KNOWN FOR ITS LUXURY BOUTIQUES, fine restaurants and the signature architecture of Addison Mizner, the Worth Avenue of today is a key fixture in the Palm Beach community. Bustling during ‘the season,’ Worth Avenue has been the premier shopping destination for the wintering elite since its establishment. Part of the Avenue’s lure, aside from offering the crème de la crème of shopping experiences, is a history in which the essence of the Palm Beach lifestyle is ingrained.
Today, a ‘Mizner’ home will fetch millions in South Florida, but at the beginning of his career, Addison Mizner’s unconventional architecture surprised many. He drew inspiration from his travels through the Mediterranean during his youth, but what he did with window treatments and staircases was, to put it best, unexpected. He believed in creating architecture that was interesting and unique. Without formal training, Mizner began his career in architecture while living in San Francisco and continued on to New York. At the age of 46, he decided to move to Palm Beach for his health, and once he started building, South Florida’s coast would never look the same.
It was during WWI when Mizner began work on the Everglades Club. Palm Beach Master Historian and Storyteller James Ponce, who gives walking tours of Worth Avenue, tells the story of how Paris Singer of Singer sewing machines approached Mizner to build a club, the idea being to offer a facility for officers returning from the war. Singer reportedly asked Mizner what he would build in Palm Beach if he could do anything he wanted, to which Mizner responded, “Well, it wouldn’t be wooden, and I wouldn’t paint it yellow.” This description was in contrast the prominent look in the area established by South Florida’s primary developer, Henry Flagler. Of course, the war ended once building was underway, and the structure became the elite Everglades Club.
From that point, Mizner developed the Avenue with classical courtyards and meandering alleyways. The architecture mirrors that of one of the world’s most fascinating cities: Venice. Worth’s alleyways parallel the paths of Venetian canals and in the same way, arched footbridges pass overhead. Around the strategically placed bends in the road, engineered to pique curiosity, Mizner placed beautiful vias and plazas. Many of these vias have remained unchanged to this day, and today’s shoppers can enjoy Mizner’s creations just as he intended it. As Ponce says, “If you haven’t explored what’s down the alleyways, down the vias, you haven’t really seen the Avenue.”
During Worth Avenue’s early days, starting in the 1920s, it was a seasonal sensation. Ponce, who worked at Palm Beach’s Colony Hotel, remembers how the entire avenue would shut down by the first of May. It was not until the early 70s that the shops and restaurants would remain open year-round. He recalls that 1971 was the first year that Saks Fifth Avenue remained open through the summer season. Many early establishments, such was Kassatly’s, the Avenue’s oldest store, remain. Today, there are more than 200 shops offering the finest in jewelry, clothing and shoes and internationally acclaimed paintings and antiques.
While the times have changed, the tradition of elegance on Worth Avenue remains, thanks in part to the Worth Avenue Association. “The Association’s purpose is to provide a common direction for the Avenue’s merchants,” says John Maus, former president of the Association. “Each of the merchants here is a stand-out retailer in his or her own field. In addition, these are people who want to be a part of this world-famous street.”