Boom and Bust in Boca Raton

Addison Mizner is in many ways the personification of the great Florida real estate boom of the 1920s. He was a gifted architect with a knack for mixing Old World charm and fashionable opulence, a style he incorporated into a wide variety of buildings in Palm Beach and Boca Raton. He was also a real estate developer, prone to the same excesses that characterized land sales and promotion in those days. For a brief period in the mid-1920s, he was at the center of everything bright and hopeful about Boca Raton, his “dream city” as he called it. Shortly thereafter, he was also at the center of one of its worst setbacks.

Painted portrait of architect Addison Mizner (ca. 1920s).

Painted portrait of architect Addison Mizner (ca. 1920s).

Mizner was born into a prominent family near San Francisco in 1872. In 1889, his father was appointed U.S. minister to the Central American states, which took the family to Guatemala City. Young Addison developed a keen interest in the Spanish architecture that surrounded him, which would later find expression in the buildings he designed. In those days, architects generally got their training through apprenticeships rather than formal degree programs, and Addison Mizner learned the ropes by working under Willis Polk of San Francisco. He eventually set up a firm in New York City that provided both architectural services and a supply of Spanish artifacts he had purchased from Europe and South America.

Business slowed to a crawl during World War I, and a combination of family and health problems did nothing to help Mizner’s situation. In 1918, however, he received a fateful invitation from Paris Singer (son of the famous and wealthy sewing machine manufacturer) to visit Palm Beach to recoup. While there, Singer and Mizner would often walk along the beach, which in those days was almost completely undeveloped. Mizner would conjure up grand visions of Moorish towers and cool, shaded courtyards–enticing enough that Singer actually bought up property and asked the architect to try to bring some of these ideas to fruition.

Exterior of the Everglades Club in Palm Beach (1920).

Exterior of the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, designed by Addison Mizner (1920).

Dining room at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach (ca. 1928).

Dining room at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach (ca. 1928).

Mizner’s first building in Palm Beach, the Everglades Club, was a resounding success. Originally intended as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers and sailors, the proposed building morphed into a sumptuous resort once the war ended. Mizner had trouble finding workers who could make the kinds of tiles and ironwork his designs called for, but in a pinch he would step in and teach the men himself, to the amazement of local observers. The club opened in 1919 and quickly sold 500 memberships at premium prices. James Deering, Joseph P. Kennedy, Henry C. Phipps, and others among America’s rich and powerful were early members, with Paris Singer as president. Having seen the grandeur and exoticism of Mizner’s designs, Palm Beach’s upper crust began calling on him to build fashionable homes for them. Between 1919 and 1924, the architect built more than 30 grand houses in the area, becoming a millionaire in the process. He established his own works for producing the tiles, furnishings and replicas of ancient artifacts that were key to his Mediterranean style.

Home of Dr. Preston Pope Satterwhite in Palm Beach, designed by Addison Mizner and completed in 1923 (photo ca. 1928).

Home of Dr. Preston Pope Satterwhite in Palm Beach, designed by Addison Mizner and completed in 1923 (photo ca. 1928).

Mizner’s fame in Palm Beach grew with each new creation, but he had his mind set on a much more profound project located just down the coast. On May 5, 1925, the newspapers reported that a new company, the Mizner Development Corporation, would soon build a fabulous new Ritz-Carlton hotel in Boca Raton, flanked by villas, gardens and golf courses. This puzzled local observers, since Boca Raton was only a small farming community at this time, but Mizner quickly let them in on what he was thinking. The village would become “the first tailor-made city in all the world,” according to the advertisements. Everything from the streets to the waterways and landscaping would be harmonized into one seamless, coordinated paradise reserved for the rich and powerful. This would require land, of course, so Mizner’s company bought up two miles of frontage on the Atlantic Ocean and 1,600 acres of adjoining inland property. Money would be necessary as well, and Mizner had it, thanks to the connections he had made in Palm Beach. Senator T. Coleman du Pont of Delaware, the Vanderbilts, the Duchess of Sutherland, steel magnate Henry Phipps of Pittsburgh and Congressman George Graham of Philadelphia were some of his most prominent investors.

Map showing the grand vision for Addison Mizner's development project at Boca Raton, with the Atlantic Ocean at the top of the map (1925). This map was included in an elaborate promotional brochure. Click or tap the image to view a larger version of the map and the complete brochure.

Map showing the grand vision for Addison Mizner’s development project at Boca Raton, with the Atlantic Ocean at the top of the map (1925). This map was included in an elaborate promotional brochure. Click or tap the image to view a larger version of the map and the complete brochure.

Construction began in 1925, and the little town of 100 souls quickly ballooned to more than 2,000 as builders and real estate salesmen came to transform Boca Raton according to Mizner’s vision. One of the first facilities to go in was the Camino Real, a grand boulevard 219 feet in width, with 20-plus lanes and extravagant landscaping. The Mizner Corporation’s administration building went in next at the corner of the Dixie Highway and the Camino Real. It was both a place of business and a work of art, its design inspired by El Greco’s house in Toledo, Spain. More than 40 homes were built, most in what is now called the Floresta section of town. Mizner also designed Boca Raton’s city hall, an airport, two golf courses and a church in which he installed his brother, an Episcopal minister.

Mizner Development Corporation bus in Miami. These buses were used to tour prospective buyers around the Boca Raton development and sell them on buying a lot (1925).

Mizner Development Corporation bus in Miami. These buses left Miami every day to take prospective buyers on a tour of Boca Raton and convince them to buy a lot (1925).

Mizner and his associates coupled this feverish construction with equally enthusiastic advertisement, to the tune of millions of dollars’ worth of print ads and brochures. This, plus widespread recognition of the Mizner name for his work in Palm Beach, generated some astounding early sales numbers. The Mizner Development Corporation sold $14 million in lots the first day they were on the market. Within six months, the company had cleared $26 million in cash payments, and that was just the down payments.

Real estate men working quickly in a Boca Raton office. When the Mizner Development Corporation first opened up Boca Raton for sale, his agents often worked late into the night processing paperwork for the sales (1925).

Real estate men working quickly in a Boca Raton office. When the Mizner Development Corporation first opened up Boca Raton for sale, his agents often worked late into the night processing paperwork for the sales (1925).

But there was trouble in paradise lurking just beneath the surface. Like so many real estate developments during the Florida boom, the financial underpinning of Mizner’s grand scheme for Boca Raton was risky at best, and some parts were even illegal. The corporation was making money, but it was also spending money–fast. To raise additional capital, Addison Mizner and his brother Wilson would sometimes buy up stock in local banks and then take out loans from those same banks, putting their directors on the board of the Mizner Development Corporation to ensure they would benefit from the proceeds of their loans.

One panel from a Mizner Development Corporation brochure published around 1925. The company frequently referred to its list of well-known investors to inspire confidence in the enterprise. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

One panel from a Mizner Development Corporation brochure published around 1925. The company frequently referred to its list of well-known investors to inspire confidence in the enterprise. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

Then, in the fall of 1925, Mizner took a step that proved to be one step too far. Well before ground had even been broken on some of the largest and most expensive components of the Boca Raton development, Mizner’s company began attaching a “Declaration of Responsibility” to the bottom of its advertisements. “Attach this advertisement to your contract for deed,” the addendum read. “Every promise made by the developers of BOCA RATON is made to be fulfilled, and this caption is your protection.” Essentially, the company was guaranteeing that all parts of the proposed resort town would be completed as planned, and that lot buyers would make a large profit on their investment. This had a nice ring to it, of course, but it also exposed the corporation and its backers to tremendous liability. When he found out about this, Senator duPont (still chairman of the board) was outraged and demanded the resignation of Wilson Mizner and Harry L. Reichenbach, the public relations man who had come up with the so-called Declaration of Responsibility idea. When these demands went unheeded, duPont resigned from the board. Addison Mizner handled the defection badly, and in the process of defending Wilson he managed to drive off four more directors from the board in the space of a week. These events were very widely discussed in the press, and the negative publicity began to have a chilling effect on sales.

Boca Raton real estate office on Ocean Drive. With the boom in danger, many of the surrounding lots would go unsold for years (1925).

Boca Raton real estate office on Ocean Drive. With the boom in danger, many of the surrounding lots would go unsold for years (1925).

Addison Mizner would have one more glittering triumph before these events really caught up with him. On February 6, 1926, the Cloister Inn opened in Boca Raton with exquisite fanfare. The Cloister was the smaller of the two resorts included in Mizner’s grand plan, having “only” 100 rooms, but it was still a masterpiece. It featured vaulted ceilings, 14-karat gold leaf columns and luxurious furnishings and appointments that earned it a reputation for being the most expensive 100-room hotel ever built. The banquet celebrating its opening was a popular social event for America’s upper crust. “Royalty, Wall Street wealth, the most famous film stars of the day and the ranking hierarchy of Palm Beach and Bal Harbor rubbed shoulders in the throng,” historian Henry Kinney later wrote of the event, calling them “jeweled to the hilt and furred to the teeth.”

A cloistered passageway at the Cloister Inn in Boca Raton (ca. 1928).

A cloistered passageway at the Cloister Inn in Boca Raton (ca. 1928).

The celebration was short-lived. The drop-off in sales after the brouhaha with the board never reversed, and in fact it indirectly exposed other real estate developments to scrutiny and helped burst the broader Florida real estate bubble. Mizner’s businesses went bankrupt, and many of his greatest plans for Boca Raton never made it past the drawing board. He returned to his architectural practice for a few years until poor health forced him into inactivity, followed by his death in California in 1933.

Interior view of the Boca Raton Hotel & Club, formerly the Cloister Inn (ca. 1980).

Interior view of the Boca Raton Hotel & Club, formerly the Cloister Inn (ca. 1980).

Despite the overall failure of Mizner’s Boca Raton project, some aspects of his opulent vision still anchor the architectural landscape of the community today. Shortly after the Mizner Development Corporation collapsed, the Cloister Inn ended up in the hands of Philadelphia financier Clarence Geist, who added a few features to the hotel and converted it into the Boca Raton Club. Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts now operates the resort. Many of the houses and other buildings Mizner designed also still remain, both in Boca Raton and Palm Beach. Their charm is matched by their historic significance as artifacts of the tumultuous Florida boom.

Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection on Florida Memory for more early photos of Boca Raton, and check out these resources to learn more about Addison Mizner and his grand development schemes in South Florida in the 1920s:

Jacqueline Ashton. Boca Raton Pioneers and Addison Mizner. Boca Raton: J. Ashton Waldeck, 1984.

Caroline Seebohm. Boca Rococo: How Addison Mizner Invented Florida’s Gold Coast. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2001.

Raymond B. Vickers. “Addison Mizner: Promoter in Paradise.” Florida Historical Quarterly 75, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 381-407.

 

 

 

Miami’s Master Suburb

Coral Gables started out as a family plantation with acres of grapefruit and avocado trees. By 1930, however, it had become a buzzing metropolis on the edge of Miami, with a flourish of Old World flair in its distinctive Mediterranean Revival architecture. Like most of the planned communities that emerged in Florida during the great boom of the 1920s, Coral Gables grew out of a vision–in this case one belonging to a young developer named George Merrick.

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Merrick arrived in Miami with his family in 1899. His father, Solomon Merrick, had been a minister in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but on the advice of a colleague in Coconut Grove he decided to move his family to Florida to try their hand at growing citrus on a 160-acre plot. Mrs. Merrick had wanted to name the plantation “Among the Pines,” but her husband preferred “Coral Gables,” a combined homage to both the local coral rock and the Massachusetts home of one of Solomon Merrick’s political idols, Grover Cleveland, which was called “Gray Gables.” The family decided to stick with the name Coral Gables Plantation, and soon it was being used in advertisements and signs.

The original Merrick homestead, named

The original Merrick homestead, named “Coral Gables” after “Gray Gables,” the Massachusetts home of Solomon Merrick’s political idol Grover Cleveland. The “coral” part of the name stems from the local coral rock used as a building material (1926).

Solomon Merrick died in 1911, leaving 25-year-old George as head of the family and manager of the Coral Gables property. Under the young man’s management the plantation grew to 1,200 acres and employed more than 40 workers, but George believed Coral Gables could be something more. Real estate in Miami and Coconut Grove was booming, with rapid new construction along Miami Beach and in suburbs along the outer edges of town. George was deeply interested in getting involved with the lucrative business of real estate development, and in 1912 he partnered with his brother-in-law to start a real estate firm. The following year the fledgling business combined with the Realty Securities Corporation, making Merrick president of the largest real estate and development company in Dade County.

An example of one of the many booklets being developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

An example of one of the many booklets developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

When George announced in 1918 that he planned to turn his family’s Coral Gables Plantation into a self-sufficient suburban village, many thought he had lost his mind. Even with Miami’s intense expansion, Coral Gables was still considered to be too far out of town, near if not in the Everglades. There were also other developments vying for the attention of home-seekers and real estate developers, namely Hollywood by the Sea, Hialeah and Biscayne Park. How would Coral Gables compete?

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

George Merrick remained confident that his idea would work if the quality of the product was exceptional and his advertising and marketing hit their marks. His aesthetic vision for Coral Gables drew heavily on his experiences traveling in the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as his affinity for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which had provided him with richly illustrated vistas of faraway Spain.  Of course, Merrick wasn’t the only developer smitten with the Old World at that time; Addison Mizner’s Spanish-style buildings in Palm Beach also influenced the young developer’s vision for Coral Gables.

“Amado,” the home of Charles Munn in Palm Beach. Designed by architect Addison Mizner, the house reflected the Mediterranean Revival style that influenced George Merrick’s plans for Coral Gables (photo circa 1919).

Merrick began hiring architects and engineers to work out the details for the new community, and the first concept drawings appeared in February 1920. To determine the names for the streets, he opened up his copy of Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra and selected Spanish place names like Asturia, Castille, Alcazar and Aragon. He bought the Mackinac Building at 158 E. Flagler Street in Miami from John Burdine to serve as the headquarters for the Coral Gables sales and development team.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Merrick and his associates began auctioning off lots in the new Coral Gables subdivision on November 28, 1921. Signs urging potential buyers to “follow the Golden Galleon” were posted all along Flagler Street in Miami to lead them toward the site, and costumed Spanish caballeros helped direct traffic to the original entrance to the development via Granada Boulevard.

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

The public response was overwhelmingly positive; over 5,000 people crowded into the unfinished subdivision to participate in the auction. Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers, who Merrick had hired to be the main auctioneer and consultant for the venture, addressed the crowd from the back of a mule-drawn wagon. As each lot was sold, Dammers sent his partner off with the buyer to finish up the paperwork while he and the wagon moved on to the next lot to repeat the process. The purchasing terms were fairly simple–buyers chose a lot and a building plan, with prices starting at $5,785. If the buyer put down $500, he could finance the rest at $60 per month. In six days’ time, Merrick’s team had sold 300 lots for more than half a million dollars. George was so delighted with the results that he decided to pledge $10,000 for a public library and $100,000 for a college. This, of course, ultimately became the University of Miami.

Dr. Edward E.

Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers auctioning off lots in Coral Gables from his mule-drawn wagon (1921).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick's uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick’s uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

Once it was properly launched, Coral Gables continued to grow at a rapid pace. George Merrick and his associates had to establish their own tile and concrete block factories to keep up the necessary supply of building materials. By 1924, the settlement had its own volunteer fire department, woman’s club, Boy Scout troop and grammar school. The next year, Coral Gables was incorporated as a town, and Doc Dammers became its first mayor. The year after that, on February 4, 1926, the cornerstone was laid for the first building of what would become the University of Miami.

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami's first building--the Merrick Building (1926).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami’s first building–the Merrick Building (1926).

The stage was set for a bright future. Even the collapse of the Florida Boom in the late 1920s failed to completely arrest the growth of Coral Gables. Today, the community continues as home to the University of Miami, as well as a center of international commerce. Numerous foreign consulates are located there, as are the corporate headquarters of Bacardi, Fresh Del Monte Produce and Capital Bank Financial.

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

The State Archives of Florida holds an extensive collection of photographs belonging to photographer William A. Fishbaugh, who George Merrick hired to help promote Coral Gables and other real estate developments in the Miami area. Browse the William Fishbaugh Collection on Florida Memory to find more historic images of the region during and after the Florida Boom.

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

For a more extensive treatment of George Merrick and the development of Coral Gables, we also recommend Arvah Parks’ recent book, George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables, published in 2015 by the University Press of Florida.