Loving care and lots of cash restore Vanderbilt mansion


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MIAMI -- 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 family name.

Ah, 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 awhile.

Alas, 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.

Or by a very large bank account.

In 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.

The 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.

"There were quite a few structural issues that were not readily apparent in a building that otherwise looked glamorous," said renovation architect Richard Heisenbottle. "The good news is, it's really in top-notch condition now. It really harks back to the time of Vanderbilt."

The 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, Mr. Heisenbottle said.

At a time when numerous waterfront Miami Beach homes from that same period are being demolished and replaced by mega-mansions, Mr. Heisenbottle said, 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.

Since Swiss-born architect Maurice Fatio designed the Fisher Island house in 1935, it had been added onto, including a ballroom and kitchen and a restaurant and lounge. But Mr. Heisenbottle said the additions were done sensitively and kept the focus where it belongs -- on the original two-story L-shaped house that faces the Atlantic.

Although 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.

"This was really a getaway bungalow," said Virginia Hanley, assistant project coordinator for the club's renovation master plan. "Vanderbilt loved coming down here."

Commodore 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, including the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., the largest home in the United States, and the "Hyde Park" home in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Willie 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 development there.

In 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 yacht.

Vanderbilt named the estate Alva Base after the yacht, which bore his mother's name. The $1.5 million estate, completed by 1940, also boasted a vast hangar for Vanderbilt's seaplane and quarters for his household staff members, who would come to Miami by train.

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 year.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

While 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.

"It's 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.

At 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.

The only surviving piece of the Vanderbilts' furniture, Rosamund's vanity, sits in the room.

But Mr. Heisenbottle said the restored mansion is the crown jewel that sets Fisher Island apart.

"It is unique, especially for Miami," he said. "The Vanderbilts' time here was limited, but he left a tremendous impact on Fisher Island."

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