For the past 25 years I have made the northern California town of Benicia my home. Benicia was attractive to me because it is a small town within the context of a thriving greater metropolitan area (San Francisco is about 30 miles away). The petite city of 28,000 seemed a perfect place to raise kids; the schools are excellent; kids can safely walk to the pool, the library, to parks, and the ice cream shop. That was a huge draw for me!
Benicia's location on the Carquinez Straits is esthetically beautiful, and yet, because of its deep water port and refinery, our little town works hard for a living too. Light industry and a vital arts community have taken up residence in the former arsenal complex, reusing the historic buildings in creative new ways.
The Commanding Officer's Quarters...part of Benicia's architectural heritage...
I love that Benicia's got history flowing through her veins. Just take a walk around downtown, pausing at the historical landmark signs to get a feel for the role Benicia played in early California and the Gold Rush of '49 (Benicia, named for General Mariano Vallejo's wife, Francisca Benicia, served as the state capital from 1853-1854).
So, given that Benicia sounds like such an incredible place to grow up, are there any famous Benicians? There are and have been a tremendous number of successful Benicians in all walks of life making valuable contributions to society, however I'm just not sure anyone would pester them for an autograph while walking down First Street.
I can point to a number of well-known individuals who have spent time here: Benicia was one of Jack London's favorite haunts; Billie Joe Armstrong of the rock band "Green Day" called Benicia home for a time; best-selling author Richard Carlson had a writing space here; the drummer for Joe Satriani and the lead guitarist for "Huey Lewis and the News" live here (HL&tN guitar virtuoso, Stef Burns is a neighbor). But in order to find a born-and-bred famous Benician I believe you'd have to go all the way back to the birth of Addison Mizner in 1872. Addison who, you may ask?
Addison Cairns Mizner, 1872-1933
Addison Mizner was born in Benicia in 1872, the second to youngest of the "Many Mizners" (there were eight siblings of which only one was a girl! Tales of the boys' wild ways remain part of Old Benicia lore!). Addison's father, Lansing, was famous in his own right. He was a well-known lawyer, and was also appointed Special Envoy and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Central American Republics by President Benjamin Harrison. Not bad. Addison did even better.
Addison was a true renaissance man. The over-six-foot-tall, 270 pound Addison cut quite a swath as a society bon vivant during San Francisco's "champagne days" of the 1890's. Mizner was known for his wit and charm. As a result of his handy social connections, he landed an apprenticeship with famed San Francisco architect, Willis Polk, and so began Addison Mizner's education in architecture.
The Mizner Estate as illustrated in Thompson & West's Atlas of Solano County, 1878...current day site of the Benicia Police Department and City Hall...
Due to Mizner's inability to make any money in architecture at that time, he was forced to make temporary forays into such varied vocations as gold prospector in the Klondike, and art restorer (as well as smuggler!) for Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii. He became a pugilist in Australia and the best-selling co-author of the "Cynic's Calendar" upon returning to San Francisco. With varying degrees of financial success in any of these professions, architecture always eventually called him back.
After landing in New York following a fateful trip to Antigua, Guatemala (where he purchased an entire monastery, had it disassembled and shipped to the states for resale piece meal), he used his old San Francisco connections to launch himself into the upper heights of New York society, and with that, landed the types of architectural commissions that would finally gain a reputation and an income for Addison.
During the early days of the twentieth century Mizner completed a number of projects for his wealthy East Coast friends on Long Island but truly hit his stride once he began focusing on the Gold Coast of Florida.
Addison Mizner was responsible for the design and construction of 45 homes in Palm Beach for clients with names like Vanderbilt, Wanamaker, Singer, Woolworth and Dodge. Homes and other projects (such as the Everglades Club) completed during this time are known as Mizner's masterworks. Today, Addison Mizner homes remain highly desirable and fetch a pretty penny.
Recent listings of his homes range from the bargain basement price of $2.9 million to a jaw-dropping $70 million for his renowned "Casa Nana". His houses passed into the hands of some of the world's richest, most influential families. "La Guerida", owned by the Kennedy family was known as the "Winter White House". "El Solano" (named after Addison's home county) was purchased by John Lennon and Yoko Ono just two weeks before Lennon's untimely death.
To this day, the Mizner name continues to promote the Palm Beach area with developments of condos, apartments and gated communities with names like "Mizner Lake Estates", "Addison's Reserve", and "Mizner Park". The company Addison formed to fabricate all the specialty interior and exterior items needed to complete his designs (such as furniture, light fixtures, tile and iron work) continued in business until 1978 - though Mizner had no stake in the company beyond the early 1930's.
Mizner, the man himself, ultimately did not fare so well in Florida. In the 1920's he moved on to develope the city of Boca Raton. At first, things went well with millions of dollars in transactions but by 1926 the bottom of the housing market had dropped out in Florida and any hope of a revival was thwarted by the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Mizner lost nearly everything.
At the end of his life, it was clear Addison had had enough of Florida and was making moves to relocate to the Monterey Peninsula of California. In the 1920's, he had visited his niece in Pebble Beach and designed a house for her there (his only northern California project). He also purchased a large spread complete with an old farmhouse in the Carmel Valley, with the obvious intent of moving there. It was not meant to be. The one-time bon vivant's health was failing. He had a succession of heart attacks before finally passing away on February 5, 1933. After the millions Mizner made, he had $2,500 in the bank at the time of his death.
Along with Mizner's architectural legacy he has another: "Road Show", a Broadway musical written and produced by Stephen Sondheim in 2008, was the story of Addison and his infamous brother, Wilson. Wilson, Addison's younger brother, also known as the black sheep of the Mizner clan, was a conman, a hustler, possibly a pimp, a fight promoter, club owner, and a singer on the Barbary Coast - reportedly the model for Clark Gable's character, "Blackie Norton", in the movie "San Francisco". Wilson was equally known for his quick wit and had some success as a Hollywood screenwriter. He wound up a part owner in the famous celebrity haunt, The Brown Derby.
Addison spent much of his life tied to the escapades and misdeeds of his malcontent brother, Wilson. It seems that he felt compelled, out of love and a sense of duty to their poor mother, Ella, to cover up for and bail out Wilson from one scrape or other throughout their lives. The eccentric siblings were also the subject of an Irving Berlin work called "Palm Beach" that was never produced. Fittingly, the two brothers died within a month of each other. For better or worse, in life or death, always tied to one another.
Based on the above sketch and a description found in "Boco Rococo", following a wild goose chase through Pebble Beach, and without many other clues, I found it!...The Ysabel Chase House, by Addison Mizner, 1924...Yippee!
Addison Mizner returned to Benicia after a thirty year absence only to find that his boyhood town was nearly unrecognizable. No longer the idyllic haven of his youth, Mizner found Benicia dirty and rundown (the Shelby smelter was spewing disgusting soot all over Benicia at that time). He was saddened by the fact that when he asked passersby on First Street if they knew of the Mizners, no one did. I believe that today, despite the fact that he, and possibly his brother Wilson, are Benicia's most famous native sons, if asked, most people on First Street would not know the Mizner name...
I highly recommend these two volumes on the life and work of Addison Mizner...
Helpful books for this article and excellent sources for more information about Addison Mizner and Benicia, California:
"Boca Rococo - How Addison Mizner Invented Florida's Gold Coast"
by Caroline Seebohm, Clarkson Potter, 2001
"Addison Mizner - Architect To the Affluent, A Sketchbook Raisonne'of His Work"
by William Olendorf with text by Robert Tolf, Gale Graphics, 1983
"Great Expectations - The Story of Benicia, California"
by Richard Dillon, Benicia Heritage Book, Inc., 1980
Photos were either the author's or, for the purpose of review and recommendation, are from the above mentioned publications, unless otherwise noted.