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« Earthquakes and Traditional Building Styles | Main | Artfight Update »

January 18, 2003

1000 Words: Addison Mizner

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I see I've been sneaking in references to what I think of as "the other modern architecture" in recent postings. But why sneak? Why not just tell the tale? I'll start with Addison Mizner.

When we think of Florida architecture, one of the styles that comes quickest to mind is Mediterranean Revival. Arches, stucco, porches, red tiles, courtyards ... It seems so much part of the climate that it's hard to imagine it didn't just spring up alongside the palm trees, a natural outgrowth of the heat and the water. In fact, most buildings in Florida prior to the end of World War I were in styles we associate with the Northeast. Amazingly enough, the Mediterranean (Spanish and Italian, mainly) Revival was brought to Florida and established as a style there by one man: Addison Mizner (1872-1933).

Mizner grew up in California and adventured his way around much of the world before settling in NYC in his 30s, ambitious to become a society architect like his idol Stanford White. He was an eccentric yet debonair man who eventually weighed more than 300 pounds, and he dazzled and charmed high society with his wit and foibles. He filled scrapbooks with images he liked, from castles to Moorish ceilings to tables to fountains. He did some building and interior-decorating around NYC, then went to Florida in 1918 at the urging of a friend (an heir to the Singer fortune), set up shop there as a kind of developer/architect/bon-vivant, and became the preferred architect of the rich, who were for the first time traveling south during the cold months in great and regular numbers.

His houses, hotels and clubs set the style for Palm Beach and Boca Raton -- which means that when we think "vacation in Florida" or "retiring to somewhere warm," some of the "Venice on the Atlantic" mental pictures that come to mind are pictures we owe to Mizner. He established businesses to produce the materials he demanded for his buildings -- fixtures, stucco and tiling, for instance -- and was happily making even bigger plans when the Depression wiped him out. By the time he died he was bankrupt.

Many of the buildings he built are still standing, and the houses he made still command a premium. Mizner did nothing to "advance" architecture -- he had no formal training, and no interest whatsoever in innovation. He wanted swank and panache, lots of it, and his buildings bring together dignity and fantasy in ways that have proved hard to surpass. They struck a nerve, helped set a style that endures to this day, and they're still loved.

Some of the best-known are the Cloister Inn and the Boca Raton Club; the Via Mizner is sometimes spoken of as America's first open-air shopping mall. (In pictures it looks classier and more pleasing than any recent mall I know of.)

If some of the movies we love best are Dream Factory product, well, why shouldn't we love Mizner's work in a similar way? But those damn modernists -- No, no, I'll shut up now.



posted by Michael at January 18, 2003


Gosh, you know, the 2Blowhards have half a point here: the scholars and experts talk about all these weirdo/nightmare glass and steel and concrete boxes and experiments as the only Modern Architecture, and actually there are lots of nifty other kinds of recent buildings, including many that are really attractive and pleasant, that fit in yet add a little something, that I could even dig living in, or working in, or walking by! Cool! Whaddya know: There's a lot more to Modern Architecture than Modernism!

AHHHHHHHHH! Sorry, I was too weak to pass it up.

Posted by: laurel on January 20, 2003 1:53 PM

I'll take what I can get! Thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 20, 2003 3:26 PM

Michael, do you have any plans to confess the influence of From Bauhaus to Our House, or will the "Architects of the People" series continue incognito? Don't get me wrong, I'd rather stay in a Mizner or John Portman hotel than walk through a Gehry museum any time. I'm just saying we closet populists ought to give due credit to Tom Wolfe, the father of us all.

I swear I was planning to post this even before you trolled for it.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 20, 2003 4:38 PM

Mediterranean architecture in Florida makes very little sense. Ralph Twitchell, the father of the Sarasota School of Architecture, pinpointed its absurdity: Small windows letting in the intense Florida sunlight makes for a ghastly glare; also, these small windows provide for poor ventilation. The brilliant designs of Twitchell, Paul Rudolph, Jack West, Tim Seibert, Gene Leedy, and others of the Sarasota School, don't provide the "curb appeal," perhaps, of the Mediterranean Revival (actually I don't agree with that claim), but they brilliantly provide for a sympathetic interaction between the inhabitant and environment.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on January 20, 2003 10:13 PM

Hey Aaron -- Tom Wolfe is a god, and "From Bauhaus to Our House" is a masterpiece. Neither one of these statements can be made often enough, and it's good to be reminded to do so, thanks.

I had a funny history with the book, and I wonder if yours has been similar. When I first got interested in architecture and read the book, I was thrilled -- it seemed to help unlock the subject. Then I learned some more and --- now semi-educated -- decided that Wolfe really didn't know what he was talking about, that he'd missed all the complexities, etc etc. Then I learned yet more, met architects, did my own research -- and realized that Wolfe really had been right. He makes everything a caricature, sure -- that's his style. But it's an accurate caricature. How has his book held up for you? I note that Wolfe -- who is often assumed to be an enthusiast for the American vernacular -- now also sits on the board of NYC's Institute for Classical Architecture.

Hey Mike -- I have no independent knowledge or experience of Mizner buildings or Twitchell buildings. Have you spent much time in either? For what little it's worth, I've read that Mizner wasn't the best builder in the world -- his buildings can be relatively high-maintenance things. I've also read that the modernist glass-steel-concrete creations of Twitchell and Rudolph haven't been the easiest things to care for or live in either. I do know that on aesthetic grounds I'd choose stucco, courtyards, arcades, and red tiles over glass/concrete/steel boxes any day. But, like I say, I have no direct experience of either Mizner's buildings or Twitchell/Rudolph's. Can you give us a report? And, if the Sarasota School's mid-century modernism was so much better suited to the climate, how to explain the staying power of the Mediterranean Revival?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 20, 2003 10:55 PM

You are a scream, too much fun. I was looking up Addison Mizner because I wanted to find out more about him. My Grandparents owned one of two houses he designed and built in California. Their house was in Pebble Beach and it was originally built for his niece. My Grandparents owned many beautiful houses, but this house in particular was my favorite. My Uncle Chris restored the house, adding a reflecting pool, gazebo, and updating the bathrooms and kitchen. When they bought the house in 1980, it hadn't been updated since the 50's and it wasn't really a looker, more of a bloated and pasty old man with a sunburned bald spot. (Not that I have anything against bloated and pasty old men.) But after the repairs, some custom painting by an artist friend of the family, and really spiffy antiques, it became something pretty spectacular, kind of like Ava Gardner. Even as a snotty teenager, I knew I was in a beautiful home and would never forget the summer I lived there. My advice, if you are ever in Pebble Beach and doing the tourist thing on the 17 mile drive, wander down Padre Lane and take a gander at this big, beautiful house.

Posted by: Michelle Alleman on May 15, 2003 8:01 PM

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