Addison Mizner in Boca Raton
by Dr. Donald Curl 2003
By 1925, Addison Mizner (1872-1933) personified the idea of "Society Architect." His Palm Beach mansions for the wealthy and socially prominent created both a new architectural style and a new life style for America’s preeminent winter resort. Born in Benicia, California to one of the state’s pioneer families, Mizner had traveled extensively in his early years. Although without formal university training in architecture, he had studied design his entire life. Like most members of his profession in these years, he received his formal training as an apprentice to a practicing architect. In Mizner’s case, a three year apprenticeship in the office of Willis Polk, later a prominent San Francisco architect. After a decade as a country house architect on Long Island, Mizner came to Palm Beach with sewing machine heir Paris Singer during the winter of 1918. It was his design for Singer’s Everglades Club that introduced Mediterranean style architecture to the resort. The success of the club lead to commissions for resort mansions for the leaders of Palm Beach society. In order to fill these commissions, Mizner found it necessary to establish workshops in West Palm Beach to make the tiles, wrought iron fixtures, and cast-stone trim and columns to decorate the exterior of his houses, and later the furniture for the interiors.
The company took in over two million dollars on the first day of sales and an additional two million at the second offering of lots. Moreover, the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain decided to take over Mizner’s Castillo del Rey. To meet the Ritz-Carlton’s exacting standards, it planned to have Mizner’s hotel redesigned, delaying the start of construction. With the money pouring in from lot sales, Mizner decided to immediately build a smaller hotel on the west bank of Lake Boca Raton. He also started construction of the many amenities he had promised for the new city including the miles of streets, the administration buildings, and a number of houses.
By the autumn of 1925, Florida’s great land boom began to unravel. Bad publicity was generated by the fraudulent practices of many promoters and transportation embargoes that kept building supplies from reaching the state. Members of America’s middle class traveling to Florida during the summer found its hotels and restaurants closed and its heat, humidity, and mosquitoes unbearable. These factors all contributed to an uncertain real estate climate.
Unfortunately, the Mizner Development Corporation had entered the real estate market just as it began to collapse. When Mizner realized that sales of Boca Raton lots were not supplying the money to continue his development plans, he encouraged sales by promising to complete the project in his company’s advertisements. Many of his backers, including T. Coleman du Pont, feared they might have to assume financial liabilities for these company promises and resigned their positions and board memberships. By the time the lake side hotel, now known as the Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn, formally opened in February 1926, the corporation had serious problems. While construction continued on the houses of Floresta and Spanish Village, no one started construction on the great ocean and lake front mansions that Mizner had designed for his exclusive Distrito de Boca Raton subdivision. The hurricane of September 1926, sealed the fate of the Florida land boom and of Mizner’s dream for Boca Raton. By spring 1927, suits were filed asking recovery of property sold to the Mizner company, claiming arrears in both principal and interest. This led to the court’s appointment of three trustees in bankruptcy to dispose of the company’s assets. In November, Clarence H. Geist, an original Mizner backer and wealthy Philadelphia utilities company owner, purchased the assets for $71,500 in cash and the assumption of around seven million dollars in debts.
Addison Mizner continued architectural commissions in the ensuing years, but the "bust" brought him financial ruin. He died in Palm Beach in 1933, and his ashes were scattered in California, not far from his childhood home.
For more information view the BRHSM online exhibit "Mizner’s Dream: The Built and the Unbuilt" .
Test your Mizner knowledge! Click here for Mizner Trivia game.
To read more about Addison Mizner and Boca Raton check out these issues of the Boca Raton Historical Society's Spanish River Papers: