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Lady of the Manor

The recent restoration of the historic Villa Serena in Coconut Grove is but one of many of Adrienne Arsht’s labors of love.

Adrienne Arsht in front of Villa Serena, the historic Coconut Grove property she purchased and recently finished restoring

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Adrienne Arsht is best known as a philanthropist—she has even been dubbed “Miami’s savior” in response to the $30 million gift she gave to the city’s downtown performing arts center that now bears her name. In fact, for many years Arsht has been contributing generously to a host of causes she feels strongly about, including education, children’s health charities and the arts. But it’s her active involvement—not just the checks she writes—that speaks to her level of benevolence.

The first woman to join the Million Dollar Roundtable of the United Way of Miami-Dade County, Arsht, who divides her time between Washington, D.C., New York and Miami, serves on the boards of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and The Metropolitan Opera, and is a member of the Fine Arts Committee of the U.S. State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. It was her time spent living among the Hispanic community in South Florida that led to one of her latest achievements, the startup of the Atlantic Council, which she calls “a major think tank, like the Council on Foreign Relations.” The objective of that entity is to be an active participant in the creation of policies between South America, Europe and the U.S.

But it’s one of Arsht’s most recent undertakings that is perhaps the most remarkable. After selling her family-owned TotalBank six years ago, Arsht embarked on an endeavor she had long wanted to pursue: the purchase and restoration of William Jennings Bryan’s Villa Serena, located next door to her own home, Indian Spring, in Coconut Grove. “I had tried to buy the property on several occasions, but they wouldn’t let me,” says Arsht. “Finally it went on the market.” At the time, the preservationist and historian Arva Parks was working toward having the home declared a historic landmark, which would mean it couldn’t be torn down. Four days after it received the designation, Arsht closed on the deal.

That was in 2007. Arsht admits that even as she set out to restore Villa Serena, she wasn’t sure where to start. “So I began to study the context of the time period when the house was built, with Arva’s help.” Over the next few years, a multimillion-dollar face-lift on the property unfolded, one that included maintaining the footprint of the house along with the original Cuban tile and front doors to the courtyard, resulting in an entrance that Arsht says “is exactly as it was in 1913.” She is still taken aback by what she refers to as the “majesty” of the property. “To think what it was like to arrive at that magnificent driveway,” she muses, her voice trailing off. “You really have to see it. There is no describing it.”

This November, the 100th anniversary of the home will be commemorated in a special event that will take place at the property, and Arsht will be there as the consummate host, a role she knows well. “For the longest time I felt that I had a view and a place that I didn’t exactly own [but] that people should be able to experience,” she says.

“It’s the essence of Florida.”