In the wake of both Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the devastation seen in Texas, the Caribbean, Florida and beyond is truly heartbreaking. My thoughts are with everyone affected.
Last week’s catastrophic projections of Irma predicted complete havoc for the East coast of Florida. Having grown up there, I have seen plenty of hurricanes and tropical storms pass through but nothing compared to this latest behemoth. My parents still live in Boca Raton and as the pictures came through of all the damage, it had me pondering how much architectural history in hurricane-prone places still survives the wreckage of Mother Nature’s ultimate storms. Before long, I was down the rabbit hole looking at city plans of Boca Raton, Florida from the 1920’s as dreamed up by celebrated society architect Addison Mizner. Just what is left of his lofty building goals for America’s Sun Porch?
Right after college, I did some volunteering at the Boca Raton Historical Society. Wearing white museum-quality gloves, I sifted through pieces made at Mizner Industries, from wrought iron candelabras to tiles and leather upholstered chairs. My job was to add them to their impressive database of Mizner memorabilia by noting details on the item and cataloging it. Mizner Industries was a workshop set in West Palm Beach that supplied pieces needed to build and decorate Mizner’s projects, like the tony Everglades Club, while keeping costs and lead time down. While most are familiar with Mizner’s Spanish Mediterranean-style architectural contributions in Palm Beach, his most impassioned vision was creating a new winter haven 27 miles south in sunny Boca Raton.
In 1925, Mizner owned about sixteen hundred acres of land including ocean-front property. His plans for “the world’s most architecturally beautiful playground” included shopping vias, polo fields, four Donald Ross designed golf courses, a battery of tennis courts, a lake to rival the likes of Italy’s famed Lake Como and elegant residential villas sprinkled throughout. He also wanted some cultural pull so a cabaret ship and theatre were dreamed up as well. In the days before centralized air conditioning, I’m sure it took this and more to get anyone further south than Palm Beach! Mosquitos, heavy humidity and Everglades alligators must be overcompensated with lots and lots of perks. Much to my delight, a few Addison Mizner Boca Raton gems have sustained the harsh South Florida conditions for nearly 100 years and can be appreciated by residents and visitors alike.
In the days of winter colonies, a resort destination had to be anchored by a fabulous hotel. While construction was underway for a never-to-be built Ritz-Carlton beachfront property, Mizner started working on a smaller getaway. The Cloister Inn was to be a Spanish monastery-like beauty right on the water that brought luxurious tranquility to Boca Raton. Mizner decked out each guest room in $10,000 worth of Mizner Industries furnishings and decorated public spaces with antiques from his own collection. Acquired from his travels far and wide, antiquities such as fine lace from cathedrals and stone doorways from palaces adorned the Cloister Inn. The Vanderbilts , Elizabeth Arden and many other social fixtures came for the grand opening gala in February of 1926. All of this hoopla over the Inn attracted the ear of Sea Island, Georgia developer Howard Coffin who was in the midst of building a hotel that was to be the crowning jewel of his new resort destination. He sent a handful of his employees to see what the Inn was offering and they reported back that “the orthodox commercial atmosphere is entirely lacking at The Cloister in Boca Raton. There is an atmosphere of absolute peace, content and calm. It is like living in the most beautiful home in the world with a perfect personal service that has tremendous appeal. Boca Raton is the most beautiful place I have seen in Florida. Add to that the fact Addison Mizner best understands just what to give people and you have the perfect solution.”
Coffin quickly abandoned plans drawn up by Georgia architects Schultze & Weaver for an 8-story “Palace by the Sea” and contracted Mizner to design his Sea Island hotel instead. As fate would have it, Mizner was indeed in need of another job as Mizner Development Corporation had just slipped into bankruptcy following the Florida real estate boom collapse of 1927. Meanwhile, the Cloister was saved by an original investor, Clarence Henry Geist, and after a $1 million renovation it reopened as the Boca Raton Club, a 450-room members-only retreat. Geist funded an elegant railroad depot in the city and dredged the Boca Raton Inlet so members could anchor their yachts right outside the club. As you may know, the grand hotel on Sea Island is now called The Cloister Inn; Coffin took the moniker after the Boca original was renamed by Geist! Today, you can book a stay at the Boca Raton Resort and Club and enjoy a historic (and totally renovated) Cloister room.
In close proximity to the Boca Resort is the city’s first historic district aptly named “Old Floresta,” Spanish for “a delightful rural place.” Mizner planned on completing 29 homes on this land for his family and company executives before his whole Boca Raton venture went bust. The neighborhood was eventually finished by Hermann V. von Holst, the original land owner, and he supervised the completion of all the planned homes and changed the street names. Three Mizner classics remain in Old Floresta, standing out with their signature rough-stucco walls, wrought iron balconies and barrel tile roofs.
Addison Mizner’s Boca Raton house often had four exposures in one room to maximize ventilation. Porches, always facing toward the coveted Southeastern direction, were in abundance as were fountains and gardens. Large windows were added in wherever light was short, no need for symmetry, an architectural trait that Mizner abhorred. Doors, ceilings and exterior wood were all pecky cypress with floors being Florida hard pine. Arched hallways were a signature Mizner move and done with smooth plaster. Nothing he ever did was simple except bathrooms where details were kept to a minimum. Although today we revere his style with which he reinvented Palm Beach, his work was never taken very seriously by the architectural community. His homes were once referred to as “backward-looking pastiches” with “damn the expense” budgets. Enter his penchant for pricey plans that had to be completed by someone else!
Boca Raton City Hall
Known today as Old Town Hall, Mizner dreamed up a beacon of city pride with an elaborate gold dome topping it and plenty of square footage for town goings-on. The city finally had to object to his optimistic vision due to financial restraints and architect William E. Alsmeyer was called in to finish a more modest Town Hall in 1927. The glittering dome still stands today and the building now houses the Boca Raton Historical Society and museum. Inside you will find Mizner Industries pieces that originally furnished Town Hall as well as an exhibit showing more work by the eclectic builder.
Pie in the Sky
Just for fun, let’s take a look at what else Mizner had in store for Boca Raton before a budget got in the way. Like the cabaret ship that never was, Mizner’s grand scheme for “the world’s most beautiful boulevard” never came to fruition either. The Camino Real plan consisted of a bridge arched Venetian canal with roadways on either side flanked by more than 7,000 palm trees. It was to be a “truly royal highway 160 to 220 feet wide inspired by Rio de Janiero’s famous Botafogo.” Today it is just a plain old road.
Mizner also planned for his own estate to be a shining beacon on an island in the middle of Lake Boca Raton. His castle, complete with a mote, would dazzle lookers-on and be the ultimate example of a Spanish Mizner creation. He looked forward to entertaining guests and clients in his forever home while continuing to develop Boca Raton as the ultimate winter retreat.
While Addison Mizner’s complete blueprint was cut very short, his stamp on Boca Raton is a strong one. If you find yourself visiting once the Irma dust settles, make the time to see some of his lasting facades; you won’t regret it!
Images courtesy of the Boca Raton Historical Society, The Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach and New York Social Diary.