Mizner's Dream:The Built and the Unbuilt
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 led 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.
Early in 1925, Mizner decided to join what had become Florida's favorite pastime: the great land boom. In March the Palm Beach Post reported that Rodman Wanamaker II had purchased three-quarters of a mile of ocean front land in Boca Raton for a syndicate headed by Addison Mizner. The group continued to buy property and acquired about two miles of ocean front property and as much as sixteen hundred acres overall. With the land in hand, Mizner then announced the creation of the Mizner Development Corporation with plans to build the Castillo del Rey, a gigantic ocean front hotel. His dream for Boca Raton called for creating "the world's most architecturally beautiful playground" with miles of paved and landscaped streets, golf courses, polo fields, elegant shopping vias, and luxurious mansions for the crème de la crème of world society. The architect's reputation, the social, financial, and political cachet of his backers, such as T. Coleman du Pont, Elizabeth Arden, William K. and Harold Vanderbilt, Clarence H. Geist, Irving Berlin, the Duchess of Sutherland, and Paris Singer, and his publicity machine that immediately began the promotion of the resort, overnight made Boca Raton Florida's "hottest" property.
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.
The Ritz-Carlton (Unbuilt)
Florida’s developers of the 1920s believed they needed a hotel as a centerpiece for their projects. Hotels served as a social center for the developments and as a place where the company’s salesmen could find a captive audience for their sales pitch. The Ritz-Carlton was the grand hotel planned to grace the ocean front at the beginning of the Camino Real.
The Cloister Inn (Built)
When the Ritz-Carlton organization took over Mizner’s planned ocean front hotel, he built a smaller inn on Lake Boca Raton that he could finish more quickly than the larger hotel on the beach. At one point, the demand for speed in construction prompted his engineer to remind the architect that before he could dig footers for the foundation he needed plans. Although the Mizner Development Company had suffered serious financial problems by the autumn of 1925, Mizner pressed for the completion of the Cloister Inn. To cut costs, Mizner Industries made most of the furnishing and the architect used pieces from his own collection in the public rooms. The building proved his abilities as an architect and designer. According to one writer, “The Cloister was simple to severity in its whole yet rich in delights.” Another critic asked: “What . . . could make forms of wood, or stone, or stucco so beautiful that they trouble the imagination?” Mizner invited his Palm Beach friends and backers to a dinner party to informally open the small inn on Christmas Eve 1925. His friends agreed with the critics, according to (Now The Boca Raton) Stanford White’s widow, “This building is superb.”
Cabaret Ship (Unbuilt)
To become a successful South Florida resort, Mizner knew Boca Raton needed to compete with Palm Beach, where the Club Montmartre and the soon-to-open Paramount Theatre promised professional theatrical entertainment. Mizner sent his brother Wilson north to Baltimore to buy the cabaret ship, seeing it as an amusing and unique way to top the Palm Beach venues. Plans called for docking the ship on Lake Boca Raton near the Cloister Inn. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
The Administration Buildings (Built)
Every major Florida development in the 1920s had an administration building to house its offices and sales force. Mizner designed his administration buildings to serve as a visual example for his prospective clients of the new Boca Raton. It housed his sales offices, drafting rooms for his engineers and architects, a small apartment for Mizner, and an alfresco restaurant. The architect modeled the Administration Building facing Camino Real on El Greco’s house in Toledo, Spain, one of his favorite buildings.
Camino Real (Built and Unbuilt)
Mizner designed Camino Real, a 160-foot-wide boulevard, as the focal point of his new city. In his plans, the road began at the Ritz-Carlton on the beach and ended two-and-a-half miles to the west in Ritz-Carlton Park, a subdivision designed around golf courses. The street crossed the Intracoastal Waterway over a Mizner designed “Venetian” bridge with a three-story tower containing a bridge keeper’s apartment. After passing through the inn’s golf courses Camino Real became the major shopping street of the new resort with a large centered canal modeled on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Mangue Canal. The Camino Real canal was never completed.
Herd House (Unbuilt)
Anderson T. Herd, an original member of the syndicate that formed the Mizner Development Company, became its vice-president and general manager. Mizner designed a spacious and elegant mansion in the Distrito de Boca Raton, a section of the city south of Camino Real between the ocean and Intracoastal Waterway, for Herd that showed his high position within the company. As in many of his Palm Beach houses, Mizner placed the entrance on the ground floor level with an elegant staircase, providing a grand entrance to the large reception rooms on the first floor. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Mizner’s friend from his days in New York, Madame Frances Alda, had become a well known star of the operatic world. He renewed this friendship when she frequently visited Mizner’s clients and long time friends, the Preston Pope Satterwhites. Madame Alda often sang at Satterwhite dinner parties using the balconies and turrets of the patio as backdrops for her performances. Mizner’s design for her ocean front house in the Distrito de Boca Raton included a large music room with a stage for her formal recitals. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Old Floresta (Built)
Every Florida land boom developer of the 1920s knew that they could be successful only if people actually built on the lots which they purchased. To encourage people to build in Boca Raton, Mizner’s development company began construction on two subdivisions west of downtown. In October 1925 the company announced that it would construct houses in what became known as Old Floresta. Mizner said the houses were planned for the executives and directors of his company with one house especially designed for his brother, the Reverend Henry Mizner, who had recently retired from his St. Louis parish and planned to live in Boca Raton.
The Robinson Company, large New York contractors who were building the Cloister Inn, received the contract to begin twenty-nine houses in Old Floresta, the first of the many projected for the subdivision. The company was unable to complete all of the houses before the money ran out. The land and the new houses were repossessed by the original land owners. It was Hermann Von Holst, the leader of the Chicago owners of the property, who proposed new names for the streets and that the subdivision be called Floresta. The Old Floresta houses had plain facades—Mizner said that simplicity "...[was] always dominant in the best of Spanish architecture”—of rough-finished stucco with numerous windows and doors that frequently opened onto wrought-iron balconies. He also designed the street front facades with thick walls to give the windows and doors deep reveals. The roofs, covered with barrel tiles made at Mizner Industries, were uneven with low pitched lines alternating with flat parapets. In many of the smaller Old Floresta houses, Mizner substituted dining alcoves for formal dining rooms.
New York builder Harry Vought constructed a series of bungalows for the MDC just west of Dixie Highway and north of Palmetto Park Road now known as Spanish Village starting in 1925. Spanish Village houses were built in the Mediterranean Revival style to house the families of contractors for MDC, according to pioneer Nancy Gugenheim Turner. Spanish Village was originally supposed to be a development of at least one hundred homes. As of 1925, the first unit of fifty houses was being built. The homes were built to appease the high demand of homes along the east coast of Florida and cost between $7-10,000. Only 22 houses were completed out of the 100 planned. According to a MDC ad from the time, “these houses represent happy living conditions for the man who looks for comfort and convenience, coupled with a price that is not prohibitive. Today, ten of the houses survive.
A Paradise for Sportsmen (Built & Unbuilt)
By the 1920s, the plans for every Florida development began with a golf course. Palm Beach had three courses, so Boca Raton’s design called for at least four, all designed by Donald Ross, America’s best known golf course architect. The Mizner organization could also claim miles of beautiful beaches and equally beautiful bathers, an inlet to allow ocean sport fishing, horses with miles of trails for riding, and a projected polo field in the city, unlike Palm Beach’s need to travel to the Gulfstream Club for the sport.
Mizner believed a theater necessary to lure prospective land investors to his development, as shown by the plan above. Where he wished to build it is unknown. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Seaboard Air Line Station (Unbuilt)
Mizner anticipated the completion of the second railway through South Florida with a planned Seaboard Air Line depot for a site just west of the great plaza that Camino Real passed through on its way to Ritz-Carlton Park. On the official company map it is known as Addison Station.
Dunagan Apartments (Built)
1926 saw the construction of Mizner’s only Boca Raton apartment house design. H. W. Dunagan built the modest two-story building containing six studio apartments on De Soto Road, a Mizner Development street running north from Camino Real and overlooking the Cloister Inn golf course. The Boca Raton Club destroyed the small apartment house to extend its golf course.
Drucker House (Unbuilt)
Dr. Maurice Drucker planned to build both a Boca Raton development and a large Distrito de Boca Raton waterfront mansion. Mizner designed Drucker’s mansion in 1926. In an unusual plan, Mizner provided the only sheltered route from the entrance to the large living and dining rooms through the open cloisters surrounding the patio. Next to the main entrance to the house is the one-car garage and a small chauffeur’s room. The garage door seems more important than that of the main entrance. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Small Houses for Dr. Drucker (Built)
Dr. Maurice Drucker wished to become a Boca Raton developer. Mizner sold him land south of the Cloister Inn property and completed the design for a number of small houses for him. Mizner later published three of these designs in a Ladies’ Home Journal article. Drucker completed at least four houses, though they were destroyed in the early 1960s with the construction of the Royal Palm Yacht and Country Club.
Castle Mizner (Unbuilt)
Although Mizner designed four houses for himself in his seven years in Palm Beach, he now proposed to build a castle on an island in Lake Boca Raton as his ultimate Florida residence. Castle Mizner, at the south end of the lake, had a four-story tower capped by a mirador which gave him expansive ocean front views and a plan very similar to the Villa Mizner on Worth Avenue. A second tower and drawbridge created the major difference between the two houses. Mizner explained that the drawbridge allowed him “greater privacy.” Mizner promised to leave the castle to Boca Raton “for Posterity as a museum.” The rendering above is Castle Mizner viewed from the south. The entrance to Castle Mizner is pictured on the front cover.
Alexander House (Unbuilt)
Mizner designed a lake front mansion for the young Palm Beach socialite A. E. Alexander and his wife in 1925, shortly after he announced the formation of his new development in Boca Raton. In a plan reminiscent of the 1921 design for Casa de Leone on Lake Worth, Mizner placed a very large living room and the dining room on opposite sides of a patio with steps down to the lake. As in the Thomas plan, a boat slip is placed under the living room. The Alexanders’ house overlooked Mizner’s island castle at the south end of Lake Boca Raton. (Drawing, courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
Boca Raton City Hall / Historic Town Hall (Built)
In May 1925, the town commission appointed Mizner city planner for Boca Raton. Mizner promised to uniformly plat the entire incorporated area. His scheme for the new resort city combined the artist’s appreciation for picturesque
and unified design and the developer’s desire to divide the acreage into as many saleable lots as possible. He also took responsibility for the design of its most important buildings and quickly produced plans for Boca Raton’s first real city hall.
By January 1926, Mizner had released a sketch of his lofty two-story design for a new city hall with magnificent proportions. Although the town wished to build the new city hall, it counted upon real estate taxes to finance it. By early 1926, land sales had started to decline, and town fathers asked Mizner to scale down his original design. Mizner then produced a one-story version of his city hall. This also proved too costly for the economic conditions in the summer of 1926. Finally, Delray Beach architect William Alsmeyer completed the design of the building.
Although Mizner’s design for city hall was not followed, the final Alsmeyer version of the building had many similarities with Mizner’s work, including its basic “footprint,” as foundations had been laid according to Mizner’s specifications. Moreover, Mizner’s design and decorations and external elevations of the first floor remained part of the completed building. The stonework, grills, and other details came from Mizner Industries.
In building the Everglades Club, Mizner found he was unable to purchase through local suppliers the tiles and iron work that he needed for his Spanish design. Consequently, he took over a blacksmith shop to make lighting fixtures and ornamental iron grills and built his own kilns to make the roof tiles. Paris Singer had paid for these facilities. After he completed the Everglades Club, Mizner received many commissions for large Palm Beach mansions. Singer allowed him to purchase these various craft workshops so that he could supply the materials needed for his projects. From this small beginning, Mizner Industries grew into one of the largest manufacturing companies in Palm Beach County. By the end of the 1920s, the company made tiles, hand-made pottery, wrought iron fixtures and grills, cast stone (a cementitious mixture) columns and window and door surrounds, and both indoor and outdoor furniture. The furnishings and other details were often “distressed” to give them the appearance of antiquity. Many of furnishings and decorative arts featured in the Mizner History Alive!
exhibit in The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum are Mizner Industries products collected from residences and the Boca Raton Club (the Cloister Inn) by the BRHS over the last thirty years.
End of a Dream
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.
Mizner’s Boca Raton Projects Location Map:
1. Ritz-Carlton (unbuilt)
2. Ritz-Carlton Cloister Inn (built) - known today as The Boca Raton
3. Castle Mizner (unbuilt)
4. Alexander House (unbuilt)
5. Cabaret ship (unbuilt)
6. Cloister Inn golf course (built)
7. Herd House (unbuilt)
8. Alda House (unbuilt)
9. Dunagan Apartments (built)
10. Small houses for Dr. Drucker (built)
11. Camino Real (built and unbuilt)
12. Administration Buildings (built- today home of the Addison)
13. City Hall (built - today Historic Town Hall | The Schmidt Boca Raton History Museum)
14. Spanish Village (built)
15. Floresta (built)
16. SAL station (unbuilt)
17. Ritz Carlton Park golf courses (unbuilt)
? Dr. Drucker house (site unknown)
? Theatre (site unknown)