- Historic Sites
The Tropical Twenties
The shady courtyards, tiled roofs, and white stucco walls of 1920s Palm Beach owed something to the style of the Spanish Renaissance and everything to the vision of Addison Mizner
May/june 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 4
As the evangelist of the Spanish Colonial Revival in southern Florida, Addison Mizner was an architect of fantasy as well as of houses. “I based my design largely on the old architecture of Spain—with important modifications to meet Florida conditions and modern ways of living,” he wrote. The mixture worked: by the mid-1920s Mizner had become America’s most prominent society architect, responsible for the transformation of Palm Beach from a collection of simple frame cottages into a fashionable tropical resort.
The course of Addison Mizner’s life was set at an early age. Born in California in 1872, the son of a forty-niner who made a fortune not in gold but in real estate, Mizner moved at age seventeen to Guatemala when his father became envoy there. As a young man he traveled throughout Latin America and Polynesia, studied in Spain, hunted for gold in Alaska, and worked as an architect in San Francisco and New York. The youthful Mizner’s exotic wanderings turned out to be the proper education for his later career. He arrived in Florida in 1918, nearly broke and with failing health, temporarily beached but perfectly poised to ride the next wave into the boom years of the 1920s.
From 1910 to 1930 the state’s population doubled to almost 1.5 million. Mizner’s role was to invent a history for the new inhabitants. “I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner,” he said, “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.”
Mizner’s genius arose from his ability to create ironic juxtapositions that were spatial as well as temporal. Reacting against the Beaux-Arts classicism of his day, with its insistence on eternal and harmonious forms, he depended instead on the visual drama of spaces that first raised and then dashed the viewer’s expectations of symmetry and proportion. Mizner’s houses and public buildings were often elaborate visual puns.
The house Mizner built in Palm Beach for the Philadelphia businessman Daniel H. Carstairs, featured here, displays most of the characteristics of the Spanish Colonial Revival style with its stucco walls, red tile roofs, and circular arches. Its arcaded loggias, interior courtyards, bell towers, entranceways, and window surrounds, either elaborately accentuated or starkly de-emphasized, were just Mizner’s starting points. For Daniel Carstairs, Mizner designed, he said, a “farmhouse of the Ferdinand and Isabella period.” Its large entryway was planned to allow “farm carts to drive into the inner courtyard.” Inside, a cantilevered stairway—a favorite Mizner touch—and an adjacent stairway that leads only to a second-floor powder room (which could have been placed more efficiently on ground level) create the spatial ambiguity that Mizner loved. On a wall facing the courtyard, two of a row of seven arched windows are blocked up, as if some renovation had long ago made them unnecessary.
Mizner would meet clients during the winter social season, sign a contract before they left, design the house, and have it built, landscaped, and furnished before they returned the following season. He liked to have total control over all the details of construction, even to the point of buying the linens and hiring the domestic staff. To meet the needs of his rapidly expanding business, the architect established Mizner Industries, which manufactured the decorative ceramics and tiles for roofs and floors; cast the stone for arches, capitals, and corbels; wrought the iron for gates, window grilles, lanterns, andirons, and light fixtures; and produced carved and imitation wood paneling, period furniture, stained glass, and wicker furniture. He regularly went on buying trips to Europe to find Spanish antiques.
In the increasing frenzy of Florida real estate speculation in the 1920s, lots were bought and sold for double their prices in a matter of weeks. Then options on lots were traded, and options on options were sold. Fabulous stories abounded, like the one of a cabdriver who took a couple the thirteen hundred miles from Manhattan to Palm Beach and, with his fare and tip, invested in real estate and made a million dollars. Or the man who was down on his luck until he got up early one morning to be first in line at a realtor’s office and then sold his place in line and made enough to make a down payment on a lot—plus some change for breakfast. If all the tales weren’t exactly true, they were told often enough to make people believe that they were at least possible. Of this antic atmosphere William Jennings Bryan said, “You can tell a lie at breakfast that will come true by evening.”
By 1925 even Addison Mizner had begun to believe some of his own inventions. In that year he planned the city of Boca Raton, featuring a luxury hotel, the Cloister Inn, and the Camino Real, advertised as the widest street in the world (it was also one of the shortest). Mizner’s scheme included private homes, office buildings, and a town hall—all in his signature Spanish style. On the first day his sales office opened, Mizner’s firm signed contracts for eleven million dollars.
Before the year was out, however, the Boca Raton project was deeply in trouble. Contractors went unpaid and major investors became wary. Smaller investors who had made the first low down payments failed to make the second installments. Some attributed the collapse of the Florida real estate market to the failure of Mizner’s Boca Ra ton. It had seemed to be one of the most secure investments in the state: if that could go down, nothing was safe. Before the end of 1926 a series of events contributed to the definitive end of the Florida land bubble. Railroads hard pressed to supply food to Florida’s expanding population placed an embargo on the transportation of building supplies. In January the sea route into Biscayne Bay was blocked when the Prins Valdemar , an old Danish warship that was intended to be transformed into a hotel, capsized in the channel. Nature added the final touch when hurricanes lashed the coast later in the year. Nobody suspected then that Florida’s problems were only a dress rehearsal for the Wall Street crash of 1929.
Mizner, now bankrupt, his development firmand industries broken up, continued to work, and in fact he did some of his best commissions for clients in Colorado, Georgia, California, and Pennsylvania; but both his health and his spirit suffered, and he died in 1933.
Daniel Carstairs sold his splendid house at the first sign of trouble in 1926. In 1935 the house and its contents were sold at auction when a later owner was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years in prison for embezzlement. In 1960, after several years of deterioration, the building was renovated by a misguided preservationist who painted the exterior stucco green and the interior woodwork white. Only recently has it been faithfully restored by its current owner to its nearly original form. The dramas continue in Florida, but Mizner’s buildings now are a part of a picturesque past that was newly old when he helped to invent it some seventy years ago.