned by real estate mogul Donald Trump et al. I cycled past splashing fountains and huge shade trees and private slips for yachts as sleek as great white sharks. At trail's end, I slowed to admire the prettiest Mizner of all, the relatively modest-sized Casa de Leoni, with Moorish arches and cobalt windows facing the water. I imagined watering the potted hibiscus on its patio, just as I saw a lucky woman doing.

Steering toward Worth Avenue, the locus of Palm Beach style, I encountered a riot of color: ladies dressed in lime green parading apricot poodles. One woman looked fiercely into Cartier's window at a platinum watch studded with diamonds. "It doesn't stir your blood," I overheard her husband say. "No!" she snipped.

If Coral Gables is Merrick's city, then Boca Raton, a few miles south of Palm Beach, is Mizner's. A biographer described his idiosyncratic style as "Bastard- Spanish- Moorish- Romanesque- Gothic- Renaissance- Bull- Market- Damn- the- Expense." On a visit to the Boca Raton Resort, I saw what he meant. Mizner installed twisted wooden columns, ornate desks with secret compartments, herb gardens, even a jungle habitat for his prodigious orchid collection. He would stroll the glossy floors of his domain in his signature silk pajamas, a monkey perched on one shoulder and a parrot on the other. Like many of south Florida's visionaries, Mizner wound up in debt and dependent on friends. But his exquisite legacy, restored to all its glory, is a window into the Gilded Age. Pausing in its Spanish tiled courtyard, watching a woman occasionally peek up from a book to contemplate the water, I reclaimed the peace and wonder of my childhood home.

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Guidebook: Historic Florida

Prices: Room prices are brochure rates for a double for one night (lower promotional rates may be available in some cases). Restaurant prices are for dinner for two, food only, except where noted.

Getting there: Miami is a five-hour flight from Los Angeles. United and American fly nonstop. Delta, Continental, TWA, US Airways and America West have connecting flights. By car from Miami International Airport, the most direct route downtown is via Route 836 to Route 95 South.

Where to stay: Miami River Inn, 118 S.W. South River Drive, Miami; telephone (800) 468-3589, e-mail miamihotel@aol.com. Rates: $69 in summer, $89 in winter, breakfast included. Built in 1906, this simple hotel re-creates the charm of early Miami.

The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; tel. (800) 727-1926 or (305) 445-1926, Internet http://www.biltmorehotel.com. Rates: $219 July through September; $319 October through June. The largest hotel pool in the continental United States is the centerpiece of this architectural gem.

The Breakers, One South County Road, Palm Beach; tel. (561) 659-8440, Internet http://www.thebreakers.com. Rates: $180 June to Sept. 16; $250 Sept. 17 to Nov. 18; $380 Nov. 19 to April 30; $250 in May. One of the finer grand hotels, with magnificent public areas.

Boca Raton Resort & Club, 501 E. Camino Real, Boca Raton; tel. (800) 327-0101, fax (561) 447-3183, Internet http://www.bocaresort.com. Rates: $160 May through September; $200 October through Dec. 17; $250 January through April. Addison Mizner showcase features loggias, outdoor staircases and extensive gardens.

What to see and do: Vizcaya, 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami; tel. (305) 250-9133. Admission: adults, $10; children 6-12, $5. Free tours of 34 rooms in the mansion surrounded by 10 acres of formal gardens.

Venetian Pool, 2701 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables; tel. (305) 460-5356, Internet http://www.Venetian Pool.com. Admission: $5 November through March, $8 April through October. This whimsical oasis is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; tel. (941) 351-1660, Internet http://www.ringling.org. Admission: adults, $9; seniors, $8; children under 12, free. Docents give free tours of the 21 galleries.

Where to eat: Cafe Tu Tu Tango, 3015 Grand Ave., Coconut Grove; tel. (305) 529-2222. Light fare, including tapas, with lively Coconut Grove street scene; $40-$60.

The Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; tel. (305) 445-1926. The Courtyard, a cheaper alternative to the hotel's pricey La Palme d'Or, serves a variety of pastas and other Mediterranean cuisine. Lunch for two: $30.

Anna Maria Oyster Bar, Anna Maria Island City Pier; tel. (941) 778-0475. Fried shrimp, fried clams, Key lime pie, served on tablecloths that match the waiters' pants; $30.

The Breakers, One South County Road, Palm Beach; tel. (561) 659-8440. The Reef Bar features hamburgers smothered in brie, lobster salads. Lunch for two: $30.

For more information: Visit Florida, 661 E. Jefferson St., Suite 300, Tallahassee, Fla., 32301; tel. (888) 7FLAUSA or (850) 488-5607, fax (850) 224- 2938, Internet http://www.flausa.com.

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