Addison Mizner: The Architect Whose Genius Defined Palm Beach
By Stephen Perkins and James Caughman
A handful of books published in the last few decades brought to light the residential achievements of American architect Addison C. Mizner (1872–1933), who popularized the Mediterranean Revival style in the 1920s in Florida and other parts of the U.S. Now Stephen Perkins and James Caughman add more knowledge and understanding of this inventive architect through a book that is both social history and architectural compendium.
Mizner’s eclectic style, where touches of Gothic architecture supplemented Spanish colonial motifs, romanticized an era and helped its occupants deal with the heat: he provided high ceilings, fans, tiled and stuccoed walls, and aligned windows for cross ventilation. His houses cooled off their inhabitants outdoors too, through covered terraces, deep porches, and fountains.
Mizner’s training was—as Perkins, a hotel architect, and Caughman, a furniture and design historian, relate—unconventional. At age 16, Mizner accompanied his parents to Guatemala, where his father held an ambassadorial position. Mizner traveled widely in Central America, learned Spanish, and sketched 16th-century architecture. Soon after he returned home to San Francisco he left again, for Spain, enrolling at the University of Salamanca and drawing local medieval architecture, saving the results in voluminous scrapbooks. He then developed an affinity for the design of the Far East when accompanying his older brother to China.
At 21, Mizner began an apprenticeship with Willis Polk, a socially prominent San Francisco architect who sought to create a Mission Revival style inspired by California’s Spanish colonial past. In Polk’s office, Mizner learned draftsmanship and the building trades, but, after three years, the firm went bankrupt. Mizner, broke, became a gold miner, first in the Sierras and then in Alaska.
With a modest stake in gold, he arrived in New York in 1904, using his San Francisco society connections to secure architectural commissions for houses in town and for mansions on the North Shore of Long Island.
In 1918, as World War I ended, Mizner went to Palm Beach at the invitation of his friend Paris Singer, the sewing machine heir and developer. The two bon vivants shared a passion for art and architecture, and Singer commissioned Mizner to build him the Moorish-inspired pink-stuccoed Everglades Club on Worth Avenue. Houses for Edward T. Stotesbury, president of the Drexel Company in Philadelphia; John S. Phipps, son of a partner of Andrew Carnegie; and Anthony Drexel Biddle Jr. followed. Not only did Mizner get 35 residential commissions between 1919 and 1925, but he also figured out how to build a grand mansion in one summer, so it could be occupied by Christmas. Early on he allied himself with the top local builder and organized Mizner Industries, a group of small artisanal factories to supply red roof tiles, cast stone, “Spanish” furniture, wrought-iron chandeliers, and colorful patterned ceramic wall tiles.
While Mizner was not the first to introduce the Spanish colonial style to Palm Beach, he did it so well in proportions, scale, and embellishment that he was enthusiastically imitated by those who succeeded him. However, his end was sad: his ambitious scheme to develop Boca Raton in 1925 proved a disaster and left him bankrupt. When he returned to Palm Beach, he continued to work, but younger rivals were scoring most of the new house commissions. Nonetheless, you can’t help being captivated by the still extant architecture of this eccentric man, who charmed the world and helped revive Spanish colonial architecture.