The Bubble In The Sun
Under the Florida palms William Jennings Bryan orated and Gilda Gray shimmied while real-estate promoters hawked lots. It was the greatest land boom in our history
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Even staid old Palm Beach, at first inclined to look down its aristocratic nose upon the scrambling nouveaux riches , was caught up in the hurricane of expansion. Palm Beach was to be wooed and won into the heart of the boom by one of the great charlatangeniuses of the Twenties, Addison Mizner—painter, woodcarver, miner, interior decorator, prize fighter, writer, architect. Born in California in 1872, Mimer had gone to Guatemala with his father in his teens, and there had fallen in love with Spanish art and architecture. This love had later grown during a brief stay at the University of Salamanca in Spain. Over the years he had pursued his off-beat career as an exotic and romantic dilettante on lour continents.
Mizner’s first brush with fame had been as co-author of The Cynic’s Calendar: “Where there’s a will, there’s a lawsuit”; “Many are called but few get up”; “The wages of gin is breath”; “Be held truthful that your lies may count.” He was working in New York as a society architect and designer of Japanese landscapes when ill health carried him to Palm Beach in 1918.
There he fell in with a kindred spirit, Paris Singer, whose inheritance from his father’s sewing machines gave him the time and the money to pursue both the arts and Isadora Duncan. Soon the combination of the Florida sun and Singer’s generosity had helped Mizner recover to the point where he was busily designing a hospital—financed by Singer—for convalescent World War I soldiers. But the war was completed before the hospital was, and it was transformed into the Everglades Club, displacing Flagler’s Breakers as the ne plus ultra of Palm Beach. The Everglades was the first of many architectural triumphs that established Mizner as the supreme master of the Florida Spanish motif. It led to a commission to build a villa for banker Edward T. Stotesbury, the first of dozens of rich patrons—including G. Rodman Wanamaker II, Drexel Biddle, Jr., and a pride of Vanderbilts—who were eager to pay for the privilege of being insulted by a great architect and of living in the gigantic pleasure domes he created for them.
The architecture of these latter-day Xanadus has been summarized by Alva Johnston in his book, The Legendary Mizners , as the Bastard-Spanish-Moorish-Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance-Bull-Market-Damn-the-Expense Style. Their central theme was inevitably Spanish, but Mizner, a versatile antiquarian, sometimes threw ten centuries into one structure. “Most modern architects,” he said, “have spent their lives in carrying out a period to the last letter and producing a characterless copybook effect. My ambition has been to take the reverse stand—to make a building look traditional and as though it had fought its way from a small unimportant structure to a great rambling house that took centuries of different needs and tips and downs ol wealth to accomplish. I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner has added a very rich Renaissance addition.”
To get the all-important appearance of antiquity Mimer inflicted the wildest vandalism on his masterpieces. He deliberately smudged up new rooms with burning pots of tarpaper, took penknife and sledgehammer to woodwork and statuary, used ice picks and air rifles on furniture, hired inexperienced help to lay roof tiles awry, and once had men in hobnailed boots walk up and down a stairway before the cement set to get the effect of centuries of wear. One of his original contributions to architecture was the discovery that worm-eaten cypress gave the desired effect of age; thus pecky cypress, formerly considered almost worthless, suddenly became the mahogany of Palm Beach.
The one talent Mizner lacked was that of making conventional plans and specifications. Everything was done off-the-cuff. Plans for one house were drawn in the sand on the beach, a window in another was copied from a photograph of a house on Minorca. When one client asked for a blueprint, Mizner replied in amazement, “Why, the house isn’t built yet.” Occasionally, this resulted in oversights, such as the failure to include a staircase in one mansion; a staircase was eventually added—but outside, so that it would not spoil the perfection of the interior.
His landscaping experience gave him a distinct feeling lor the setting ot a house. To an admirer, the Journalist Ida Tarbeil, he seemed “to have a veritable passion for utilizing all the natural beauties of the place,” an ability “to make a typical Florida thing.” Vistas of the ocean, the blue skies, the tall palms, all figured in his craft. Large windows and cross drafts let the balmy air into his rooms. He noticed that the prevailing winds were from the southwest, so his kitchens were invariably in the northeast corner of the house. As an artist he understood the dramatic effects of color—he preferred pastels. He looted Spain and Central America of tile roofs and furnishings and set up his own Mizner Industries, Inc., to make the latest thing in “antiques,” wrought iron, artificial stone, stained glass, terra cotta, tiles, urns, pots, and fountains.