James Deering’s occupancy of Vizcaya began officially on Christmas Day, 1916, when the Main House was finished. Paul Chalfin staged an elaborate ceremony to mark the occasion, complete with gondolas, cannons and Deering’s friends dressed in Italian peasant costumes.
From then until his death in 1925, Deering typically resided at Vizcaya from the end of November to the middle of April, often in the company of guests. In addition to his family and close friends, he hosted several well-known figures of the time, such as film star Lilian Gish and President Warren Harding. Deering enjoyed dining in the Breakfast Room overlooking the gardens and screening Hollywood films in the Courtyard of the Main House.
Located across South Miami Avenue from the Main House and gardens, the Village housed a variety of functions to support life at Vizcaya. A greenhouse and adjoining fields supplied fresh flowers, fruit and vegetables for Deering and his guests; cows and chickens provided milk and eggs; and the Garage housed Deering’s automobiles.
A large staff was required to care for the estate throughout the year, despite such modern conveniences as the central vacuum-cleaning system. Between sixteen and eighteen staff members maintained the house, and at least twenty-six gardeners and workers remained to manage the estate in Deering’s absence. Some of Vizcaya’s staff lived in the western towers of the Main House, while others resided in the Village or in homes nearby. For the enjoyment of his employees, Deering established a private beach and dance platform overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Deering died a bachelor in 1925, leaving Vizcaya to his half-brother, Charles. The following year Vizcaya endured one of Miami’s greatest hurricanes. The boats, docked on the bay, were destroyed and many garden statues and furnishings were terribly damaged. Subsequently, Charles Deering’s daughters, Barbara Deering Danielson and Marion Deering McCormick, acquired full ownership of Vizcaya and its surrounding lands.
While they periodically vacationed at Vizcaya, Deering’s nieces dedicated the following decades to transforming the estate from a private home into a public museum. The Depression, no doubt, made the maintenance of such a property increasingly challenging. In 1934, the Deering heirs asked Paul Chalfin to undertake repairs at Vizcaya and they briefly opened the estate to the public before it was again devastated by a major hurricane one year later. In 1945, the family transferred the Lagoon Gardens and the southern grounds on the west side of South Miami Avenue to the Diocese of St. Augustine and Mercy Hospital. Vizcaya’s future remained uncertain.