The Great Commoner’s Palace in Miami

 

 

He was called “The Great Commoner” and America’s greatest orator.  As a young lawyer and newspaper editor in Nebraska, he was elected to the United States Congress in 1890, at age 30.  In 1896, at age 36, he became the youngest person ever nominated as a candidate for the Presidency of the United States.  The Democratic Party nominated him as their candidate for President three times: in 1896, 1900 and 1908.  In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him Secretary of State.  In 1913, this famous Irish-American and his lawyer wife built one of the first Mediterranean-style palaces on Biscayne Bay in Miami, Florida.  They called their grand home at 3115 Brickell Avenue “Villa Serena.”  By design, it resembled a Spanish palace, but it was used a quiet tropical retreat for the busy couple, their three children and their grandchildren for twelve years, until “The Great Commoner” died in 1925. 

 

"Villa Serena" original bayfront facade in 1913

 

William Jennings Bryan purchased the land for “Villa Serena” in 1912 for around $30,000. Construction of the house took place during 1913, and was substantially completed by December of that year. The structure was designed and constructed to fulfill Bryan’s wish that it would "stand forever."  In September 1926, when the "Great Hurricane" flattened most of Miami, the solid concrete “Villa Serena” was virtually unscathed.

 

 

William Jennings Bryan and his wife Mary E. Baird arrived in Miami on November 23, 1912, “amid great fanfare, and immediately became the center of attention.  People sought his opinion on every matter, whether worldly or local.”  Mary Byran had come to Florida alone many month’s earlier, seeking a site where the couple could build a winter home.  Starting on the west coast of Florida, but finding no parcels there that suited her, she travelled through Orlando and then southward to Miami.  When she got off the train in Miami, and saw the blooming bougainvillea covering the train station, and smelled the balmy Miami air, she knew that this was the place to begin her “investigations.”  The Miami Metropolis newspaper reported in January 1912 that Miami was “being honored by the presence of Mrs. William J. Bryan, wife of the distinguished Commoner, who will remain here until the arrival of Col. Bryan.”  She hired a surveyor, and together they found a piece of property with 209 feet of shoreline along Biscayne Bay.  The land was part of the homestead of Miami pioneers William and Mary Brickell, and was an arborist’s dream.  The property had over eighty different varieties of trees and shrubs, including gumbo limbo, wisteria, avocado, mango and other tropical fruit trees.  The vegetation was so dense that Mary Bryan and her surveyor had to use an axe to chop their way through the property.  Later, Mr. Bryan requested that the natural growth of the property be preserved, for “nature is the best landscape gardener after all is said and done.”

 

"Villa Serena" bayfront facade after 1925

 

It was Mary Bryan who actually sketched the first drafts of the plans for the house, which was patterned after an old Spanish palace.  Mr. Bryan chose the name “Villa Serena”, because he looked upon it as a serene retreat where he could find escape from the turmoil of his political life.  The formal architectural plans were prepared by one of Miami’s most prominent designers, August Geiger.  Geiger also designed such important buildings as the Alamo (now a part of Jackson Memorial Hospital), the first Homestead public school, and the Dade County Courthouse.  Geiger fashioned “Villa Serena” in the Spanish Mediterranean style, utilizing groups of large windows and incorporating an interior courtyard space to take advantage of the bay breezes and to provide private outdoor access.  The size and proportions of the estate are typical of that period in Miami’s early history when mansions were so commonplace along Brickell Avenue that it was called “Millionaire’s Row”.  “Villa Serena” was one of the earliest, and is one of the very few of these magnificent edifices to remain.

 

The interior courtyard of "Villa Serena"

 

A Miami Daily Metropolis article, dated April 11, 1913, stated that the Bryan home was nearly completed, with the roof being painted and the floor being laid.  The contract had called for completion by July 1, but the contractor was busily working to have it finished early.  On December 19, 1913, the Bryan’s left Washington D.C. for Miami, for their first visit to their new home.  The house had taken roughly eight months to build.  The land, improvements and building had cost a total of $45,000, an extravagant sum in 1913.  The house covered an area of 60 feet x 60 feet.  The decorative Cuban tile used throughout the house had been handpicked by the Bryan’s at the factories.  The four fireplaces, finished in rare Italian marble, had been rescued from a demolished mansion in Washington, D.C.  The home was stucco-finished, and painted in white, with a Cuban tile roof.  A rooftop garden was built between the front towers.  Numerous radish beds were planted on the grounds, because Mrs. Bryan was particularly fond of them.  Along the Brickell Ave., in front of the estate, Mr. Bryan, working side-by-side with the hired laborers, built a beautiful stone wall and entrance gates.

 

 

The Bryan’s used “Villa Serena” to entertain such noteworthy figures as President Warren G. Harding and Vice President Dawes, Premier Venizelos of Greece, renowned jeweler and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and their neighbor James Deering (who owned International Harvester, and who built a larger and vastly more extravagent version of the Bryan’s home next door in 1916 and named it "Vizcaya").  Mrs. Bryan would later recall, “Our guests were many and distinguished. All grades of political friends from the lowest to the highest were welcomed.”  Bryan was very active locally, promoting the sale of real estate for George Merrick, the founder of Coral Gables.  Bryan gave lectures every day during the winter of 1924, at the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, extolling the virtues of South Florida living and the value of owning property in Coral Gables, for which Merrick paid Bryan the then staggering speaker’s fee of $100,000. 

 

W.J. Bryan at the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables

A devout Presbyterian, Byran gave regular outdoor Sunday Bible sermons to enormous crowds at Miami’s Royal Palm Park.

 

W.J. Bryan giving a Sunday sermon at Miami’s Royal Palm Park

 He sometimes addressed crowds of hundreds, who had gathered on his bayfront lawn, from the second floor balcony facing the bay.

  

"Villa Serena" in 1921

 

In 1924, Bryan offered to sell “Villa Serena” to the City of Miami, proposing that it would be perfect for entertaining distinguished visitors to the city.  Then valued at $250,000, Bryan said he would accept payment in city bonds.  The proferred deal was never made.  In 1925, towards the end of his life, Bryan earned notoriety as the prosecutor in the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial", which tested the state of Tennessee’s right to prohibit the teaching of Darwinist evolution.  While Bryan won that legal contest, the court’s decision was later overturned on appeal.  Bryan was lauded for his oratory, which held court listeners spellbound.  Byran and the "Monkey Trial" were later immortalized in the play and movie “Inherit the Wind”. 

 

The Bryan Family at "Villa Serena" in 1925

 

William Jennings Bryan died on July 26, 1925, just a few days after the close of the famous trial.   In 1932, during the Great Depression, Bryan’s children, William Jennings Bryan, Jr. and Ruth Bryan Owen, as co-executors of their father’s estate, sold "Villa Serena" to William F. Cheek for only $30,000.  William Cheek was a grandson of Joel Cheek, the founder of the Maxwell House Coffee Company.  The house stayed in the possession of Mr. Cheek until his death in 1970 at the age of 87.  “Villa Serena” still stands today, a testament to Miami’s early architects, builders and political history.  Few people passing by the gates and dense vegetation at 3115 Brickell Avenue today remember that the most famous man in America once lived there. Overshadowed by its now more famous and massive neighbor “Viscaya”, the secluded “Villa Serena” was not added to the Miami Register of Historic Places until December, 2007.

 

William Jennings Bryan’s daughter, Ruth Bryan Owen, made Miami her home in the United States.  From 1925 to 1928, she served on the Board of Regents of the University of Miami.  In 1928, recently widowed, with four children, she was elected to the United States Congress, as Florida’s and the South’s first woman to serve in Congress.  In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her Ambassador to Denmark, the first woman ever appointed to serve as a United States Ambassador.  She served as Ambassador to Denmark until 1936, when she married Borge Rohde, the Danish Captain of the King’s Guard.

 

Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde 

 

Her marriage to Rodhe gave her Danish citizenship, and generated some controversy, so she resigned her post as US Ambassador in September 1936.  After World War II, she served a delegate to the 1945 San Francisco Conference, which established the United Nations.   In 1948, President Harry Truman named her an alternate delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.  She was also a noted author of seven books.  She built her own fairy-tale castle called "Golden Clouds" on a 6-acre oceanfront estate at Oracabessa, Jamaica, where she entertained a wide circle of celebrity friends, including Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and neighbors Noel Coward and Ian Fleming. 

 

"Golden Clouds" at Oracabessa, Jamaica 

 

Golden Cloud’s design was based on "Casa Figueras", an 18th century villa where she stayed during her first trip to Spain, and reflects Oracabessa’s heritage as a Spanish settlement.  One of Golden Cloud’s early guests was Charlie Chaplin, who, in a note to Ruth Bryan Owen, described Golden Clouds as “A wonderfully magical place where time stands still. It is simply paradise.” Ruth Bryan Owen Rohde died on July 26, 1954 at Copenhagen, Denmark.

 

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Great Commoner’s Palace in Miami

  1. For sure! This online site is just superior. The knowledge in it pretty much answers my questions. Very interesting and greatly recommended. Keep it up!

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