Sunday 23 November 2014

Addison Mizner

Recent posts might suggest that I am doing little these days but listening to the radio, looking at the BBC News website and reading Bill Bryson's At Home. In fact, most of my time has been taken up with riding the traditional NigeCorp pre-Christmas workstorm, which will be building to a peak over the next couple of weeks. However, I am still reading (solely at bedtime) Bryson's 'Short History of Private Life' - which I have now concluded is no such thing, but rather a big baggy receptacle for all manner of odds and ends from Bryson's researches. By halfway through, At Home has really given up all pretence of being in any way attached to the layout of Bryson's Norfolk house. The chapter headed The Study, for example, devotes barely a paragraph to that room before diving into the subject of mice (by way of the Little Nipper mouse trap), then on to rats, bed mites, bugs and lice, microbes and bacteria, then back up the scale to bats and locusts. Study? What study?
  By similar routes of free assocation, the chapter headed The Passage leads to an architect I had never heard of before and was glad to make the acquaintance of - Addison Mizner. Mizner is the man who originated the Mediterranean/Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture that gave the wealthier resorts of South Florida a look that still characterises them to this day (and, in various debased forms, has spread far beyond Florida - as far, indeed, as the English South coast). He built and planned on a grand scale for clients of almost unlimited wealth, and was widely believed, by his detractors, to be some kind of charlatan. He had no academic training, and was the very embodiment of the 'Society Architect', rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous and charming extravagant commissions out of them. He rose spectacularly, and his career crashed equally dramatically when a combination of wildly ambitious schemes and the impact of the Wall Street Crash on his clients and on the Florida land boom brought Mizner's career crashing down around him.
 There are anecdotes galore about Mizner's slapdash, devil-may-care working methods (forgetting to install bathrooms, stairs, doors) - many of which Bryson, ever the entertainer, gleefully passes on. However, reading around the subject a bit, I gather that a recent biography has done much to dispel the myths about him (one being that he couldn't draw; he was actually a fine draughtsman and watercolourist) and to restore something of his reputation.
 I'm no fan of the Spanish Colonial Revival style (eminently practical though it is for hot parts of the world), but, to judge from pictures of Mizner's grander buildings, there seems to be a lot more going on than Spanish Colonial. He was indeed tirelessly eclectic, building in a range of different styles, all in the interests of achieving an impression of organic growth. Mizner's aim, he wrote, was to
'make a building look traditional and as though it had fought its way from a small, unimportant structure to a great, rambling house...I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner had added a very rich Renaissance addition.'
 This seems to me a pretty sound way to go about building (especially in a country with little actual history), and is surely in line with Arts and Crafts ideas of creating houses that look as if they have grown organically.
 After the Florida crash, Mizner designed several buildings in the North, the most remarkable of which was La Ronda at Bryn Mawr. This vast edifice is known as 'the only Mediterranean Revival building North of the Mason-Dixon Line', though there is nothing South Florida about it; it is more of a baronial castle than a luxury villa. Or rather was. Sadly La Ronda (that's part of it in the picture above) was demolished in 2009, despite a determined campaign to save it. Perhaps if Addison Mezner was taken more seriously, it would still be standing.


  1. Stephen Somdheim wrote the music and lyrics to a musical about Addison Mizner and his brother. Book by John Weidman, son of the very funny American novelist Jerome Weidman. The CD comes with a booklet containing all the words -- music and dialogue. You would enjoy it, Nige.

  2. PS to my previous comment. The musical is called Road Show, it was performed at The Public Theatre in NYC in 2009 or thereabouts, and the CD is from Nonesuch. The booklet has photos from the production.

  3. Frascinating, Thanks Anonymous, I'll look into it...

  4. Frascinating? Omit that r...