Architects: Mizner in Boca Raton
In 1925 architect Addison Mizner moved to Boca Raton to create “the world’s most architecturally beautiful playground.” As Mizner Development Corporation (MDC), he purchased 1,500 acres of land, including two miles of oceanfront; some of it belonging to pioneer farmer Frank Howard Chesebro. Mizner’s backers included Rodman Wanamaker II, T. Coleman du Pont, Elizabeth Arden, William K. and Harold Vanderbilt, Clarence H. Geist, Irving Berlin, the Duchess of Sutherland, and Paris Singer. Association with such celebrity and extensive publicity resulted in sales of over $2 million on the first day.
Mizner’s plans for a large oceanfront hotel, Castillo del Rey, were taken over by the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain. Town commissioners appointed Mizner city planner, and he produced extensive designs, although all were not built. MDC constructed streets, riding trails, an administration building for the company, and the first houses in the Old Floresta and Spanish Village subdivisions, to encourage buyers to build on their lots. Camino Real, an east-west boulevard that is a main street today, was completed without its planned canal.
Some of Mizner’s ideas for Boca Raton suggest a need to compete with Palm Beach. He had Donald Ross design four golf courses to Palm Beach’s three. Entertainment venues were improving in Palm Beach, so Mizner bought a ship set up as a cabaret theater, to dock at Lake Boca Raton. Palm Beachers had to travel to Gulf Stream for polo, while enthusiasts in Boca Raton would have their own polo field. He designed a castle home for himself on an island in Lake Boca Raton that he would not sell to clients, as he had done with his Palm Beach residences, but leave to the Town as a museum.
Many of Mizner’s ideas remained on paper, including the Seaboard Air Line Station and Distrito de Boca Raton, a high-end subdivision between the ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. While he completed plans for a town hall, they were later revised by William Alsmeyer of Delray. The current home of the Boca Raton Historical Society, Old Town Hall, was built in 1927 on Mizner’s foundation with finishes provided by his Mizner Industries.
By then, Mizner Development Corporation had been defeated by the bust that affected all of south Florida. In the early 1930s Mizner's friends supported him financially through his failing health; he died of a heart attack on February 5, 1933.
The Cloister Inn
Since the planned oceanfront hotel would take some time to build, Mizner quickly built a smaller inn
on Lake Boca Raton. When the Cloister Inn opened in February 1926, it was said to be the most expensive hotel of its size, with furnishings costing $10,000 per room. To keep costs down, however, Mizner had furnished the inn with a mixture of his own designs made by Mizner Industries and, in the public areas, pieces from his private collection of rare antiques purchased on his travels. He confessed, “I have looted cathedrals, churches, and palaces and brought a shipload of two of everything from stone doorways to fine laces.”
The resort quickly attracted the leaders of American industry, show business, and society, including Vanderbilts, Elizabeth Arden, and Marie Dressler. Unfortunately, by the time it opened, the boom had already collapsed. A change of management failed to rescue Mizner Development Corporation from bankruptcy.
The Cloister Inn survived; one of the original investors, Clarence Henry Geist, purchased what was left of MDC—the hotel, vacant land, and 50 houses—for $71,500 and assumed debts of $7 million. Raised on an Indiana farm, Geist had taken to the business world; in 1930 he was thought to be the largest individual holder of public utility stock in the nation. In January 1930, after a million-dollar addition, Geist reopened the Cloister Inn as the 450-room Boca Raton Club.
Geist financed a modern water treatment plant for Boca Raton. He paid for an elegant railroad depot and for dredging of the Boca Raton Inlet so club members could bring their yachts. In a speech he prepared but never delivered to the citizens of Boca Raton, Geist urged, “Get rid of the mosquito!” He wrote, “You are not going to make any money in this community except through people coming here in the winter. Get their money while they are here and you won’t have to do a lot of work throughout the hot weather of the summer.”
Although never really profitable, an exclusive membership kept the club flourishing until the beginning of World War II, when Boca Raton had grown to over 700 residents. Today the club thrives as the prestigious Boca Raton Resort and Club.