Even people who can’t afford to shop there love to wander the flower and fountain-filled courtyards and lanes of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, a historic, luxury shopping district designed by Addison Mizner.
Its architecture and history are so important in South Florida that there are weekly tours of Worth Avenue that sell out every winter, even at $25 per person.
It’s a fascinating tour and author Rick Rose is an entertaining and informative guide. It’s full of gossipy stories of wealthy and famous people over the years as well as the importance of Worth Avenue to fashion and architecture. I was surprised how much I learned. (See more on how to take the tour below.)
The story behind the Worth Avenue style
If you visit it now, you’ll see immediately that Worth Avenue has a handsome patina of age and the look of fine craftsmanship.
That makes sense, since it’s more than 100 years old.
But when it was built in 1918, it already looked a hundred years old — and that is all by design.
Architect Addison Mizner wanted it to look like a Mediterranean village, where different styles and era of buildings are added over centuries. He used motifs from several countries and time periods. People loved it so much that Mediterranean Revival became the signature look of South Florida in the 1920s. Of course, people still love it.
A good example of Mizner making things look old is how he popularized pecky cypress.
The wood of Florida’s magnificent bald cypress trees is prized as a strong and beautiful building material. Pecky cypress is rarer, coming from one out of 10 cypress trees that have a fungal infection that attacks the heartwood of the cypress tree, creating distinctive small tunnels and “pecks.” You see it all over Worth Avenue beams and trim. Mizner liked it because it looked distressed and old.
Flamboyant rich people gathered here
Call it the Jazz Age, the Roaring ‘20s, the Gilded Age or Florida’s boom years, the period during which Worth Avenue was established saw rich people flocking to Palm Beach in the winter.
Tour guide Rick Rose explained how the Riviera, the previous gathering place for Europe’s elite, was impacted by World War I, and Palm Beach stepped up to be the new place for all the world’s wealthy people to party in winter.
Addison Mizner and a good buddy, Paris Singer, came to Palm Beach and together they developed Worth Avenue, which became THE place to be in winter.
Both Mizner and Singer were bona fide characters.
Mizner grew up in Guatemala, where his father was U.S. Minister to Central America. He was 6 foot 2, had a cocktail party every night he was home on Worth Avenue, and kept a menagerie of animals. These included parrots he carried on his shoulder and a spider monkey Johnnie Brown, a constant companion, who was buried in a historic Worth Avenue courtyard.
Paris Singer was the son of sewing machine magnate Isaac Singer, who had multiple wives, mistresses and children. Paris was his 22nd of 26 children! Somehow there was still enough money to make Paris Singer very rich.
Cocktails parties = fashion and shopping
The social life that revolved around Worth Avenue required rich people to buy clothes, and retailers were happy to help. Saks Fifth Avenue came to Worth Avenue in 1926 with its first store outside New York City. The Everglades Club, Mizner’s social club, still located on Worth Avenue, held weekly fashion shows that launched the careers of many designers.
Some designers began showing clothes and bringing staff for the winter season. One of the “vias,” the fascinating courtyard pedestrian passageways along Worth Avenue, was nicknamed Via Gucci because Gucci brought his designers to Palm Beach in the winter to work and show their wares and they occupied the buildings all around this courtyard. (Of course, Gucci still has a store on Worth Avenue.)
Gorgeous flowers, trees and decorative arts
Via Gucci was actually named Via Amore, and it is a place of exceptional beauty. It is one of eight vias: Via Parigi, Via Mizner, Via Roma, Via Demario, Via Bice, Via Encantada and Via Mario. (Look for their names over their entrances off Worth Avenue.)
Each is worth exploring. They are full of orchids, decorative ceramic tile, fountains, sculptures, gardens and beautiful specimens of tropical trees.
Many of the vias are home to restaurants and cafes. The shops in the vias tend to be unique and quirkier than the major luxury brands you see on Worth Avenue itself.
If you just walk down Worth Avenue without strolling through the vias, you’ve missed much of its charm.
So many Worth Avenue stories
Guide Rick Rose tells stories about several famous visitors to Worth Avenue, from Judy Garland to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
I like two animal stories the best. Both involve Via Mizner, where Mizner’s home, complete with a five-story tower, was located and which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Inside Via Mizner, surrounded by tables at the restaurant Pizza Al Fresco (my favorite lunch spot), you’ll find the grave of Mizner’s beloved monkey, Johnnie Brown. What I didn’t know is the story behind the other grave adjacent to the monkey’s.
This grave is for “Our Laddie,” who died in 1959. Laddie’s owners were longtime residents of the Mizner apartment. (Mizner died in 1933, penniless after the great crash of 1929.)
When Laddie died, his family wanted to bury him in “their” courtyard, next to Johnnie Brown. The town council said no, so sympathetic residents campaigned for it to be allowed. During that winter season, it was the talk of the island, and the town council reversed itself, saying this would be the last grave ever dug on the island.
The second story is about an animal that now lives in Mizner’s former apartment: Mona Lisa, the miniature pot-bellied pig. You can sometimes see Mona Lisa, “a service pig,” on her daily walks on Worth Avenue.
Mona Lisa has been the subject of many articles and social media photos. In one article, the pig’s owner said Mona Lisa is beloved on Palm Beach island. After all, she won the Worth Avenue Pet Parade twice. (OK, the owner pointed out, she was the only entry in the “pig” category.) Mona Lisa is house trained. (We know you were wondering.)
Taking the Worth Avenue Historic Walking Tour in Palm Beach
You can buy your tickets for the 2024 tours here. Tickets were still available when I checked for tours during February through April.
Tours started the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and are offered every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. until April 24, 2024.
Tours are about an hour and 15 minutes and involve about a half mile of walking.
If you’re visiting Palm Beach, be sure to see our story 10 ways to enjoy Palm Beach island history, beauty & recreation for more things to do on Palm Beach island, including the scenic Palm Beach Lake Trail and the nearby Pan’s Garden, a serene, hidden, one of a kind garden.
While you’re in the area, here are great things to do in West Palm Beach.
The Worth Avenue tours are offered through the Worth Avenue Association and profits this year go to the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation, which works to protect and celebrates the architectural, botanical, and cultural heritage of Palm Beach.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.