A Historic, Period-Perfect, Miami House




Villa Selena was slated to be bought by a developer and torn down; Adrienne Arsht, who lived next door, worked with historians to get the home historically designated to render the development no longer possible, then bought it herself. Alexia Fodere for The Wall Street Journal

Businesswoman and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht took on a different kind of project for Miami, a city obsessed with contemporary architecture: restoring a forgotten 100-year-old home.

Villa Serena was built in 1913 in the lush Cliff Hammock neighborhood facing Biscayne Bay by William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and lawyer who argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution at the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. According to Arva Moore Parks, a Miami historian and author, Mr. Bryan’s wife, Mary, sketched the house’s plans and traveled to Cuba to pick out tiles.

“I thought, ‘This house has the most special history,’ ” says Ms. Arsht, 71 years old, whose $30 million donation in 2008 led the city’s arts center to be renamed the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Ms. Arsht had been interested in the Bryan home for years; it’s next door to her house, which she built in 1999.

The restoration of the Bryan home, completed in 2011, took four years. Ms. Arsht worked with interior designer Tom Bendt to research the home’s early years, find period-suitable furniture and to return the home to how it would have looked at the time the Bryans were entertaining the likes of President Warren G. Harding and artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Today, the 5,200-square-foot, three bedroom home—with an office—is connected to Ms. Arsht’s 12,000-square-foot house via a keystone path. It serves as her guesthouse and entertaining space. Its two-story exterior is a hybrid of Arts and Crafts, and Spanish architectural styles.

Inside, the home is a step back in time. There are sunny, formal sitting rooms that flow into one another on the main floor, arched entryways and sweeping water views. Furnishings include what is believed to be the home’s original dining table, found at the Women’s Club of Coconut Grove; upholstered rattan chairs; and floral couches. Vintage touches include a shadow box of framed Bryan presidential campaign buttons and a basket of antique badminton rackets. There are modern upgrades, including the kitchen, with its gray-and-white checkered floors and marble countertops.

There are several marble and stone fireplaces, including one in the living room with a life-size cutout of Mr. Bryan standing next to it. The cutout is replicating one of the few remaining interior photos of the home, which has Mr. Bryan standing in that same position.

Most of the home’s brightly patterned Cuban tiles on the main level have been restored or replicated by local Cuban artisans, says Mr. Bendt. “It’s like an Oriental rug, for the tropics,” he explained.

Upstairs, there are tented ceilings—originally added to aid with pre-air-conditioning air circulation—and a large master suite overlooking the ocean. A “secret” doorway hidden behind a built-in bookcase in one of the bedrooms connects the house’s two second-story wings; previously one could only reach the other by going back downstairs.

Ms. Arsht, who divides her time between Miami, Washington, D.C., and New York, says one of the trickiest elements of the restoration was the addition of air conditioning—a necessity during Miami’s sweltering summers. In some rooms, period-looking custom cabinets conceal the units; in others, they’re hidden in closets.

Ms. Arsht came to Miami from Washington in 1996 to run TotalBank, a business owned by her family, and ended up falling in love with her Miami property, Indian Spring. “I thought, ‘I came here to run a bank, not build a house,’ ” she says. She built one anyway, because she couldn’t put the 4-acre property out of her mind after seeing it, she says. (She eventually sold TotalBank to Banco Popular.)

In 2007, Villa Serena went up for sale. According to public records, the owner at the time was Veronica Nagymihaly. It was slated to be purchased by a developer and torn down to make way for a small cluster of luxury homes, says Ms. Parks, the Miami historian. Ms. Arsht worked with historians to get the home historically designated to render the development no longer possible, then purchased it herself.

Ms. Arsht paid $12 million for the home, according to records. She says she has since spent several million on the renovation, which included repairing a sea wall and dock that were in disrepair after years of hurricane damage and erosion.

The home needed other work. There were windows that weren’t up to modern hurricane codes, overgrown landscaping and feral cats. Inside, there were cracked tiles, bedroom walls covered in stickers and a crumbling foundation. “It looked like something out of Sleeping Beauty,” says Ms. Arsht. “That was also the good thing… nobody had touched it.”

Despite all the research done on the home, one historical mystery remains: how to open an old-fashioned-looking safe with a metal crank in a closet. “It’s like something out of an Al Capone movie,” says Ms. Arsht.

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