It’s getting to the time of year when Palm Beachers pack up and head North. Those who remain in town—tax exiles, perhaps—seek the safety of air conditioning. But one cannot stay home all day, and the stir-crazy might want some culture, something not in short supply during “the season” but rather harder to come by after Easter, when island residents typically depart. A short drive over in West Palm Beach is the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, occupying the 1916 county courthouse at the corner of Banyan and Third Street, where a mid-2000s restoration stripped away an unfortunate 1960s superstructure that enclosed and obscured the courthouse’s original façade. Visitors now see the original, inspired neoclassical design, which retains its civic grandeur. Fastidious attention to historical detail gives the building its current grativas. The limestone that was used to remake the façade came from the original Indiana quarry, the original columns and capitals were recovered from a local cemetery, and new bricks were stained to give them their original kiln-dried cream hue. All this makes the building, which hides among the administrative offices of rapidly growing West Palm Beach, worth visiting on its own. What a bonus, then, is the temporary exhibition, “Building Paradise: Addison Mizner’s Legacy,” on view through June 29.
Even among those with an interest in American architecture, Addison Mizner’s name remains obscure. Though a contemporary of, and later a successor to, the great firms of the early twentieth century, Mizner is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as Stanford White, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, or Richard and Joseph Howland Hunt. Except, that is, in Palm Beach. For it was Mizner who, even more than Henry Morrison Flagler, Palm Beach’s founder, defined the town, creating an aura, what might nebulously be called a “style,” or what one recent coffee table book called Palm Beach Chic. When in 1900 Flagler commissioned Carrère and Hastings to build Whitehall (now the Flagler Museum) on Lake Worth, it might have ushered in an architectural age like the one Newport was then undergoing with Richard Morris Hunt’s Breakers (1888–92), Horace Trumbauer’s Elms (1889), and McKim, Mead & White’s Rosecliff (1898–1902) providing their owners with heavy European-style historicist splendor. It didn’t. While Whitehall was a conscious departure from the extant Palm Beach style, which was conventionally shingled like older Northeastern resorts, Palm Beach builders continued more or less unswayed. There was to be no Cliff Walk in Florida. Indeed, the town lacked a predominant architectural style until Mizner arrived in 1919 at the behest of Paris Singer to build what became the Everglades Club, at the foot of Worth Avenue, which has since become the town’s main shopping street.
Mizner had traveled in South America and studied architecture in Salamanca, Spain and he was immediately taken with Palm Beach’s felicitous location, which reminded him of things seen abroad. Singer’s proposed parcel put Mizner in the mind of “a nunnery, with a chapel built into the lake . . . a mixture built by a nun from Venice, added onto by one from Gerona, with a bit of new Spain in the tropics.” It was this sort of fantastical Mediterranean amalgamation that Mizner would design all over town and which would come to define the Palm Beach look. The Everglades design led to Mizner’s immediate positioning as the town’s leading architect. Its stucco walls, hollow red roof tiles, floating staircase, internal courtyard, arched windows, pecky cypress ceilings, and bulky towers became hallmarks of Mizner’s style, and they would recur throughout his next commissions. El Mirasol (1920), built for the Stotesburys of Philadelphia, translated the Everglades design into a residential idiom. Running from ocean to lake on the island’s North End, its colonnaded courtyard and internal cloister, open fireplace and antique chandeliers, became typical of Mizner’s creations. Even less ambitious designs like Louwana, built that same year for Gurnee and Charles Munn, featured multiple asymmetrical wings, loggias, a floating staircase, and a courtyard. The “Spanish” nature of the design is honored in the breach of authenticity: Mizner understood that it was better to mix and match details he’d picked up on his travels than to slavishly copy floor plans. He was after a sense of lived-in comfort, not verisimilitude, and he always sited his homes to take advantage of the typical direction of the wind or the place the sun might be at the time a room would most likely be occupied. Both thoughtful and playful, he far surpassed the cold didacticism of many of his architectural competitors.
Through archival photographs, the exhibition shows that Mizner’s practice went beyond that of the typical architect of the time, for he also fashioned building materials—tiles, wrought iron decoration, cast stone, furniture—through his Las Manos pottery and later a conglomerate called Mizner Industries. On view are salvaged examples of the wares: column capitals, chandeliers, mouldings that were used to decorate his houses. He even devised a faux-wood material called “Woodite” made of wood shavings, plaster, and various other fibrous materials. Mizner Industries claimed that “the layman absolutely cannot tell the difference” between knotty Woodite and the genuine article. The Mizner operation was something like that of the Adam brothers in 1760s London, producing not only designs for buildings but also the materials out of which those buildings would be fashioned. The benefits to the architect are obvious: without middlemen, materials costs stay down while profit increases as decorative elements are sold to the client. That more architects haven’t engaged in this sort of vertigal integration suggests the flightiness of some of the finest designers in history; Mizner, despite personal quirks (as a boy he had a pet monkey called Deuteronomy; later, in Palm Beach, he would walk around with Deuteronomy’s successor, Johnnie Brown, on his shoulder), was an active businessman with an eye towards profit.
Not content to rule only Palm Beach, Mizner turned his attention southward. Seduced by the prospect of creating a Spanish-style city out of nothing, in 1925 Mizner traveled thirty miles south to a newly incorporated town called Boca Raton. As Donald W. Curl—whose 1984 book Mizner’s Florida: American Resort Architecture is still the best scholarly text on the architect—tells it, Mizner’s
entire life had prepared him for the land boom. He had always been interested in the main chance, the possibility of an easy dollar. . . . Although his work had transformed Palm Beach, it had been done within the framework of the existing town, and side by side with the work of many other architects and builders. The development of Boca Raton gave Mizner his opportunity to create an entire city, an opportunity to design a harmonious community in his unique interpretation of Spanish architecture which would capture the picturesque and romantic appeal of Old Spain.
But it was this eye to profit that would prove Mizner’s undoing. A wag might posit that he should have never left the felicitous climes of Palm Beach.
The syndicate that was formed to fund Mizner’s scheme, which included a thousand-room hotel, golf courses, polo fields, and scores of private homes over 1,600 acres, had in its ranks former Palm Beach clients like Paris Singer, Harold Vanderbilt, and Rodman Wanamaker, along with other “noted personages” such as the Duchess of Sutherland, Elizabeth Arden, and T. Coleman du Pont. Such luminous backing was not enough to save the project. Like the Adams at the Adelphi in London, Mizner’s Boca Raton was felled both by the scale of its ambition and by financial forces outside the architect’s control. As the Florida land boom collapsed in late 1925, investors became skittish and du Pont publicly disassociated himself from the project. The death knell was the September 1926 hurricane. Though Boca Raton itself suffered little, the Florida land boom ended and Mizner’s career never again achieved the heights of his early years in Palm Beach. He worked intermittently, both in South Florida and elsewhere, always imbuing his buildings with a characteristically cheeky historicism.
It is Mizner’s bad fortune that, as Curl puts it, “the small, ill-proportioned houses copied from his style during the land boom made Spanish architecture less popular for Palm Beach trend-setters.” The current townscape reflects that general suspicion for the Spanish, with a mix of Georgian, Regency, colonial Caribbean, and Bermuda houses now predominating. But to walk down Worth Avenue—with its loggias, courtyards, fountains, wrought-iron balconies, cartouches, and towers—is to know the man’s lasting achievement. The Historical Society’s current exhibition is a worthy introduction to the somewhat-forgotten architect. Visitors will want to pick up the accompanying brochure with its map of Mizner’s surviving Palm Beach commissions so that they may explore the golden age of Palm Beach architecture on their own time.