Widely credited with “inventing” the Florida style we so take for granted today, architect Addison Mizner was influenced by his childhood in Guatemala and his travels through southern Europe.
He determined that the look and feel of the Sunshine State should more closely echo the Mediterranean instead of the stuffy town houses of New York and Philadelphia.
It was in Palm Beach that Mizner began his grand experiment, emphasizing Spanish tiled roofs and shaded interior courtyards, mixing the gothic windows of Venice with the terraces of Seville.
Until I saw the Stephen Sondheim’ musical “Road Show” — which emphasized his larger-than-life personality — I had never heard of him. To learn more, I made a pilgrimage to Palm Beach, and armed with a brochure from the Historical Society, I started at the Everglades, Mizner’s first (1918) project in town and now a very exclusive private club.
Crafted as a retort to the area’s most famous resort, The Breakers, the building was to become Mizner’s calling card, an entry point into the checkbooks of every socialite who soon wanted a Mizner-designed “Mediterranean Revival” villa to call her own.
Its tower, reminiscent of a campanile, and its cascading roof line, gives the building the appearance of an entire village, as if a row of disparate buildings had evolved over the years.
Inside, it’s supposedly filled with wrought-iron chandeliers and Spanish tilework, hand-crafted at Mizner’s own atelier, and ornamented with cypress ceilings, cast stone spiral stairways, and Gothic arches.
My friends Muffy and Bunny weren’t around that day to give me a tour, so I’ll never know.
No, to really experience Mizner, I needed to get back to the commercial end of Worth Ave. and his most magnificent creation, the main arcaded shopping street and the secret “vias” hidden behind it.
With their gurgling fountains and overflowing windowboxes, this series of courtyard offers an entrancing hideaway.
Strolling through it, I thought of today’s “lifestyle centers,” designed to present an alternative to the sterile shopping mall. They, too, feature real sidewalks and stucco painted in sorbet colors and fountains.
Mizner’s vias, though, felt real — and at this point actually antique; after all, they date from the 1920. This eccentric genius created a stage-set, sure, but it was one crafted out of love and attention to detail, not out of cynicism and cookie-cutter patterns.
Moving on, I walked toward the ocean and then veered north toward Phipps Plaza, where two more Mizner buildings awaited.
The one on the southern end is clad in the nubby black and white stone that the architect sourced from the Florida keys.
Now used a restaurant, it was erected in 1930 as the brokerage offices of E.F. Hutton, a tradition that continues today along Royal Palm Way, which is lined with private banking offices.
Across from this sturdy, castle-like structure is the now-vacant Plaza Building (1924), a vision in salmon-hued stucco. Once a Bonwit Teller department store, its most distinguishing feature — an exterior spiral staircase with a wrought-iron railing — beckoned.
I started climbing it, stepping over a trail of errant bougainvillea and occasionally kneeling to more closely examine the porcelain tile that covered its risers. I reached the top and looked out over the town that a monkey-toting, giant (he was 6’3″ and 300 pounds) had so carefully and thoroughly crafted.
I walked back down, humming Sondheim’s lyrics to myself. “I get to play with an artificial lake and with Spanish tiles and Moroccan chairs, with indoor fountains and outdoor stairs, with whims and fancies and millionaires!”