In 1925, during the Florida land rush, an advertisement trumpeted: “I am the greatest resort in the world. I am Boca Raton, Florida, a few years hence.” It concluded with a flourish: “My future must be glorious. I have Addison Mizner to make it so.”
An architect turned city planner, Mizner (1872-1933) was not a man burdened by false modesty. I was introduced to this remarkable character and his playwright brother, Wilson, in 2003 by Stephen Sondheim’s “Bounce” at the Kennedy Center. The ill-starred musical (which opened on Broadway in 2008 as “Road Show”) depicted the brothers as glorified con men.
The story Boca Raton tells, I discovered, is more forgiving.
“He put us on the map,” said Kris Northrup of the Boca Raton Historical Society, where the land rush ad is displayed.
Mizner Development Corp. envisioned the Florida city as a tropical Venice, with palm trees lining canals and golf courses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. But by 1926, the Florida land boom was going bust, and the company declared bankruptcy. Ironically, in recent decades much of Mizner’s initial vision has been realized. Today, Boca Raton’s main retail and entertainment center is Mizner Park; an 11-foot-high bronze statue of Mizner with his pet spider monkey tops a nearby monument. New houses with stucco walls and red-tiled roofs recall his Mediterranean Revival style.
But only a few authentic traces of Mizner’s architectural legacy remain. I set out to find them, starting at the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum. The society is based in the 1927 Town Hall, whose most striking feature is its gold dome. Mizner, who established his brand as the architect of Palm Beach society villas, completed the original design. But when funds grew tight, his replacement, William Alsmeyer, built a more modest structure.
Characteristic Mizner touches in the building include ironwork, tile flooring and a beamed pecky cypress ceiling in the former council chamber. Curator Susan Gillis said that Mizner made the wood “a signature design element” because of its suitably old look, the result of a fungus attack.
The chamber currently exhibits artifacts from Mizner Industries, which manufactured everything from floor tiles to hand-painted headboards in its West Palm Beach factory. Another room contains furnishings that Mizner owned, both Spanish Colonial antiques and Mizner Industries reproductions. Gillis pointed out a portrait of the somewhat portly developer, cigarette in hand, brimming with self-satisfaction. “That’s the great god Mizner himself,” she said.
I had booked a room at the luxurious Boca Raton Resort & Club, the one hotel in town that Mizner had a hand in designing. The resort, a complex of fanciful pink buildings, was sold out, so I stayed at the ultra-modern beach club, between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Shuttle buses connect the sister properties, and during the day a shuttle boat named Mizner’s Dream crosses the inlet between the two.
Mizner’s original beige-hued Cloister Inn — 100 rooms built for $1.25 million — opened in February 1926. With cloisters and courtyards, the building evokes a Spanish monastery, and the architect furnished it with his own collection of Spanish and Central American antiques. After that, the resort grew in bursts. In the late 1920s, the hotel became a private club, and the current lobby and the grand, colonnaded Cathedral Dining Room were added.
During World War II, the Army Air Corps commandeered the club as a barracks, and it has since enjoyed a succession of owners and an illustrious clientele. Today, the resort is like a small city, with 14 bars and restaurants, seven pools, two golf courses, two convention centers, tennis courts, a marina and a spa modeled after the Alhambra Palace. (Only hotel guests, club members, their friends and historical society walking tours are allowed past the gates.)
As I wandered the grounds, I marveled at the meticulous blending of old and new. The Elaine Baker Gallery uses the resort as a backdrop for a stunning contemporary art collection. Brightly colored abstract sculpture complements mosaics in courtyard gardens. Sleek, deco-inspired furnishings and desktop computers surround a fountain in a lounge decorated with Gothic and Romanesque arches.
To the right of the main lobby, I picked out the original Mizner entrance, marked by a Romanesque archway. It leads to the old Cloister Inn lobby, which contains a museum-like display of antique chests, a mirror and Mizner Industries chairs. The ceiling is, of course, pecky cypress, and a balcony with painted-wood detailing rings the space. Bar Luna nearby has one of Mizner’s original stone fireplaces.
I wrested myself away from the resort to visit Mizner’s former headquarters, at the intersection of Camino Real and Dixie Highway. Designed in 1925 for the Mizner Development Corp., the so-called Administration Buildings were inspired by El Greco’s house in Toledo, Spain. Until recently, they housed a popular restaurant, but now the space is rented out for special events.
After admiring the Moorish arches of the facade, I entered a lovely interior courtyard with a fountain and two giant banyan trees. On the ground floor of the south building, I peeked into a ballroom and inspected vintage photographs of the site.
The north building, constructed first and kept locked, retains more original detailing, so I asked an employee of the company that now manages the buildings to show me around. She escorted me to the main dining room, an atrium-like space framed by a second-floor wooden balcony, reminiscent of the Cloister Inn. She pointed out Mizner’s former office and the alluring second-floor patio overlooking the courtyard, where Mizner and his associates liked to dine.
My last stop on the Mizner trail was Old Floresta, a historic district with 29 houses designed by Mizner for his company’s executives. Turning right from West Palmetto Park Road onto Paloma led me to secluded streets with names such as Oleander, Azalea and Hibiscus, lush with palms and million-dollar homes in shades of beige and coral and lime green. Some were hidden by privacy hedges. But elsewhere, I spotted the stucco facades, barrel-tile roofs, wrought-iron balconies, colonnaded porticos and arched entryways characteristic of Mizner’s mature style.
In midafternoon, it was immensely quiet. The only cars on the street seemed to belong to tourists. To my surprise, virtually every block had “For Sale” signs, probably reflecting Florida’s distressed economy. They seemed like an echo of the area’s boom-bust origins, a reminder of the precariousness of Mizner’s Boca Raton dream.
Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.