Book Club

T he vast estate seemed invisible, despite its grandeur, due to the overgrowth of dark jade palms, gnarled bougainvil- lea, and centenarian crape myrtle. The growth was so dense that despite the Miami sun, the villa lay in cool re- pose, immune to the resting, prickly heat. The overgrown confederate jasmine seemed to overwhelm the villa in its tense grip; the edifice succumbed as the vines wrestled the chipping stucco to the ground. Unlike its newer, shiny, celebrity neighbors, the villa’s imposing gates were swirled and rusted. The ornate ironwork lent an air of bygone glory and obscurity, as did the few disinte- grating slabs of pink-tinged coral stone on the exterior columns. If one took the time to stop and notice, the villa could have been taken for a faded, regal estate in Capri on the Via Tragara or in the colini Fiorentini, the hills of Florence. The vast estate was a symbol of another era entirely with its formal sentry gate, the center fountain that had long stopped bubbling, and the circular rotunda pitched against the aquamarine sky- line, which seemed impervious to the stray overhead planes ferrying vacationers to the southern tip. Built in 1927 in the Mediterranean revival style, the es- tate had wowed its neighbors and was the envy of its lesser rivals, boasting a large folly, a greenhouse, a bayside pool, and an enclosed tennis pavilion. Even neighbor Carl Fisher, the acknowledged founder, and unofficial king, of Miami Beach who had built his palace at 5020 North Bay, had been suitably impressed. Eighteenth-century Neapolitan tiles and lusty veined marble statutes had been stripped from impoverished estates in Amalfi and Tuscany and hastily installed in the new world’s Riviera. During one particularly frothy day in the heady ’20s market, the owner had approved an ancient mosaic floor to be ripped from a villa unearthed in Pompeii and reassembled in the entry gallery. The arrival of the famous black market mosaic caused havoc in Port Miami; there was even a small mention in The Herald, which officially dubbed the new mansion “Villa Pompeii.”The name stuck, and the architect eventually implanted a discreet, ceramic tile in the pink, columned archway he had commissioned in Vietri. No one had even considered that christening the villa with such an ominous name might portend impending disaster. When one stepped into the foyer, the ancient, black-and-white mosaic floor, which featured an octopus engulfing and defeating a spiny lobster, added an eerie feel to the great house. Throughout the decades, the grand mansion had not only seen the booms and busts of the Florida peninsula, but also the waves of differing nationals all adjusting and peeling under the ribald sun. It had also been exposed to larger themes; love and loss, obsession, and, despite the sun- shine, dark passion. It was said that a hint of a woman occasionally ap- peared on the dock in silk scarves and dark glasses facing a balustrade, leaning on a cane, or sitting in a wicker wheelchair. She was known to take in Biscayne Bay at dusk, the shimmering diamonds of downtown Miami flickered to life as the orange globe bowed to the new skyline. Perhaps the distant, gleaming sprawl unsettled her, if she was actually there. Few people entered and exited the property. Real estate brokers




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