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The Mizner Touch

Akiko Busch

“Florida is flat as a pancake. You must build with a strong skyline to give your buildings character....The landscape gives you no help in Florida. You must make your own,” architect Addison Mizner once said. Make it he did. Mizner’s contribution in the 1920s to Florida’s Mediterranean Revival style was an inventive and often exuberant hybrid of Spanish, Italian, and Moroccan design that reflected not so much a healthy respect for history as an unabashed will to create it.

Mizner’s fantasies live on in Boca Raton in the buildings he designed and in the work of modern architects and designers. Consider a home recently created for humorist, playwright, and composer Al Tapper by architect Hank Goldman, who was working for Garcia Brenner Stromberg Architecture, and interior designer Catherine C. Cleare. “I love detail,” Tapper explains. “I wanted the house to look beautiful even if it had no furniture in it.” The decorative arts of Portugal, Spain, the Byzantine Empire, even medieval Europe resonate throughout the architectural details of the 6,000-square-foot house. “When people come here, they think they’re in a wing of the Met,” he adds. “I view the house as a work of art—I just happen to live in it.”

Stonework ranges from Italianate to Gothic. A mason commissioned by Cleare worked for three years with molds from which the cement stones were cast for use in the house’s columns, walls, doorways, and windows. Hand-forged ironwork evoking Spain, rococo chandeliers, Dutch delft tiles, and Portuguese painted tiles all make an appearance. The result is a hybrid historicism that recalls a lavish convergence of periods and styles every bit as inventive and uninhibited as their predecessors in Boca Raton.
 
Mizner’s passion for historical details was such that he created them when he could not find them, and he had few reservations about establishing his own factory to mass-produce the “antique” furniture and architectural ornament necessary to furnish his houses. Everything from bicarbonate of soda to ice picks and hatchets were put to use to give a credible patina of age. Cleare has turned to more authentic sources for her antiquities: Ninety eight percent of the furnishings came from Christie’s or Sotheby’s auction houses. Pieces were reupholstered, restored, and, if necessary, rebuilt to new dimensions. The carved Louis XVI double bed in the master bedroom, for example, was reconfigured to become a king-size bed, with the new carving indistinguishable from the original.


Tapper and Cleare both felt that the house should have an aura of genuine antiquity. “I wanted the dining room to be a fantasy garden,” Cleare says, “to look as though it had been there for hundreds of years, that generations of families had dined there.” The caryatids framing the console, once inhabitants of a Palm Beach garden, suggest exactly that. Cleare had them cleaned and washed, but they are still “kind of crumbly,” she says—a sentiment Mizner would surely have appreciated. She also specified hand-painted frescoes, a limestone floor cut to echo the pattern of the mahogany ceiling, and a dark mirror with lead patterning that gives further depth and mystery to the dining room. “Even though it’s probably the room I use the least, the dining room is my favorite room,” says Tapper. “I’ve probably had more dinner parties than I normally would.” In a nod to creature comforts, Cleare made sure that contemporary amenities were installed in all the antique surroundings. In the dining room, audio/video and air-conditioning systems are concealed behind a stone grille. 

The carved columns, arched windows, and stone grilles above the fireplace in the living room all reflect a more Gothic influence. Throughout the house, Cleare installed museum lighting. “Spotlighting gives visual emphasis to the art and helps to create a mysterious, moody effect, a glow that is appropriate to the innate drama of the house,” she says.

Other details attest to Cleare’s com-mitment to authenticity. Although Tapper rarely uses the house during the summer, the master bedroom’s light oak floors were stenciled to suggest wood inlays; such elaborate parquet floors were the norm in European manors, where rugs and carpets were rolled up in the summer months. And while the bedroom wall was ornamented with 19th-century painted panels, Cleare commissioned local artist Jonathan Kohrman to hand paint canvases depicting mythological scenes and characters that were installed within the oval-shaped medallions on the barrel-vaulted ceiling.


Outdoors, a flat, sandy construction site was transformed into a verdant landscape with a mature citrus orchard, palm trees, and myriad other tropical plantings. Stone columns frame the pool. All these elements further contribute to the aura of historicism. Toward the end of the project, Tapper recalls, a newly hired workman asked how old the house was. “I told him about 80 years, and he said, ‘Yeah, that sounds right.’ Actually, the house was eight days old.”

Yet for all its historic resonance, antique furnishings, and fine art, the house remains, above all, a comfortable and altogether practical residence. “A lot of times, people build houses this size, then just live in a couple of rooms. You may as well be in an apartment,” Tapper says. “But I use every room—the kitchen, the home theater, the library—because every room is beautiful and functional.”

Catherine C. Cleare, 203.454.9430
Garcia Brenner Stromberg Architecture, 561.241.6736

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