The Architecture of El Jardin

Built in 1918 along the peak of an ancient ridge of oolitic limestone, El Jardin expresses the broad training of its architect, Richard Kiehnel, and the experience of its owner, John Bindley, then president of Pittsburgh Steel. Richard Kiehnel, in a September 1928 article for Tropical Home and Garden, referred to the house as a “progenitor of the Modern Mediterranean style home.”

Richard Kiehnel (1870-1944) relocated to Miami from Pittsburgh and became the architect for many landmark buildings, including the Coral Gables Congregational Church, Miami Senior High, and the Coral Gables Elementary School. Kiehnel drew upon European travel and study for the design of El Jardin in the Villa, Gatehouse and Garage. The contractor, John B. Orr employed craftsman who had just completed Vizcaya so the connections between these two Mediterranean styled properties can be seen in details as well as in the design organization. Like the original courtyard of Vizcaya, the El Jardin courtyard is central to the villa and open to the elements, although still covered with its original copperscreen.

The courtyard is faced by the Living Room, which is flanked by a Dining Room and Library that each opened to a porch. Kiehnel called the southern porch, “the Moorish Living Room,” referring to its detailing and African Tunas tile.

Kiehnel attributes the design of the Living Room to 16th century Spanish architecture and this can be seen most explicitly in the fireplace which recalls the elaborate work of José Benito Churriguera (1665-1725), whose name now describes an exuberant style of decoration, the Churrigueresque manner. The fireplace draws together many of the ornamental themes found in the villa’s cartouches, scrolls, and demi-figures.

The motif of the oak leaf and acorn is found throughout the villa and can be seen on the brackets of the living room ceiling beams. A symbol used by cultures as diverse as the Romans and Celts, acorns were often considered a symbol of life and fecundity. The oak in Greek mythology was thought to be the tree of Zeus and therefore the symbol of wisdom and immortality. The sources of the festoon imagery are also found in classic mythology and in the architecture of Greece and Rome in the decoration of the temples with garlands of actual fruits and flowers.

The cornucopia, a present day symbol of harvest, finds origins in the story of Zeus who, in gratitude to the goat whose milk sustained him in his infancy, declared that the possessor of goats’ horns would always have abundance. The symbol of hospitality, the pineapple is also a recurring motif. When pineapples were introduced to English greenhouses in the eighteenth century, the sharing of what was then an exotic and rare fruit, demonstrated high regard for one’s guest and thus its association today with hospitality. The sunflower can be seen throughout the villa and was known in the 17th century as an emblem of gratitude, constancy, and remembrance. 

Many of the decorative elements of the frieze and fireplaces of the smaller rooms are also linked with Christian symbols. The scallop shell for example was associated from the 12th century forward with the emblems of the pilgrims commemorating the apparition of St. James of Compostela.

The frieze, found on the exterior of the villa, the stair hall and the second floor loggia introduce the griffin, a mythological creature with the lower body of a lion and upper body of an eagle. The Greeks believed that griffins guarded the gold of Scythia. A symbol of steadfastness, the griffin was a popular figure in the work of both Giambattista Piranesi and his English colleague, Robert Adam, the griffin also appears in the ceiling of the dining room well as in furniture details.

The library represents a “hunt’ theme with a focus on a fifteenth century fireplace from Ferrara, Italy. Kiehnel refers to the south porch as the “Moorish living-room” which also recalls the verandah of the Brighton Pavilion (1815-22) by John Nash. The best known English influence is seen in the dining room of El Jardin where the decorative motif resembles the work of Robert Adam (1728 - 92). Adam not only designed the houses of leading members of the English aristocracy and gentry, he also designed silverware with Matthew Boulton in the well known bead and swag found in the Sheffield patterns as well in Hepplewhite furnishings. His designs were also reproduced in the work of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), a ceramicist who based his Jasperware line on the images that emerged during England’s classical revival. 

While the reference to Adam’s ceiling of the Syon House, Middlesex (1762-3) is evident in the ceiling of the dining room of El Jardin as well is in the patterns around the cabinets and fireplace, most visitors are more familiar with the patterns popularized by Josiah Wedgwood which has earned the dining room the nickname of the “Wedgwood room.”

The present day use of El Jardin as the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart links 200 years of tradition with the rich architectural history of the Villa and its references. Edith Wharton writing with Ogden Codman, Jr. in The Decoration of Houses in 1902 advised her readers to give attention to the physical environment. Focusing specifically on children, she explained that “the child’s visible surroundings form the basis of the best, because of the most unconscious, cultivation: and not of aesthetic cultivation only, since as has been pointed out, the development of any artistic taste, if the child’s general training is of the right sort, indirectly broadens the whole view of life. (183).”

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“Be zealous for the good of others. Believe that others can achieve results and that we must be happy to help…"
St. Madeleine Sophie Barat
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Society of the Sacred Heart 1802
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Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart
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"For the sake of one child, I would have founded the Society."
-Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat