Boca Rococo: How Addison Mizner Invented Florida's Gold Coastby Caroline Seebohm
Addison Mizner’s Mediterranean-style mansions—with their stucco walls, tiled roofs, and Moorish accents—are much-admired Florida icons. In Boca
The rollicking tale of the artist, adventurer, and visionary whose innovative architecture transformed Palm Beach and whose dramatic rise and fall mirrors the larger-than-life excesses of the 1920s.
Addison Mizner’s Mediterranean-style mansions—with their stucco walls, tiled roofs, and Moorish accents—are much-admired Florida icons. In Boca Rococo, renowned author and biographer Caroline Seebohm introduces the flamboyant genius behind these pastel palaces.
Mizner was a leading San Francisco society figure in the 1890s, joined the Alaska Gold Rush, traveled to China, and made his way to an exploding turn-of-the-century New York. No formal training but huge natural talent established him as architect of the rich and famous. The getaways he designed made Palm Beach America’s most elegant resort—and fed his dream of developing a “Venice-on-the-Ocean” in nearby Boca Raton. Mizner’s plans ended with the collapse of Florida’s real estate boom. He died in 1933, broken and bankrupt.
Drawing on a huge cache of untapped materials—including measured plans and an unpublished autobiography—Seebohm restores Mizner to the pantheon of great architects and flamboyant Americans.
Mizner eventually went bust. But down in Miami Beach an improbable boom was taking off just as the Depression was digging in its heels. As Jean-François Lejeune and Allan T. Schulman point out in The Making of Miami Beach: 1933-1942, the architect Lawrence Murray Dixon used the streamlined forms of Art Deco to create the iconic hotels that still lure sun seekers to the former site of mangroves and avocado orchards. In the nineteen-sixties, Florida continued to attract big dreamers, notably Walt Disney. Married to the Mouse, by political scientist Richard E. Foglesong, shows how Disney, for better and worse, turned sleepy Orlando into the world's most popular tourist destination. Echoing Mizner's hopes for a modern Dream City, Disney World's Epcot Center was originally planned as a glistening urban utopia. But, in keeping with the whimsical ways of the Sunshine State, it mutated into a theme park. (Mark Rozzo)
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Read an Excerpt
"I AM GETTING TO BE A PERFECT CHILD ABOUT YOU."
Tuesday, April 28, 1891. San Francisco.
I Addison Mizner commence a diary at the age of 18 on the above date. I am at present a student at Mr. Bates School, San Rafael. I am not all to geather a bad schollar but my one and most serious faling is my bad spelling as perhapse you will notice before you have read many lines. For the last weeak I have been off on sick leave staying with my Sister Mrs. Horace B. Chase alias Minie Mizner. I came to the city yesterday and hapened to see the president Harison who is visiting San Francisco. He is the most miserable looking dish-faced thing I ever saw.
Thus the young Addison Mizner made his first diary entry, demonstrating his typical candor, brio, and atrocious spelling in an elegant slanting hand. After the description of Benjamin Harrison, Mizner reinforced his impression of the president by drawing a nasty little portrait.
He had always made drawings, in his schoolbooks, on scraps of paper, in letters. The sketches are not always first-rate, particularly his renderings of people, who tend to have too-short arms or legs, but they show a mind receptive to visual impressions, perhaps more so than most school boys of his age. Addison himself does not seem to have found this compulsion significant. Indeed, he spent much of his life avoiding or abandoning the talent that ultimately made him famous.
As for his spelling, it remained hopeless throughout his life (but inventive: "sewerside" for "suicide," as one example). The reason for this failing was his education, which was decidedly spotty. Addison Cairns Mizner was the seventh of eight children (only one of them female, the above-mentioned Minnie, whose real name was Mary Isabella). This meant that his mother was pregnant or just out of pregnancy for roughly sixteen years of her married life. This marathon might have worn down some women, but not Ella Watson Mizner, who could probably have entered a triathlon even after her childbearing years were over. The size of the family did mean, however, that by the time Addison and his younger brother, Wilson, came along, the parental grip on the Mizner boys had weakened, and their education suffered.
Addison's father was Lansing Bond Mizner, the eldest of three children, who started life in Walnut Grove, Illinois, on December 5, 1825. The name Mizner, like its young heir, fell victim to various spellings throughout the nineteenth century. Lansing's grandfather was Lawrence Mizener, who came from Germany and settled in Mendham, New Jersey, in the early 1790s. (Perhaps the best-known American with that name, literary critic and F. Scott Fitzgerald expert Arthur Mizener, was also a descendant of immigrants from Germany.) The name began to lose its first e sometime before Lawrence's death in 1795, for in his will the name is spelled both ways seemingly at random. Lawrence's wife, Sarah, who died in Geneva, New York, in 1820, chose not to use the e, but it lingered for a while and was finally retired for good in the next generation.1
The origins of the name Mizner remain obscure. Much later in his life, Addison was asked by a Palm Beach matron if his name was Jewish. In the anti-Semitic Palm Beach of the 1920s, the suggestion was not pleasing from a career point of view, and while himself having the most eclectic friendships, he denied it. There is no evidence that he was lying. His brother Henry, who became the family genealogist, researched the name in both England and Germany, finding it attached to Protestant families. Not surprisingly, given his interests, Addison had more elevated ambitions for his antecedents, toying with a connection to Meissen, the Dresden porcelain maker, and Juste Meissonier, a leading eighteenth-century French Rococo designer.
The name may have lacked romance, but Addison's American ancestors compensated by becoming prominent members of midwestern society. Lansing's father was Henry Caldwell Mizner, a lawyer in Harrisonville, Illinois, whose two brothers were both generals in the U.S. Army. Henry was born after his father died, and as Henry himself died when Lansing was four, both father and son grew up fatherless. Lansing's mother was Mary Stevenson Cairns, daughter of Dr. Caldwell Cairns, one of the framers of the Illinois constitution, and niece of Shadrach Bond, the first governor. (The Caldwells were Huguenots who had emigrated to Scotland in 1598.) After Henry's death in 1829, Mary married General James Semple, an Illinois politician. In 1837 Semple was appointed minister to New Granada (now Colombia and Panama), and in 1840 Lansing moved with the rest of the family to BogotÃ¡, where he learned to speak fluent Spanish.
Returning to Illinois in 1843 at the age of eighteen, Lansing started law school at Shurtleff College, in Alton, Illinois, but spent only two years there before volunteering for the Mexican War. At the age of twenty, he was appointed captain and commissary agent for his company. According to his proud son Addison, at the critical battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, Lansing was the only man there who could speak both Spanish and English and thus played a vital role in negotiating the Mexican's surrender.2
The young war hero then returned to Illinois, but it seems that after his wartime adventures, life back home palled, for when he received a letter from his stepfather's brother, General Robert Baylor Semple, inviting him to come to the pioneering land of California, he jumped at the chance. Semple was already deeply involved in real estate in Benicia, Solano County, thirty miles north of San Francisco, a fledgling coastal city that for a while held out the promise of becoming the capital of burgeoning California. Benicia was named after the wife of Semple's partner, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who owned much of the land.
Semple was excited by the potential of the region and wrote to Lansing, "Now, my dear boy, if you have finished your studies and can get to this country, with a small library and your knowledge of the Spanish language, and my influence, you can make ten thousand dollars a year in the practice of law."3 That was a lot of money in those days, and Lansing did not hesitate. Arriving in 1849 by way of New Orleans and Panama, he discovered not only that a large percentage of the male population of Benicia had departed to join the gold rush farther north but that his resourceful stepuncle was working as a printer and a dentist when he was not selling lots in Benicia on the side at eighteen dollars each.4 When Lansing completed his law studies in California (he was admitted to the bar in 1850), he promptly went into business with Semple. His first entrepreneurial step, after purchasing several pieces of land and building a house, was to organize a mule stage to carry passengers from Benicia to Sacramento.5
Lansing Mizner was a handsome, energetic man of imposing height. (All his sons were well over six feet tall.) Boys whose fathers die young assume early responsibilities within the family, and Lansing used this experience to good advantage in the receptive climate of California (which became a state in 1850). His impressive family background of generals, lawyers, diplomats, and politicians gave him entree into high-level state circles, and his fluency in Spanish was a huge advantage in a region where Spanish was the dominant language. He was well liked by his colleagues, and when the Republicans of Solano County recommended that he become lieutenant governor of the state, they described him as "a gentleman of fine talents, splendid address and captivating manners, and . . . one of the most popular public speakers in the State."6 During the go-getting 1850s in Benicia, Lansing Mizner cut a dashing figure, and sometime in 1853, while promoting railroads and real estate and engaging in a busy law practice, he caught the eye of a young woman called Ella Watson, whose story to that point was already worthy of an adventure novel.
Ella (Elmira) was born in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, on February 29, 1836, the second daughter of Mary Reynolds and John Smiley Watson. Ella's great-grandfather, Bratton Caldwell, was born in Ireland. (The name Caldwell coincidentally pops up on both sides of Addison Mizner's family.) Caldwell had settled in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, a Native American territory, in the middle of the eighteenth century, before the Revolutionary War. When Caldwell married Elsie Hughes in her parents' log cabin, they were the first white couple to get married in Lycoming County.
Their daughter, Mary Caldwell, married James Watson, (also born in Ireland) in 1783 in Lycoming County. This marriage produced Ella's father, John, who was born there in 1810 and married Mary Reynolds in Kittanning, Armstrong County, in 1833. (Mary was grand-niece of the English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Addison later used to enjoy saying, "I josh and I paint.") They had eight children. Three died in infancy, leaving four girls and only one boy. (As in many families at that time-including that of Lansing's uncle, who also buried three small boys-infant death was all too common.)
In about 1838 the Watsons moved from Pennsylvania to St. Louis, and in January 1853, like many others, they decided to leave St. Louis for California, the promised land. Without the speed and directness of trains, the journey was very long and arduous. The family, consisting of the parents, three daughters (the eldest, Mary, was already married and living in Pennsylvania), and one son traveled to New Orleans, took a boat down the Gulf of Mexico, and then crossed Central America via the San Juan River, finally sailing up to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific coast of Nicaragua. There they boarded the steamship Independence, which would take them north to San Francisco. On February 16, in a huge storm, the steamship struck a rock at Margarita Island in Magdalena Bay, off what is now Baja California.
The collision occurred early in the morning, while the passengers were asleep. "At first the passengers were assured by the ship's officers that there was no danger, but suddenly fire broke out from the engine room and spread rapidly over the doomed vessel. Then ensued a panic among the passengers that baffles description." Prefiguring the Titanic disaster in 1912, there were not enough lifeboats. Many passengers panicked and jumped into the raging waters in an attempt to get to shore to evacuate everyone from the sinking ship. In a nightmare vision, soon the surface was dotted with the corpses of the unfortunates. According to the records, in less than an hour, 150 of the 402 passengers of the Independence had drowned.
Over fifty years later, Addison's brother Henry attended a reunion in Alton, Illinois, of the Mexican War regiment in which their father had served. Inquiring whether any of the veterans remembered Lansing Mizner, he found that a lively eighty-year-old colonel, Andrew Fuller Rodgers, not only remembered his old school friend and compatriot "Lance" but also, astonishingly, was one of the survivors of the wreck of the Independence. The old soldier told Henry that it was the most awful scene he had ever witnessed-worse than anything in the Mexican War, the vigilante times, or the Civil War.
By thrusting a leg through a hawser hole, Colonel Rodgers told Henry he had been able to pass women and children, including Mary Watson and Ella, from the sinking ship to the last waiting lifeboat. When he finally climbed back on deck, he saw a man standing there with a little girl in his arms. Rodgers seized her and threw her into the arms of her mother, who was in the lifeboat just drawing away. The child was Elsie Watson, Ella's youngest sister. The only remaining passengers on the ship, apart from the captain and Rodgers, were one Judge Tarr with his son Horace, and John Watson with his only son, Asa. The fire was engulfing them-they would have to jump ship. Judge Tarr, who could not swim, entreated Rodgers to save his son. John Watson made the same request. Since Tarr asked first, Rodgers took Horace Tarr and struggled through the heavy seas to shore. Exhausted, the brave young man could not find the energy to fight his way back to the ship. Still desperately waiting on deck, John Watson told his son to take off his overcoat and throw it overboard; he did the same. They climbed down the side of the ship with a rope. John told Asa to catch hold of his coat collar, and he would try to swim. But the waves overwhelmed them, and the boy was lost. Judge Tarr also drowned.8
Mary Watson later wrote a letter to her brother describing in agonizing detail the shipwreck and the loss of her son. "I was on shore and knew that my husband and child were struggling for life and I could give them no assistance. Oh! How I screamed and begged and prayed for the sailors to take back the boat, but they would not do it."9
The survivors had to wait for three days on Margarita Island under grueling conditions before help arrived. Bodies of the victims kept washing ashore and had to be given makeshift burials. Among them was a woman whom Mary Watson had observed on the steamer clutching a bundle of lily bulbs. Refusing to leave them behind, she perished along with her precious burden. On the island there was no food or water. Mary Watson did her best to help the suffering children, who were frantic with thirst: "For my part I neither ate or drank the three days we were on the island." The survivors were rescued by the whaling ship Meteor, which finally brought them through the Golden Gate on the morning of March 31. The journey on the whaler was hardly less horrific than the days on the island. One woman died; her body was sewn up in sailcloth and placed on top of the cabin occupied by the women survivors. Elsie Watson came down with scarlet fever. The food consisted of moldy flour and whale oil, which Mary Watson, now the group's leader, was asked by the French cook to approve before being served to the desperate passengers. Ella's seventeenth birthday was spent aboard the Meteor.
Addison grew up on stories about the tragedy, which affected him deeply. In his book collection, found after his death, was a charming copy of James Thomson's and Thomas Gray's poems in a gold and gray binding, slightly water-damaged. In it is inscribed, "in the pocket of Father's coat when we were wrecked on the Independence." John Watson had been reading the poems on board the steamer and had tucked the small volume into a pocket of the coat that he later tossed over the side. The purser had found it amongst the wreckage and presented it to Ella, and it was passed down through the family to Addison, who treasured it as a poignant memento of that terrible journey.
Meet the Author
Caroline Seebohm is the author of No Regrets: The Life of Marietta Tree and The Man Who Was Vogue: The Life and Times of Condé Nast as well as several illustrated books on art and architecture.
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What a story! This is a well researched, honest portrayal of one of the great architects and taste makers of America. It is clear that the writer is a fan of Addison Mizner but makes sure that the kinks in his armor are clearly depicted. For any serious architect who would be inclined to dismiss this man and his work, they better read this. Few of us can say we spent three winters bringing gold out of the earth in the Yukon; this guy did. That's why he had no trouble building in Palm Beach when it was a gator infested swamp. Bowtie Dave Froelich, AIA