Early 20th-Century Palm Beach Architecture Spawned Florida's Style

By: JoAnn Greco

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Addison Mizner’s designs created an authentic sense of place.

Until I saw the Stephen Sondheim' musical "Road Show" ten or so years ago, I had never heard of Addison Mizner. But Mizner, who died in 1933 after turning 60, is widely credited with "inventing" the Florida style we so take for granted today.

He ushered in the Spanish tiled roofs and shaded interior courtyards, the gothic windows of Venice and the patios of Seville. He threw out the white colonial buildings and overly formal East Coast manners.

Mizner, it turns out, was not only a colorful bon vivant, a society sycophant, and an all-around oddball (that's the part that intrigued Sondheim), but one very influential architect. Influenced by his childhood in Guatemala and his travels through southern Europe as a young man, he determined that the look and feel of the Sunshine State should more closely echo the Mediterranean and not the stuffy town houses of New York and Philadelphia.

Many of the 40-plus mansions that Mizner designed in the area have been demolished or are unrecognizably altered. The bulk of those that still exist are hidden behind sky high hedges or tucked away from the beach.

But much of his work that still stands is readily accessible.

You just have to know where to look. For that, I turned to the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach and its self-guided walking tour (downloadable from palmbeachpreservation.org). It led me, naturally enough, toward Worth Avenue, the picturesque street of tony shops that allows visitors to happily spend — and spend some more — en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

I began at the Everglades, Mizner's first (1918) project in town and now a very exclusive private club. He crafted it as a retort to the area's most famous resort, The Breakers, located about a mile north. The building became Mizner's calling card, an entry point into the checkbooks of every socialite who soon wanted a Mizner-designed "Mediterranean Revival" villa to call her own.

"With the Everglades, Mizner was aiming for what he saw as a more authentic sense of place," says Janice Owens, associate director of the Preservation Foundation.

Its tower, reminiscent of a campanile, and its cascading roof line, gives the building the appearance of an entire village. It looked as if a row of disparate buildings had evolved over the years.

Inside, says Owens, it's filled with wrought-iron chandeliers. The Spanish tile was hand-crafted at Mizner's own atelier. Owens notes that it has cypress ceilings, cast stone spiral stairways and Gothic arches.

That's also true of the three privately-owned, Mizner-designed mansions. They hug the lakeshore along a curving road just to the west of the Everglades. Chief among these is Casa de Leoni (1920). He designed it to suggest a Venetian palazzo. Craning my neck, I convinced myself that I could see a piece of the boat-landing.

Now, to really experience Mizner, I needed to get back to the commercial end of Worth Ave. That’s where his most magnificent creation stands. It features a main, arcaded shopping street and secret "vias" hidden behind it. With their gurgling fountains and overflowing window boxes, this series of courtyard offers an entrancing hideaway.

Strolling through it, I thought of today's "lifestyle centers," designed to present an alternative to the sterile shopping mall. They, too, feature real sidewalks and stucco painted in sorbet colors and fountains. Mizner's vias, though, felt real — and at this point actually antique; after all, they date from the 1920s. This eccentric genius created a stage-set, sure, but it was one crafted out of love and attention to detail, not out of cynicism and cookie-cutter patterns.

Moving on, I walked toward the ocean and then veered north toward Phipps Plaza, where two more Mizner buildings awaited. They were paired across from each other at the entrance to a verdant oval surrounded by private homes.

The southern end is clad in the nubby black and white stone that the architect sourced from the Florida Keys. Now home to a restaurant, it was erected in 1930 for E.F. Hutton. It was meant to serve as a home for his brokerage offices. It’s a tradition that continues today along Royal Palm Way, which is lined with private banking offices.

Across from this sturdy, castle-like structure is the now-vacant Plaza Building (1924), a vision in salmon-hued stucco. Once home to a Bonwit Teller department store, what beckons is its most distinguishing feature — an exterior spiral staircase with a wrought-iron railing.

I started climbing it, stepping over a trail of errant bougainvillea. Occasionally I kneeled to more closely examine the porcelain tile that covered its risers. I reached the top and looked out over the town that a monkey-toting, giant (he was 6'3" and 300 pounds) had so carefully and thoroughly crafted.

I walked back down, humming Sondheim's lyrics to myself. "I get to play with an artificial lake and with Spanish tiles and Moroccan chairs, with indoor fountains and outdoor stairs, with whims and fancies and millionaires!"

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