Boca Raton History Part 3: Addison Mizner, The Land Boom, and The Great Depression

boca raton history part 3 - addison mizner and the land boom

Images and sources were provided in partnership and with immense gratitude to the Boca Raton Historical Society.

In the annals of Boca Raton's young history, the city has seen many historically significant names pass through its ranks. Today, the city is renowned for its gorgeous white sand beaches, remarkable luxury, and thriving business climate. From its initial groundbreaking via the likes of Henry Flagler and his agent, Thomas Moore Rickards, Boca Raton went from an untamed wetland to a global resort destination in less than a century. There are several crucial events from the late 19th century forward that deserve the attribution of success from Boca Raton historians: The importance of Boca Raton during the Second World War, establishing the lone RADAR school which led to the defeat of Nazi Germany among other factors. Then there is the IBM campus, where the personal computer (PC) was invented during Project Acorn, a major development in a city not among the first when "tech capitals" come to mind. The Yamato Colony of 1903, spearheaded by Jo Sakai left an indelible presence and one of the most majestic sanctuaries in South Florida. These names and events all played a crucial role in the ascension of one of South Florida's finest cities, but perhaps none played a bigger role than Addison Mizner. A short drive around Downtown Boca Raton will yield dozens of examples of his namesake. Whether that be on luxurious condos like Mizner Court or Mizner Tower, the famous Mizner Park, which includes some of the best shopping and retail in Boca Raton, the Addison Hotel, which features prominently in our holiday and event blogs for their decadent pre-fixe meals, and event the Addison Mizner Elementary School. Today's Boca Raton Historical Blog will dive into the life and times of Addison Mizner, the man he was, the things he accomplished, his downfall at the hands of the Great Depression, and the impact we feel today all across Palm Beach County.

Who Was Addison Mizner?

Addison Mizner was an American Architect born in Benicia, California in 1872. The child of Lansing B. Mizner, a lawyer, senator, and Minister to Central America, Mizner enjoyed a remarkably wide array of travel experiences in his youth. As a youth, Mizner visited China, and briefly mined for gold in the Canadian Yukon. In 1889, at the age of 15, Mizner journeyed with his father to Guatemala. His first stop in Mazatlan, Mexico was his first encounter with the Hispanic world. He would then go on to describe this as the greatest day of his life. He and his father both spoke fluent Spanish by the end of his tenure, where Mizner would remain - visiting Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras before his return to California. It was here that Mizner first became enamored with the blended architectural styles, combining Spanish influence with native practicality. Though Mizner lacked formal training, he apprenticed with San Francisco Architect Willis Jefferson Polk, earning his place as an architect. By 1904 he relocated to New York City, and eventually to Port Jefferson, Long Island. Though he never built any homes in his first five years there, he did receive commissions for interior design, including those on luxury yachts. At age 46, in January 1918, Mizner visited Palm Beach, Florida for the first time. 

handpainted famous portrait of architect addison mizner

Famous Handpainted Portrait of Addison Mizner

Mizner Comes to Boca

To use a colloquial expression: Henry Flagler walked, so Addison Mizner could run. It was the historic industrialist who built the remarkable Breakers and Royal Poinciana Hotel. Mizner noted that both were built with wood in a more northerly style, rather than in the stucco, stone, and colored tile of Central American structures. Unironically, Mizner's concern for hurricane susceptibility would ring true when the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane destroyed much of the Royal Poinciana Resort, leading to its eventual demolition and sale across the early 1930s. Mizner would truly carve out his influence during the Florida Land Boom, which lasted from 1924 to 1926.  

mizner development corporation brochure

A Snippet from one of the Mizner Development Corporation brochures showcasing the flowery language and idyllic concept of what would later become the city we know today.

Boca Raton: A Grand Vision

Ever the idealist, Mizner's lack of formal training kept him unfettered when considering exciting styles and innovative ideas that collegiately trained architects may scoff at. Mizner did not build in a way that others did, working to "copy and paste" a sensible structure in a dependable but mundane way. Mizner's vision layered influences from the French Rivieria to Guatemala City, Moorish Spain, and Tuscany. Mizner is quoted as saying "I have based my design largely on the old architecture of Spain - with important modifications and to meet Florida conditions. I studied the architecture of Spain itself and drew somewhat on my knowledge of Spanish tropical America." Mizner would create his first structure - The Everglades Club, on behalf of sewing machine heir Paris Singer, who initially recommended he visit Palm Beach for his health in 1918. Originally, the club was to be designed as a recovery hospital for World War I veterans, but with the war ending shortly after, the structure was converted to a private resort club. All medical equipment was donated to a West Palm Beach hospital, and the transition began. The club opened in January 1919 and would soon lead to more development that year. Mizner oversaw the construction of a nine-hole golf course, landscaping the 60 acres, and Via Mizner an addition to Worth Avenue which would include apartments and shops. Though perhaps not the most famous of his designs, this structure (which still stands and is open today) is regarded as the single greatest success of his career. From here, a new paradigm shift occurred, and the Mediterranean revivalist influence we see across South Florida would take root with The Everglades Club. Mizner received four commissions later that year, and the opportunity to exact his vision would begin.

everglades club interior black and white photo

Classic photo of the elegant interiors at The Everglades Club

In 1925, Mizner threw his weight behind Boca Raton, which then was spelled as "Boca Ratone." Mizner bought two miles of oceanfront and 16,000 acres of land, surrounding himself with "pioneering men of affairs," From here, Mizner would blitz the luxury market across America, showcasing this newfangled slice of Palm Beach County real estate as the next great resort town. By August 1925, Mizner would begin construction of the Cloister Inn, a luxury resort that would elevate the prospect of Boca Raton. The Cloister in allowed for an additional $7 million in contracts for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (designed by Mizner) and to apply necessary infrastructure, mainly through a bridge over the East Coast Canal to connect Camino Real to the waterfront. These projects would see the largest material requisition in the history of Florida, with an enormity of tile, steel, lumber, quarried stone, asphalt, electrical conduits, plaster, piping, porcelain, and palmetto trees. If Boca Raton was a small backwater town looking to emerge in the limelight, Mizner would be the one to illuminate this city to the world. Twenty-one states furnished materials for this project, further cementing the notion that Florida's prosperity is the prosperity of our nation, something that today still rings true during real estate downturns and economic crises. 

a hand drawing of the completed Cloiser Inn, Boca Raton

Hand drawing of the finished Cloister Inn

The Cloister Beach Resort and Mizner's Finest Structures

The Cloister Inn was finished in just 22 weeks - something that even with today's equipment and manpower would be absurdly fast. Whether this is due to working conditions then or today's bureaucracy, to bring a project from untamed tropical wilderness to the remarkable structure it would be is a titanic achievement. During this time, Mizner was advertising heavily to the wealthiest and most elite of early 20th-century society, inviting numerous business barons and socialites to buy into America's next resort destination, with rapidly appreciating land prices to match the promise of comfort and hospitality. The way Mizner presented himself and his vision personified the concept of "society architect" - an individual who looks to their structures as part of a broader social current, rather than a practical standalone project. The integration of health, wealth, and infrastructure to his vision had an impact on Boca Raton that far exceeded the beauty and use of his buildings alone. It must be noted that despite the incredible beauty and attractiveness of the Cloister Inn, it is perhaps the infrastructural work around it that has the biggest impact today. The inlet tying The Atlantic Ocean to Lake Boca Raton was drastically widened to allow for the largest yachts of the day to sail and anchor, while the Lake itself would serve as a place to anchor ships while its owners enjoyed the veranda. Following the downfall of the Mizners and the acquisition of The Cloister Inn (see more below), the property would eventually be incorporated in The Boca Raton, the most well-known and upscale resort in the city. Today, the Boca Raton is not just home to the Cloister Inn and its surrounding properties, but also several ultra-luxury condo communities like One Thousand Ocean and Presidential Place. The inlet that yields the Atlantic Ocean and the condos built on the outcropping are among the most significant and recognizable land features in the county.

hand drawing for Old City Hall by Addison Mizner

Hand sketch of the Old City Hall by Addison Mizner

Though there is an obvious tie between Mizner's affinity for Spanish architecture, it is an injustice to simply regard Mizner's work as the "Spanish Style." Much like Charlie Christian popularized the electric guitar, it wasn't the medium itself, but what was done with it that separated their impact. The lack of formal education and the willingness to transcend architectural norms often led to his dismissal by purists and collegiately trained professionals, although much of this could be perceived as jealousy or wanton negativity, seeing that at this time, Mizner was perhaps the most famous architect in the United States. Mizner also designed The Old City Hall, which today houses the Boca Raton Historical Society, but also the Fred C. Aiken house, and El Mirasol, a mansion that was completed in 1920 and demolished in 1959.

Mizner's Fall and the Great Depression

Mizner's personality was as big as his 6 foot 2, 250-pound stature. Mizner was as much of a socialite as the guests he entreated to buy land in Boca Raton. Often accompanied by pet monkeys, his outgoing personality shown through and his good nature was never called into question. If anything, the lone attribution to Addison Mizner that may have led in part to the destruction of his corporation had more to do with his big dreams and unorthodox ambitions, rather than any malignant act. Similarly to Nikola Tesla, the brilliant scientist who was more of a visionary than a businessman, perhaps Mizner's kindness and affectionate nature led to the lack of foresight into the future. Mizner sold millions on his first day, and millions more in the days that followed, surrounding himself with legacy families such as The Vanderbilts, DuPonts, Singers, and Clarence H. Geist among several major investors behind his corporation. Mizner's aforementioned whimsical style and ad-libbed, off-the-cuff design planning unfortunately extended to his business sense. In his own Tesla Tower-type situation, the strong language and grand designs that attracted so many investors to Florida would soon betray him. Several factors that led to the Florida land boom in part would begin its downfall. World War I, which raged from 1914-1918, severed many multimillionaires from their French Riveria estates. In part due to questionable deed restrictions and significant publicity, the Florida Land Boom kicked off in 1924. The Roaring 20's were at the backdrop of the speculation, and in many cases, as time wore on, the Florida Land Boom became just that: speculation. Since Booms are based on confidence, the waning specter of Florida's Land Boom quickly led to lost profits and a free fall for the Mizner Development Corporation.

Mizner Development Corp ad featuring map of Florida

Another ad showcasing the idyllic vision of Boca Raton by the Mizner Development Corp.

This, in conjunction with the untold power of hurricanes, such as the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, would diminish confidence in the prospect of Boca Raton. Most notably, after financial backer T. Coleman DuPont urged the Mizners to dampen the strong language selling South Florida Real Estate. Following their refusal, DuPont took out an ad in the New York Times separating himself from the Mizners, a publicity death knell for what was to come. Soon confidence waned, the "blue bloods" that were depended upon could not make their second payments, and the Mizners lost it all. In 1928, the Cloister Inn was sold to former Mizner Development Corporation board member Clarence H. Geist, a utility tycoon who managed the Sea View Club of New Jersey. Geist quickly sought to right the ship, adding the palatial structures that ensconced the original Cloister Inn. Geist added three hundred rooms, five patios, a wide terrace, swimming pools, and a special dining room for maids, children, and chauffeurs of the guests. Geist also oversaw the further expansion of the inlet, allowing saltwater to flow into Lake Boca. The new rail station was completed this same year at the junction of Palmetto Park Rd. and Dixie Highway, at the behest of Geist, who purchased $200,000 in bonds in a deal with the FEC. Geist should not be seen as an adversary to the mission Addison Mizner undertook, but rather a more pragmatic utilitarian who built upon the ambitions that gave Mizner his name, but also served as his Achilles heel.

Mizner's Impact

Mizner reversed the perception of architects as mere mathematicians and designers, whose role was to follow orders and get the job done. Today, architecture around the world is more than a standalone project and is seen as an integration in the cogs of social development. Mizner's love for landscaping both inside and outdoors is felt throughout Boca Raton, where lush gardens and subtropical flora dominate the landscape, blending seamlessly with the years of growth and expansion. Though Mizner's boom and bust business was gone in a flash, the imprint he had on Boca Raton was as large as his life. Beyond the many communities, schools, and institutions that bear his name, Mizner inspired the beauty, both manmade and natural that enraptures so many with this magnificent city and attracted the wealth and status that Boca Raton maintains to this very day.

Read Chapter II: The Pioneer Era

Visit our Boca Raton History Section for all Chapters

Post a Comment