For the past few days I’ve been doing a deep dive into Palm Beach and Boca Raton architecture as a by-product of reviewing “Addison Mizner: The Architect Whose Genius Defined Palm Beach” by . I was drawn to the subject having spent a number of years living in Coral Gables, Coconut Grove, and lower Miami Beach, where I was surrounded by the beautiful Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial-influenced homes you can only find in South Florida…
I like architecture but am in no ways a buff, so I had not known of Addison Mizner prior to reading this extensively researched biography. I was never a Palm Beach kinda girl but did spend considerable time in Boca, ostensibly for work but in actuality drinking margaritas poolside with an old boss whose condo did not come anywhere close to resembling any of Mizner’s Boca gems.
I was hoping for a lot of images of Palm Beach’s Ocean Boulevard homes but instead found myself engrossed in the illustrious Minzer family, which laid the foundation for the renaissance man he would become. How can you not be fascinated by someone described as a “wit, bon viviant, bohemian, prospector, capitalist, and promoter”? What a great set of descriptors. I wish I could sit on a veranda overlooking the Atlantic at one of his majestic homes and listen to Minzer talk about his life while sharing a pitcher of mojitos (or two).
From a young age Mizner collected postcards, photos, and other ephemera from his extensive travels. He would glue these mementos into scrapbooks, creating a “trove of visual reference” which “filled twenty-five volumes that served as a personal canon of architecture, landscape, and decorative arts”. Talk about your inspirational story-boards!
Mizner was the most famous architect of his time, building residences for the richest families in America. Between 1919 and 1925 he designed and built “almost 40 houses in Palm Beach” with each house created to compliment the wife who would preside over it. There’s a very old-school concept, yet speaks to Minzer’s ability to match each home to its owner’s unique sensibilities.
Mizner’s dream was to design an entire community of his own, based on urban design studies of European cities and Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition. This led him to form the Mizner Development Corporation along with a group of prominent investors. Prime ocean front real estate was purchased, millions of dollars in pre-sales were noted, and numerous public and private buildings were ready to be built when the development of Boca Raton began in earnest in 1925. The project “would exercise an inexorable force that pulled the architect down to a level of disgrace and financial ruin that he never fathomed possible”. A year later, the corporation was bankrupt and Mizner was forced to borrow $500,000 to remain afloat. Unfortunately, Mizner never recovered from this ‘colossal failure’, was unable to settle the majority of his debt, and succumbed to a heart attack a few years later with $2500 to his name.
Mizner’s homes remain the elegantly beautiful playthings of the modern day rich and famous, standing as a testament to his ability to blend design and setting for maximum architectural effect. As for my review of “Addison Mizner: The Architect Whose Genius Defined Palm Beach”, since reading the book inspired a week-long dive into the Palm Beach and Boca Raton Historical Societies and related archival collections, I am giving the book the ultimate rating. 4 out of 4 houses – the architectural equivalent of a must read!