Today, most of America’s leisure class, those born to wealth, lead gilded but surprisingly uninteresting lives. A century ago, however, things were a bit different. Silver spoons were tools for constructive adventure rather than perpetual laziness; and family wealth provided a cultured existence that went far beyond cocktail parties, glossy magazines, and limousine liberalism.
Hence the story of Charles Deering. Born in 1852, the son of a successful New England real estate speculator, he developed a taste for the finer things early in life. Perhaps bored with his years in prep school, he decided to do something unorthodox for a young man of his standing: join the Navy. He secured an appointment as Midshipman, enrolled in the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and graduated second in his class. His service in the Navy took him to virtually every end of the earth, and Deering became profoundly influenced by the multitude of cultures in Asia and Europe. With unlimited access to many of the worlds’ finest art galleries and museums, he soon developed an intense appreciation of art, and made every attempt to meet those whose paintings he admired.
Deering eventually befriended a who’s who of artists, including John Singer Sargent, the undisputed master of Edwardian-era portrait making, Ramon Casas i Carbo, one of the Spanish upper echelon’s most favored portraitists, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the American Renaissance’s iconic sculptor, and famed Swedish painter and sculptor Anders Zorn. Somehow, Deering managed to balance his Naval obligations with his love for high culture and even became a student of Zorn’s at the latter’s Paris studio for an entire season.
After a short marriage to an admiral’s daughter, tragically cut short by her untimely death, Deering left the Navy. He tried his hand in the private sector, working with his father in the newly formed Deering Harvester Company, starting as company secretary. After his father’s retirement in 1901, Deering joined forces with J.P. Morgan, who, in 1902 financed a deal between Deering Harvester and the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. Deering assumed the position of Chairman of the newly formed International Harvester, which he occupied until his retirement in 1910.
Financially secure, he decided to pick up where he left off as an art patron, and funded the construction of a museum near Barcelona. and attained notoriety from this. However, he felt the need to accomplish something on a grander scale, and naturally set his sights on a place where any dreamer would: Florida. Beginning in St. Augustine, he made his way down to Miami in search of a spot on which his estate could be built. He bought 250 acres of land in what is today one of the city’s worst areas and commissioned a villa in the Spanish architectural tradition.
It was not long, though, until Deering saw that the neighborhood was changing and opted to move south. Settling on a 444 acre tract near Cutler, he was finally able to erect the home he had always longed for. A stately stone structure, it dwarfed the property’s existing cracker cottage, but left the cottage standing out of respect for local history.
This was just the beginning of his Florida philanthropy; Deering would become one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful environmental conservationists. He had the grounds of his estate carefully landscaped so that the ecosystem’s natural beauty would be preserved. Such a thing was virtually unheard of in the early twentieth century, when wealthy landowners often created artificial, aesthetically pleasing settings around their homes. Deering, however, was content with the simple pleasures that the tropics had to offer, and felt little need to alter them for his own purposes. His brother, James, meanwhile, built the astoundingly gorgeous and internationally renowned Italianate Villa Vizcaya in Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood.
Deering spent the rest of his days collecting the finest pieces of art he could find, while continuing to be a trail blazer in the cause of environmentalism. He did remarry and had three children in addition to the child his deceased wife bore him. He died in 1927, just as the Florida land bust was turning the state into a fiscal wasteland. Thankfully, his estate would not become a physical wasteland. Today named the Charles Deering Estate, it is open as a museum to his life and a preserve of those things that he cherished dearly; high culture and undeveloped Florida. An interesting duo to be sure, but fitting for such an interesting man.