Fisher Island Club in Miami, Florida, has restored
the Vanderbilt mansion there to it's old glory.
— There are many Vanderbilt mansions, all of them
grander, and certainly larger, than the relatively modest
manse on Miami’s Fisher Island that bears the famous
but if only you could see it — the beautifully
proportioned stone and stucco Mediterranean Revival
exterior, the octagonal entry, the soaring living room and
the old dining room paneled in antique oak and mahogany,
all of it extensively and exquisitely restored — then
you might want to stay a while.
the 1930s estate, a designated Miami-Dade County historic
landmark, sits at the heart of an ultra-private club and
hotel on an island off the tip of Miami Beach that’s
accessible only by ferry.
by a very large bank account.
spite of the plush setting, though, the mansion had
received little more than cosmetic care since the island
was turned into a club and resort community some 25 years
ago. The home, which has long served as the club’s hub,
had come to be plagued by leaks, wood rot, structural
issues and unkind adaptations.
Fisher Island Club last year embarked on a full
restoration, the culmination of a $60 million program of
upgrades to the grounds and facilities. The work, now
nearly complete, has brought the house back to the relaxed
elegance of the few short years in which it served as the
winter retreat for William K. Vanderbilt II,
great-grandson of Cornelius, the railroad baron and
begetter of one of the great American family fortunes.
were quite a few structural issues that were not readily
apparent in a building that otherwise looked glamorous,’’
said renovation architect Richard Heisenbottle, whose team
crawled under the house, opened up walls, removed and
replaced ceilings and the roof to inspect and repair the
mansion. "The good news is, it’s really in
top-notch condition now. It really harkens back to the
time of Vanderbilt.’’
care lavished on the restoration extended to saving and
refinishing, rather than replacing, the bronze-framed
windows, the window hardware, and, whenever possible, even
the original window glass, Heisenbottle said.
time when numerous waterfront Miami Beach homes from that
same period are being demolished and replaced by
mega-mansions, Heisenbottle says, the Vanderbilt
restoration demonstrates how architectural landmarks from
a bygone era can very much be adapted to the expectations
— always eminently reasonable, one presumes — of today’s
Bentley set, while keeping what made them worth saving in
the first place.
Beach, in fact, recently approved the demolition of a
North Bay Road home by the Vanderbilt mansion’s original
designer, Maurice Fatio, a Palm Beach architect still
regarded as among the best ever to put pencil to a house
plan in South Florida. The Swiss-born Fatio also designed
Palm Beach-area homes for William Vanderbilt’s brother
Harold and sister Consuelo.
Fatio designed it in 1935, the Fisher Island house had
been added on to, including a ballroom and kitchen and a
restaurant and lounge. But Heisenbottle said the additions
were done sensitively and kept the focus where it belongs
— on the original two-story, L-shaped house, which faces
certainly opulent — the dining room and Vanderbilt’s
second-floor study, for instance, are lined in antique
paneling he brought from Europe, and its rooms boast
marble fireplaces — the house was never meant to be
Vizcaya. It had just two bedrooms, for Vanderbilt and his
second wife, Rosamund. Her daughter, Rosemary, stayed in a
spacious "cottage’’ the size of a small house,
with an ornate stone doorway, that flanks the mansion.
Another cottage served as Rosamund’s painting studio.
was really a getaway bungalow,’’ said Virginia Hanley,
assistant project coordinator for the club’s renovation
master plan. "Vanderbilt loved coming down here.’’
Cornelius Vanderbilt and his many descendants were
prolific builders of extravagant Gilded Age mansions, all
designed by the best architects of the age. Cornelius’
Manhattan home, the largest ever built in New York City,
was demolished, but many others survive, some as publicly
accessible attractions, including the famed Biltmore
Estate in Asheville, N.C., the largest home in the United
States, and the "Hyde Park’’ home in Hyde Park,
K., as he was known, was a dashing sailor and yachtsman
who had navigated all over the world by a young age and
launched the first organized auto races in the United
States. The Long Island Parkway he built for racing became
a toll road and helped pave the way for suburban
summer home, a 24-room mansion on a 43-acre estate on Long
Island, N.Y., was designed by the architects of Manhattan’s
Grand Central Station, built to serve the Vanderbilt rail
empire. It, too, is a public museum.
the 1920s Vanderbilt, who frequented Palm Beach and Miami
on his yacht, met Carl Fisher, the colorful, hucksterish
developer of Miami Beach who had started the Indianapolis
500 auto race and the South Dixie Highway. He also owned
Fisher Island, created when dredging of Government Cut
split off the Miami Beach peninsula’s tip. The two
agreed to a swap: seven acres of the island for Vanderbilt’s
first, the Vanderbilts stayed on another yacht Willie K.
owned when they visited the island, where little had been
built, Hanley said. It’s unclear precisely when the $1.5
million estate was constructed, but Fatio began his plans
in 1935 and county records suggest it was done by 1940.
named the estate Alva Base after the yacht, which bore his
mother’s name. The estate also boasted a vast hangar for
Vanderbilt’s seaplane and quarters for his household
staff, which would come to Miami by train.
celebrity in New York, where he had a townhouse on Fifth
Avenue, Vanderbilt looked to Long Island and Fisher Island
for peace and quiet, said Stephanie Gress, curator at the
built these to get away from everyone,’’ Gress said.
"They had only very intimate gatherings."
Vanderbilt was not to enjoy Alva Base for long. He died in
1944, and his widow sold it to a U.S. Steel heir the next
Vanderbilt, who gave $100,000 every year to the Miami Red
Cross, had endeared himself to the locals, a county
historic document says. In its obituary, The Miami Herald
called him one of the city’s "most democratic
residents and boosters.’’
estate then passed through several well known owners
closely linked to Miami’s history, including speedboat
racer and inventor Gar Wood, who occupied it for 25 years,
and Charles "Bebe’’ Rebozo, who used it as a
playground for his friends — reportedly including his
best pal, Richard Nixon — before deciding to develop it
as a resort community.
historic estate is now at the center of a 200-acre island
community that encompasses more than 700 villa-like
condos, a handful of free-standing homes, a nine-hole golf
course, 18 tennis courts, two deep-water marinas, a beach,
its own post office and firehouse, an astronomical
observatory and a spa, housed in the former seaplane
hangar. Not to mention several restaurants, an upscale
food and wine market and a day school that teaches
Mandarin to island residents’ kids.
Fisher Island’s reputation had taken a bit of a hit over
the past few years amid disagreements over control between
club members and developers. Most facilities, including
the mansion, had not received an upgrade since 1987. Last
year The New York Times published a peculiar,
much-circulated travel piece in which the author equally
shellacked the quality of service in the hotel and the
behavior of her own daughter.
calling the Times piece unfair, the club’s leadership,
in control of most of the island since reaching an
agreement with the developers in 2006, brought in a new
CEO to revamp the operation and guide the master plan for
the mansion’s restoration and other improvements, which
had been launched in 2007, to a conclusion.
quite a change. We intend with the renovation to make a
statement. We are completely rejuvenated, refreshed,’’
said the new CEO, Bernard Lackner, who scaled back the
hotel to a 15-room boutique operation to keep quality
high. The guest cottages and servants’ quarters, also
recently restored, are part of the hotel.
the Vanderbilt house, the project meant extending the pool
deck, reopening spaces in an entry loggia that had been
blocked off years ago to create office space, refinishing
millwork and wrought iron and, perhaps most dramatically,
completely refurbishing the second story, which long
served as a club within a club, open only to equity
members. Once a dark, closed-in space, the expansive
"snooker room,’’ formerly Rosamund’s bedroom,
is now a bright, cozy lounge.
only surviving piece of the Vanderbilts’ furniture,
Rosamund’s vanity, sits in the room.
Heisenbottle says the restored mansion is the crown jewel
that sets the Fisher Island apart.
is unique, especially for Miami,’’ he said. "The
Vanderbilts’ time here was limited, but he left a
tremendous impact on Fisher Island."
ISLAND: A RICH HISTORY
Island created by the dredging of Government Cut
Herman B. Walker sells to Dana A. Dorsey, South Florida’s
first black millionaire
Dorsey sells to group headed by Carl Fisher group
(developer Miami Beach)
Fisher trades seven acres of Fisher Island for 250-foot
yacht owned by William K. Vanderbilt II
Vanderbilt begins building island retreat
owners include: Edward S. Moore of U.S. Steel; Garfield
‘The Speed Boat King’ Wood; and Charles "Bebe"
Rebozo, President Richard Nixon’s best friend