In the Footsteps of Worth Avenue's Founder: A Palm Beach Legend Comes Alive

By: Steve Winston

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Worth Avenue walking tours tell the story of how architect Addison Mizner transformed an alligator wrestling attraction into a glamorous shopping and dining destination.

Addison Mizner, the man who founded Palm Beach's Worth Avenue in the early 1900s, was a lot heavier than Rick Rose. And Rose doesn't stroll the avenues of "the gilded isle" with spider monkey Johnnie Brown on his shoulder.

But when Rose steps into the courtyard of Via Gucci to lead his historical walking tour of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, he wears a wide-brimmed white hat, a light blue seersucker sport coat, a crisp blue shirt and tie, and bright white pants. In this sense, he bears a striking resemblance to Mizner, the high-living architect who created Worth Avenue.

And when he tells the story of zip code 33480 – the wealthiest in America – he takes on Mizner's charismatic personality, too.

As you roam the whitewashed Mediterranean alleys and courtyards and the elegant shops with colorful awnings and wrought iron balconies, Rick Rose will tell you this street wasn't always so glamorous. After all, its original name was Jungle Road.

But Addison Mizner saw the potential of this land, which, until he came along, was populated only by wealthy guests staying in the hotels built by Standard Oil mogul Henry Flagler. And so he designed a posh private club on Jungle Road to serve as a social and entertainment hub for those prominent visitors.

When Mizner opened the Everglades Club in 1914, the alligator wrestlers who had plied their trade at the western end of Jungle Road moved on. And the street, Rose says, hasn't been the same since.

After the club's opening, Mizner built a Mediterranean Revival-style shopping and dining boulevard to accommodate international visitors. Mizner named it, Rose says, after Lake Worth, the section of the Intracoastal Waterway between Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

"The name of the lake was a happy coincidence," Rose says. "(It) played perfectly into the type of people Mizner was trying to lure onto his fancy new avenue here."

Rose, who guides tours about every other Wednesday November through April, leads you past the Duesenbergs, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis on one side of the sidewalk, and the Guccis, Ralph Laurens, Tiffany & Cos. and Saks Fifth Avenues on the other. He leads you to courtyards that look more like Venice than Palm Beach. He takes you past artists in their studios, past bronze, life-sized sculptures of children at play and past jewelry, clothing, antique and collectibles shops with window displays that suggest, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

Rose is a treasure trove of stories about the legendary families who've visited or called this area home. Among the names you're likely to hear about: Kennedy, Trump, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Post (cereals), Singer (sewing machines), Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In fact, the royal couple used to frequent the Ta-boo restaurant here, as did the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, Joseph.

Rose also takes you to the only home ever constructed on Worth Avenue – Mizner's, called Villa Mizner. Here, the architect gave free rein to his eccentricities and his affinity for Mediterranean and Arabic architecture. The eastern section is a five-story Mediterranean tower featuring white, stucco construction and a colorful, barrel-tile roof, while the western section features Moorish and Arabic windows and accents.

"Palm Beach doesn't allow cemeteries," Rose says, as he leads you into the shaded courtyard in Villa Mizner. "But there are actually two graves on the island... right in front of you!" 

One of them is the grave of spider monkey Johnnie Brown, without whom Mizner never left his home. Though Johnnie apparently had a long-running feud with Academy Award-winning actress Marie Dressler, he was extremely popular among pretty much everyone else. He even won some votes in a one-time run for Palm Beach mayor.

Johnnie Brown died in 1927. His gravestone reads, "Johnnie Brown, the Human Monkey."

Johnnie got company three decades later. In 1959, the owners of Villa Mizner had their Scottish Terrier buried alongside the monkey. The dog's grave reads simply, "Our Laddie, 1959."

Before Mizner died in 1933, the lifestyle he had grown accustomed to was all but gone, Rose says. Land deals went awry for Mizner, and the Great Depression deepened his financial gloom.

"He died broke, no longer a member of the wealthy society he had helped create," Rose says.

As Rose strolls "the Avenue," he, much like Mizner, moves among the movers and shakers with ease. Rose co-owns one of the area's top B&Bs – Grandview Gardens Bed and Breakfast and Vacation Homes – just across the Intracoastal in West Palm Beach.

He's a living encyclopedia of "the gilded isle" – and he'll take you on a living history tour of its stories and characters.

If You Go

Historical walking tours of Worth Avenue are offered about once every two weeks November through April. Tours begin at 11 a.m. at the Gucci Courtyard, 256 Worth Avenue. Cost is $10 a person. Call 561-659-6909 or visit worth-avenue.com.

Grandview Gardens, 1608 Lake Ave., West Palm Beach, offers bed-and-breakfast lodging and two- and three-bedroom vacation homes. For more information or to place a reservation, call 561-833-9023 or visit grandview-gardens.com.

Steve Winston (stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books. His articles have appeared in major media all over the world.

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