Sheila Hollihan 2015-09-18 23:17:05
Addison Mizner, in a few short years during the roaring 20’s changed Palm Beach from a painted wood New England style hotel resort, to a medieval Spanish & Mediterranean style winter extravaganza for the world’s richest tycoons and celebrities. His eclectic “Palm Beach Style” is an architectural style that gradually spread throughout Florida and is being rediscovered and adapted by today’s planners and developers. Fortunately, collectors of Mizner furniture and architectural elements can still find museum quality pieces in out-of-the-way places because the style lost favor in the 1930’s and 1950’s as the art deco modernism and industrial style fashion came to fore – you just have to know what to look for to find these Mizner treasures. Addison was the younger son in a large prosperous San Francisco political and professional family. Always showing an artistic bent, he traveled widely with his family, and lived for several years in Guatemala while his father was Ambassador to Central America. It was there that the boy fell in love with the tiled roofs and multicolored stucco homes of the mountain capital. Years later, having decided to become an architect and apprenticing to an established firm, he traveled to Europe where his explorations of Italy and Spain confirmed his attraction for the medieval Mediterranean aesthetic. He brought back numerous sketches and watercolors of public places, homes, and furniture, many of which he would later use in his Florida projects. Meanwhile he moved to New York, where he became a society architect, creating genteel and impressive homes and beach cottages for the wealthy. Nevertheless, in 1917, a leg injury made him bedridden and the fuel shortages of WWI made living in bed in the frigid north unbearable. He and his friend Paris Singer, of the sewing machine fortune, decided he should recover in warm Palm Beach, Florida. In 1918, the two friends arrived to find a staid community of two painted wood hotels filled with northerners only from Jan 2 to Feb 22 (“the season”) and small bungalows and frame houses. The New England style frame houses did not look right among the area’s massive palm trees and brilliant tropical flowers, so when Paris Singer proposed they build a troop hospital, the two friends agreed to design it in a style befitting the hot climate – Addison’s beloved Mediterranean style. The war ended before it opened, so they elected to make it into a private waterside club. The Everglades Club, with fireproof construction, arched cloisters, luxury residences, dining room, beauty salons, gondolas on the Lake, and fragrantly planted indoor-outdoor spaces, was an immediate hit when it opened in 1919 and now everyone wanted a Mizner mansion on their ocean properties. Amazingly, in only 7 years, 1919-1925, Addison created 37 fantasy mansions in Palm Beach – architecture, interiors, landscaping. Naturally, a client arriving from the north or Europe wanted a “move-in ready” mansion, so Addison couldn’t wait for antique imports. But he couldn’t buy factory made either – he hated the cold monotony of the industrially produced building materials, furniture, accessories, lighting, and ironwork then available. So he created Mizner Industries and taught workers how to hand-craft EVERYTHING that was needed according to medieval methods. For example, curved roof tiles were made by a worker molding a slab of clay on his own thigh, creating an organic curve and slight variation from tile to tile. Addison invented many new materials and techniques and, also purposely “antiqued” the patinas, often testing these first by himself as a hands-on craftsman in his own right. He never called them reproductions but he adapted the 16th and 17th century Mediterranean designs for his wealthy clients’ needs and tastes, such as calculating the seat height of his large easy chairs, to easily lounge in but as importantly, to easily get up and out - something not possible on a true antique designed for smaller height medieval gentry. He even innovated a covered arcade shopping mall, by designing Worth Avenue as arcaded boutiques and seating nooks in otherwise residential areas for the strolling and shopping pleasure of the residents of the street. By 1926, Addison and his investors turned southward to create Boca Raton, his projected dream city, on the swamps and fields of that area. There would be canals and gondolas, making a new Venice in America, with mansions and clubs for the wealthy and more modest developments for the middle class. The imposing castle he built on the banks of Lake Boca began the new land boom there, but hurricanes and the collapse of the land bubble elsewhere in Florida, slowed the effort. Finally, the disastrous hurricane of 1928 resulted in the Florida Depression, that Depression spreading to the whole country in 1929. The Boca dream city was never completed. If you want to collect Mizner antiques, you will have a delightful yet challenging collector’s treasure hunt! Mizner didn’t sign anything (although there are a few lighting fixtures that are engraved with his workshop mark) so to get real Addison Mizner items you need to compare what you find in antique, thrift stores and online, with pictures of his interiors and sales catalogues. An example is the white trestle table, which is clearly a painted-over Mizner item according to the 1920’s sales catalog. Provenance can be important. Many of Mizner’s most famous mansions were demolished in the 1950’s, or drastically added to or re-designed, so if your seller can show you a bill of sale from one of those demolitions, you can rely on it if the item also looks like a “real Mizner”. Such is the case with the pair of tile side tables purchased from a specific Palm Beach mansion. The Boca Historical Society has many of the original sales catalogs online http://www.bocahistory.org/our-history-addison-mizner/ and Dover Publications has an inexpensive though slightly fuzzy revised reprint (ISBN 048627327X) of the stunning Ida Tarbell 1928, oversized volume of sepia outdoor and interior photographs of Mizner’s masterpieces. Unfortunately, there is no “Mizner Museum” where you can study his works to develop the “feel” of his authentic items. But, exhibitions are occasionally mounted by Florida’s art museums, and Historical Societies will have some examples, especially in the Southeast of the State where Mizner did most of his work. Even if you don’t wish to collect Mizner antiques, following in his creative paths can make for engrossing day-trips. Google your location – for example, there’s a Mizner mansion in Naples, and in Jacksonville the Baptist Church still has the original exterior paint patina Addison invented. Boca Raton makes a fascinating exploration of how the original planning footprint has evolved since the 1920’s. And of course Palm Beach is especially lovely, as many of the masterpieces are beautifully landscaped still and can be glimpsed through the private iron gates. Worth Avenue and Via Mizner boutiques and patio restaurants are open year round and make for an elegant afternoon’s evocation of Addison Mizner’s “Palm Beach” style of tropical Florida luxury.
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