Vizcaya Documentary Gets Help from Surveying and Engineering Firm

by Gene LaNier


When a public broadcasting station’s senior producer began research for a documentary about an 83-year-old Italian-style villa in Miami, Florida, most people would never have thought she would check with the surveying and engineering company that did all the surveying and engineering for the project. That’s almost a hundred years ago.  However, that’s exactly what senior producer Linda Corley of PBS Channel 2 did.  Surprisingly, she found the company is still in business and is today the oldest company headquartered in the city of Miami, 111 years to be exact. Here is a short version of the story that airs in south Florida in late May and nationally in the fall.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of America’s wealthiest people built lavish homes, and many still stand today. One such home is Vizcaya in Miami, Florida  (Vizcaya is Basque for “elevated place”). Built by James Deering, a vice president of International Harvester, Vizcaya is a composite of many Italian villas Deering visited in search of his dream home. Deering spent $22 million creating what is today an official United States landmark. The American Association of Museums also accredits his much-loved villa.




Deering made several trips to Europe where he bought furnishings, fireplaces, doors, and gates.  He brought back styles and decorations that represented different periods of European history covering 400 years.  Evident were the period styles of the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classic. His idea was to build the home in such a way that it would appear to span the 15th through 19th centuries. With different period designs in all the furnished rooms, Deering accomplished the creation that gave to the villa an appearance that the villa went through several renovations during those periods, even though it was a new structure.

Besides the self-sufficient 70-room villa, the 180-acre estate included a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, a small farm, a village, a greenhouse, a staff residence, and formal gardens.  Construction began in 1914 and finished in 1916. The final project that brought it all together was the completion of the formal gardens in 1922. Vizcaya became Deering’s winter home, but only three years after the project’s completion, Deering died in 1925 at the age of 66.

Much of the estate fell into disrepair after Deering’s death, and in 1952, Dade County (Now, Miami-Dade County) purchased the house and gardens. The county restored the property, and every year thousands of visitors visit the Vizcaya Museum.

During the research phase of the documentary, producer Corley visited with George Bolton, president of Biscayne Engineering Company, the 111-year-old company that performed the surveying and engineering for Deering’s estate. The machine that produced Deering’s blueprints still exists, and Bolton shared some of the stories of the surveyors, how they created plans for the roads, the gardens, drainage and conservation of the area’s natural vegetation, and the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway for a boat landing at Vizcaya.

Bolton stated that Deering retained the services of Biscayne Engineering around 1910 when the project was getting started. Deering designated Biscayne’s J.J. Bennett, who was 21 at the time, as resident engineer, and he stayed on the job for the next ten years. Bennett became one of the leading engineers in Florida and eventually president of Biscayne Engineering.

Work stopped briefly in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. When the war ended in1918, Biscayne Engineering resumed work, this time to design and provide construction supervision of the foundation for the Cape Florida Lighthouse and to maintain checks on the foundation. This project was part of an agreement Deering made with the Army Corps of Engineers, which in turn granted permission for the dredging of a channel to Deering’s beloved Vizcaya.

During those early years, Biscayne Engineering acquired a large quantity of artifacts and memorabilia from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The company donated much of it to the Southern Historical Museum in Miami.  Corley said, “George was such a great help from the surveying sector that I regarded him as one of our technical advisors. He even produced records from the Vizcaya project. Now, that is record keeping.”

Vizcaya airs throughout South Florida on WPBT Channel 2 Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 8:00 p.m. It will air nationally on PBS stations around the country in the fall of 2009.



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