Whenever my wife and I vacation in North Carolina, we have to stay at the incredible Biltmore complex, the largest private house in the United States. I’m not certain I would want to reside in a place with 43 bathrooms to clean, but tourists love to see how the very rich lived throughout our American story.
Florida had its own tropical Biltmores and they do cost less to visit than the Asheville spread.
The Viscaya Museum and Gardens, Coconut Grove, Miami
My favorite Florida mansion is the amazing former Villa Vizcaya, F. Burrall Hoffman’s unique Mediterranean Revival design with Baroque elements. Built from 1914 to 1922 from James Deering, owner of International Harvester, the 180 acre estate is extravagantly tasteful inside and in the best landscaped house gardens in Florida.
I am most attractive to the way Columbian landscape designer Diego Suarez combined the layout of elaborate Italian Renaissance gardens with tropical plants and Floridian coral and limestone. Miami-Sade County operates the beautiful property and it is conveniently located near the Vizcaya Station of the Miami Metrorail.
Ca’ D’Zan, Sarasota
The architectural gem of the Florida Gulf Coast is Ca’ D’Zan (House of John), the waterfront 1926 palazzo on Sarasota Bay. It was the home of James Ringling who made Sarasota the winter headquarters of his Raingling Brothers and Barnam and Bailey Circus. The Ringlings loved Italy and hired famed New York architect Dwight Jame Baum to design a 56 room Venetian Gothic masterpiece filled with European collectibles.
When visiting The Ringling, tourists get an all-day attraction for the 40 acre complex also includes the massive 1925 21-gallery Ringling Museum, a treasure trove of Renaissance art, one of the largest in the USA. The U-shaped palace surrounds a courtyard of priceless statues and Italian gardens. A third attraction of wonder is the Ringling Circus Museum, filled with circus artifacts, including the Ringling railroad car known as Wisconsin.
After a tour of Ca’ D’Zan, if you really like the mansion, I suggest you take an additional tour (more $) of the interesting servant quarters, the giant vault on the second floor, and a rooftop view of scenic Sarasota Bay.
Whitehall, Palm Beach
Railroad magnate Henry Flagler’s 1902 palace of marble is a little outrageous like its owner. The 75-room Gilded Era mansion was built as a wedding present for his wife Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. It is Beaux-Arts architecture with the columns of a Greek temple. I always found the mansion a little impersonal, but perhaps this is because the house was later the front lobby and public rooms of a huge bayside hotel.
My personal favorite addition is the beautifully restored 1885 Railcar No. 91, the one Flagler rode down to Key West on the now gone Overseas Railway which later became the Overseas Highway. I won’t tell you what about the interior of the railway car – you will be surprised.
The Casements, Ormond Beach
Built originally in 1910 for the Rev. Harwood Huntington as a winter home, the house was named for the distinctive casement windows which helped keep the interior cool even in the summertime. In 1918 the retired John D. Rockefeller made the house his winter residence and the property immediately became the focal point of the small beachside community.
The City of Ormond Beach uses the building as a civic center and gives tours of the house and the restored two-acre English garden along the Halifax River. It is easy to see why Henry Ford and Will Rogers felt the house was so relaxing and peaceful.