337-339 Worth Ave., Addison Mizner, architect
Editor’s note: While Harold Bubil takes some time off, we’ll reprise some of his popular columns. This column originally ran on Sept. 9, 2017.
Palm Beach is in many ways a world apart from much of the rest of Florida. In a state that has an impressive variety of built environments, this winter refuge for the wealthy, with its Mediterranean Revival mansions from the 1920s boom on hedge-lined streets, sits at the pinnacle.
That is in large part to the efforts of architect Addison Mizner, as colorful a character as any to ever sit at a drafting table. Arriving in town in 1918 at the behest of Paris Singer of the sewing-machine family, the bon-vivant Mizner answered Singer’s commission to build a convalescent hospital for World War I veterans. That building would become The Everglades Club, still existing, when the war ended before the structure was complete.
Wealthy people from the Northeast arrived in town that winter on Henry Flagler’s railroad and took note of the grand palace at the west end of Worth Avenue, which until that time had been mostly a residential street, aside from the alligator farm (moved in short order). Families including the Stotesburys and Wanamakers asked Mizner to design grand homes for them in the same style.
In 1923, he designed 12 mansions and the Gulfstream Golf Club’s club-house, putting Palm Beach well on its way to becoming the Newport of the South.
At the same time, as the Florida Land Boom was gaining steam, he designed and built Via Mizner, diagonally across Worth Avenue from The Everglades Club. Inspired by the pedestrian-oriented shopping streets of Europe, the via, or way, meanders from Worth Avenue one block north to Peruvian Avenue. Just to the west is the equally charming Via Parigi, which also twists and turns north to Peruvian.
Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, shady Via Mizner is lined with 11 buildings that are now used for shops and restaurants.
The notable exception is found in the stately tower that provides commanding views of Worth Avenue and Palm Beach from its top floor. In the 1920s, the four-story building was Addison Mizner’s residence.
The architect lived in “Villa Mizner” until his death in 1933. For the first few years, his companion was his beloved “human monkey,” Johnnie Brown. The animal, who was often seen perched on Mizner’s shoulder, died in 1927 and is buried in the court-yard beneath the villa.
Its subsequent owners have included Mortimer and Rose Sachs, who owned much of Worth Avenue and lived it in for more than 40 years beginning in 1945. It is still a residence.
Via Mizner was recognized by the National Register under the categories of architecture, commerce and community planning and development. The last of it was built in 1940, and extensive renovations were done in 1986.
All of the buildings in Via Mizner are Mediterranean Revival, with the exception of one Art Deco structure. The “Med Rev” style took root in Florida in the 1910s, with structures such as the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring and the Edson Keith Mansion in Sarasota. In the 1920s, Florida’s boomtime architects worked for developers who wanted buildings that were right out of the Old World.
Mediterranean Revival, which evolved from the Mission and Spanish Colonial styles, mixed the architecture of southern Europe and northern Africa. The developers wanted the buildings to look as if they had been there for decades, if not centuries, to give real estate investors confidence that their money was going into property that had been around and would be around for a long time.
In Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Addison Mizner perfected the symmetry, proportion and ornamentation of good Med Rev, and architects around the state caught on quickly. Sarasota and Venice quickly adopted the style and its variations, with such buildings as the Sarasota County Courthouse.
Features seen at Via Mizner include barrel tile roofs (Mizner Industries made its own tiles and other decorative elements), rough stucco walls, cast-stone arches and window/door surrounds, rooftop terraces. Along Worth Avenue, an arcade punctuated by pointed arches shelters pedestrians. Patios, loggias and a fountain are other features.
“Via Mizner was instrumental in changing the character of Worth Avenue from a residential street to one of the premier shopping streets of the world,” wrote the noted Mizner historian Donald Curl and Barbara Mattick in their National Register documentation.
Worth Avenue retailers include Saks Fifth Avenue, Gucci, Tiffany, Cartier, Maus & Hoffman and Peter Millar. Sprinkled among them are high-end restaurants and art galleries.
Mizner had his office, drafting rooms and sales shops, which sold pottery and furniture created by his artisans, at Via Mizner.
Unfortunately for Mizner, and countless investors, his effort to develop Boca Raton into another Palm Beach failed with the collapse of the land boom in 1926. Upon his death, Mizner was broke.
“During his decade and a half in Palm Beach, Mizner’s Med Rev buildings revolutionized architectural design in the town and set an identifying style for Florida during the 1920s,” Curl and Mattick wrote.
Via Mizner, they added, “remains a monument to one of Palm Beach’s and Florida’s most innovative and significant architects.”
“Florida Buildings I Love” is Harold Bubil’s homage to the Sunshine State’s built environment.