Mass-produced Mesker products never attracted attention of leading architects, unless for scorn. Meskers, on the other hand, didn’t seem to mind working with architects, either professionally or personally. In fact, George Mesker once commissioned one of America’s best-known architects, Addison Mizner (1872–1933), to design an extravagant mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, by most appearances a folly on the account of his much younger wife.
In 1913, at a late age of 56, George married Elizabeth Diana MacEachen, an 18-year old daughter of mining engineer Neil MacEachen. Three years later he left Evansville, never to return, and moved to New York. Although a millionaire and a known philanthropist, George appears to have lived modestly while in Evansville. In fact, the entire Mesker family, along with father John Bernard Mesker, lived in the same household. After he acquired his fortune and married, however, George began spending more freely. Thus came the commission to Mizner, resulting in a 30-room mansion in Palm Beach. From “Mizner’s Florida” by Donald W. Curl:
“Mizner described the house for George Luke Mesker […] as in the style of sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance. A marble patio fountain with life-sized cherubs playing with a fish established the name La Fontana [The Fountain] for the house. Mrs. Mesker collected Italian paintings and furnishings and asked Mizner to design the house around her collection. The first floor contained a reception hall, a 63-by-20 foot living room with linen-fold paneling and an ornate ceiling from Italy, a “dining hall,” and kitchen and service areas. The library, bedrooms, and servants’ rooms were on the second floor. A tower, which Mizner added later, held an additional bedroom for Mr. Mesker.”
The estimated cost from the town-issued permit was $100,000, which was undoubtedly exceeded by the final costs. Some accounts credit yet another addition to the house to another famous designer of the era, Maurice Fatio (1897–1943), Swiss-born architect who also worked in Palm Beach and designed Mediterranean-style homes.
Completed in 1923, the stuccoed and clay-tile roofed La Fontana appears to have been somewhat typical of Mizner’s Mediterranean Revival designs executed for other wealthy Florida patrons—including bankers, industrialists, and above all millionaires such as Edward Shearson, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, Edward T. Stotesbury, and William G. Warden, among others—though by some accounts it is considered to be one of the architect’s greatest houses. And while its doubtful that Mesker had any stylistic influence in the mansion’s design, one cannot help but to look for any resemblance or nod to the thousands of commercial facades and storefronts that enabled George’s fortune. The similarity between a raised planter in La Fontana’s courtyard and a popular spiral-fluted column motif of Mesker’s galvanized sheet-metal fronts is likely a mere coincidence, but it’s always fun to speculate about such things (see comparison below). At the very least, I would hope that the similarity did not go unnoticed by Mr. Mesker as the motif was also used on his factory building in Evansville, Indiana.
Mesker’s selection of Mizner was probably unavoidable given the location—the architect had somewhat of a monopoly in Palm Beach (Fatio didn’t arrive until 1925). It is nonetheless interesting given that the architect also operated a separate business called Mizner Industries, which manufactured Spanish tile roofs and instant antiques needed to furnish his huge Mediterranean Revival style mansions. Just as Mesker’s commercial storefront products were intended to provide architectural pretense and perception of substantial and expensive masonry construction, so did Mizner imbue fake antiquity and Old World charm into his houses, though at significantly higher expense than his client’s “cheap” storefronts. Mizner Industries was located in West Palm Beach, across Lake Worth from Palm Beach, where Mesker once garnered a significant client. Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905), one of the best known American actors of the 19th century who played Bob Acres and Rip Van Winkle, purchased four storefronts from George L. Mesker & Company for his buildings in West Palm Beach, which he helped to develop as a service town to the wealthy Palm Beach, founded in turn by American industrialist and Jefferson’s friend, Henry Flagler (1830–1913). Economically, a handful of storefronts were insignificant among the thousands sold nationwide, but Jefferson’s purchase did provide an important marketing opportunity. Renderings of his West Palm Beach commercial blocks along with the actor’s portrait in character were prominently featured in Mesker catalogs between 1902 and 1906. Given the rapid development and transition of the area from resorts to individual ocean-front mansions, Mesker’s storefronts in West Palm Beach were likely already gone by the time La Fontana was completed.
Perhaps the only real and rather unfortunate similarity shared by La Fontana and hundreds of George Mesker facades is their fate. In the 1960s, La Fontana was raised to make room for One Royal Palm Way Condominiums, designed by architect Thomas Howard Chilton (1909–1992), a prolific Modernist who upon moving to Palm Beach during the 1940s designed more than 15 distinctive apartment buildings and 700 houses during a fifty-year career. Demolition of La Fontana and other mansions, and subsequent construction of modernist apartment buildings and condominiums was not without controversy, as it intensified residents’ concern that urbanization threatened Palm Beach’s “worldwide image of refined elegance.” Perhaps in response to local preservation pressures or due to some respect for Mizner’s craft at least some Mizneresque elements of La Fontana were saved and reused in two of Chilton’s buildings. The huge marble fountain featuring multiple cherubs remained on the site of the original mansion and was placed at the entrance to One Royal Palm Way, while a series of other sculptures from the home inhabit the rooftop garden. In addition, the linen-fold paneling from La Fontana’s living room was saved and installed in the lobby of Park Place at 369 South Lake Drive. Not unlike many of Mesker’s sheet-metal panels, pieces of his retirement mansion made by Mizner Industries were also re-purposed in other buildings. I suppose that saving a piece of the original is better than not saving anything at all.
(For additional images and information about La Fontana, Addison Mizner, or anything else to do with history of Palm Beach, please contact the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.)