Abbeville Press, publisher of fine art and illustrated books
Excerpt from: Tropical Style


One question about Palm Beach has intrigued novelists, historians, and the media for decades: "What lies behind the hedges?" Hedges are such a basic feature of the islands landscape that a local law regulates their trimming and protects them from destruction. If an endowment for hedges could be established, no other institution in town would be more heavily funded.

This foliage fanaticism is not botanical in origin. Rather, it stems from a fierce devotion to privacy that has been passed down from generation to generation. Ever since the height of walls was restricted by the town code, hedges have been serving as live barricades protecting the super rich from public scrutiny. These leafy curtains allow them to indulge impulse more freely.

The people who live behind the hedges are frequently eccentric, unfailingly philanthropic, and determined to do as they please. Their wondrous residential fantasies, inspired by the natural beauty of this subtropical barrier island only fourteen miles long and no more than half a mile wide, are testimony to what can be achieved when imagination, rather than money, is the only limitation.

Lake Worth, the part of the Intracoastal Waterway that separates this island from West Palm Beach on the mainland, was named for Colonel William Jenkins Worth, who was in command of federal troops in the latter part of the Seminole Indian War. Worth was later second-in-command of U.S. forces in the Mexican War, and Fort Worth, Texas, is also named for him.

Palm Beachs first nonmilitary settlers arrived in 1873, joining a Civil War draft dodger who had moved to the island in 1862. By 1877 there were nineteen families. One of the very first houses was built entirely of flotsam and jetsam washed to shore by the Atlantic Ocean. It was believed to belong to Will Lanehart, a cousin of Ben Lainhart (sic), whose descendants still reside in the area. At this time Palm Beach was called the Lake Worth Cottage Colony. It was landscaped with palm trees quite by accident in 1878, when the Providencia, a small Spanish brigantine carrying a cargo of twenty thousand coconuts, was wrecked offshore. Settlers planted the coconuts, thereby giving birth to the islands tropical appeal.

Around the mid-1880s Henry Morrison Flagler, a Standard Oil partner and Florida real estate developer, brought his railroads to St. Augustine, where he had built the Ponce de Leon Hotel. It marked the Florida resort frontier until Flagler visited Palm Beach and became so enchanted by it that in 1893 he erected the Royal Poinciana Hotel on the island and then extended the Florida East Coast Railroad to Lake Worth.

With the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which was designed by John M. Carrère and Thomas Hastings, two young apprentices at the New York firm, McKim, Mead and White, Flagler introduced Mediterranean architecture to Florida. When Flagler moved on to Palm Beach, however, he opted for clapboard and shingle structures adapted from the seaside styles popular in Bar Harbor and Southampton, and he gave the job to another young architect, Theodore Blake. As Florida historians point out, Flagler built at his leisure in St. Augustine, whereas he was creating Palm Beach during boom times. Wooden structures, even when they rose to six stories, could be built in a few months; stone archways and stucco walls took longer. The Royal Poinciana Hotel was painted a sunny yellow that came to be known as Flagler yellow. The furnishings were white wicker with green fabrics, a combination found in many Palm Beach houses to this day.

Flaglers next project was Palm Beachs first mansion, a columned Greek Revival house called Whitehall, which he presented to his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan, as a wedding gift in 1901. Carrère & Hastings, who had by then gained a reputation as architects to the wealthy, finished the mansion, which is now a museum, for just under $2.5 million. At the time, its immense stucco outline stood in jarring contrast to the wooden frame houses of the cottage colony.

Meanwhile, in 1898 Colonel Edward Bradley opened the Beach Club, a gambling casino that was the first in the nation to allow ladies at the gaming tables. It was a sprawling wooden structure in the expedient architectural style of the day. Bradley circumvented Floridas state ban on gambling simply by not allowing any full-time state residents to become members of his club. Thousands of dollars, a few yachts, and many shares of stock changed hands nightly at the casino. It was strictly black tie after six oclock in the evening; thus Palm Beachs penchant for formal dress was indelibly inked into the seasons schedule. One afternoon, automobile magnate Walter Chrysler was playing roulette and forgot the time. Bradley asked him to go home and change into proper evening attire. Chrysler refused on the grounds that he was down $20,000. Bradley offered to flip a coin, double or nothing. The colonel made the toss, then, without looking at the coin, put it away, saying, "You win, go home and get dressed." Bradley had instinctive style and his customers had no option but to follow his lead.

Bradley endeared himself to his customers even after his death. In his will, he asked that the casino be torn down so that unscrupulous gamblers couldnt move in after him. He bequeathed the property to the town on the condition that it become a public park, and in the event that the town did not remove the buildings, the property was to be turned over to the Catholic Church.

In 1895 Flagler built the Palm Beach Inn to handle the overflow from the Royal Poinciana. It opened in 1896 and proved to be so popular that it was enlarged three times by 1901, when it was renamed the Breakers. In 1903 the Breakers burned down; a new one opened its doors in 1904, but it, too, succumbed to flames in 1925. Dr. William Rand Kenan, Jr., who had taken over the Flagler System after Henry Flaglers death in 1913, built the present Breakers in 1926 in less than a year. The Royal Poinciana was eventually torn down in the early thirties.

Vacationers stayed at the Breakers Hotel, fell in love with the island, and made plans to build equally lavish homes. With the success of the Breakers, Palm Beach became securely established as a wealthy winter resort town.

In 1918 two flamboyant friends--Paris Singer, heir to the sewing-machine fortune, and architect Addison Mizner--visited Palm Beach and found it somewhat too sleepy for their liking. Singer was a world traveler and had had a turbulent affair with dancer Isadora Duncan. Mizner was born in 1872 in Benicia on the north side of San Francisco Bay. In 1889 his father was appointed United States envoy-minister to five Central American countries and the family moved to Guatemala, where Addison was exposed to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish colonial architecture. After attending Spains University of Salamanca, Mizner served a three-year apprenticeship under San Francisco architect Willis Polk. This was his only formal architecture training. In 1904 Mizner moved to New York, where he was provided with introductions into swank social circles and began selling his new friends objets dart he had collected on his travels throughout China, Central America, Spain, Italy, and the South Pacific. Soon he began receiving architecture commissions, including several cast off by Stanford White, and built many houses on Long Island, some in the Mediterranean style. But after being mugged by three hitchhikers whom he had picked up on his way home from a party, Mizner wanted to leave New York and Singer convinced him to come to Palm Beach to convalesce. With Singers money, Mizners expertise, and plenty of time on their hands, the two men set about redesigning the face of Palm Beach.

Together they gave the hotel community a boost by building Mediterranean-style shops and clubs, and they gave their friends the confidence to have fun with their money by building equally lavish mansions in the same style. Mizners first such commission came from Eva Stotesbury, whose husband, Edward T., was a senior partner in the Morgan Company. Eva, who was sometimes thought of as a caricature of the social dowager, is remembered for her witty retorts. A woman who was aghast at the way Mrs. Stotesbury spent money once said to her, "Pearls during the daytime?" Without missing a beat Mrs. Stotesbury replied, "Yes my dear. I used to feel the same way. But that was before I had pearls." For her, Mizner designed and built El Mirasol. Its massive stone and tile gateway still stands off North Country Road, but the forty-acre estate has since been subdivided and there remains only a street named in its honor.

Mizner continued to build, sometimes with Singers financing, sometimes on commission. The client would leave in the spring, pressing a check into Mizners hand, and return the next season to find his Palm Beach dream house a reality, resplendent with stucco walls, spiral staircases, soaring beamed ceilings, pecky cypress paneling, loggias, wide balconies, and cloistered walkways. The wood Mizner used was aged in his workrooms in West Palm Beach, where new lumber was beaten with chains and paint was applied and then partially removed to give the wood a rubbed, worn look. When worm holes were needed, the wood was peppered with buckshot. Mizner spent much of the year traveling in Europe, chiefly in Spain, where he bought entire rooms from villas and monasteries, sometimes not bothering to ask if he was dealing with the rightful owner.

In 1925, at the height of the Florida building boom, Mizner began developing Boca Raton, south of Palm Beach, and Paris Singer launched the development of Singer Island to the north. But almost immediately the boom collapsed and the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 further dampened the ardor for Florida real estate. The stock market crash of 1929 finished off all hope of Mizners revival. By the early thirties Mizners health was failing, but those friends who had managed to survive the Depression rallied to support him financially. He died of a heart attack on November 5, 1933. His high-living, high-rolling brother Wilson amused him right up to the end. When the architect was on his deathbed, Wilson sent him a telegram from Hollywood, where he was writing a screenplay. "Stop dying. Am trying to write a comedy." The response came back: "Am going to get well. The comedy goes on."

When renowned Viennese architect and designer Joseph Urban came to the United States during World War I, he first found work in Hollywood and on Broadway. Having designed sets for the Metropolitan Opera and for Florenz Ziegfelds famous Follies, he was a natural choice to redesign two Palm Beach night clubs, the Club de Montmartre in 1925 and the Oasis Club in 1927. Between these projects he designed the private Bath and Tennis Club, which is reminiscent of the Lido, as well as the Paramount Theater and its adjoining Sunrise shops. E. F. Hutton and Anthony Drexel Biddle supplied the capital for the project. The theater, now a landmark building divided into office space, was noted for its wavelike cypress ceiling and a mural two stories high depicting underwater creatures. Urbans greatest vote of confidence, however, came when Marjorie Merriweather Post--at the time married to E. F. Hutton--asked him to work on Mar-a-Lago, an estate set on eighteen acres stretching from ocean to lake. Built between 1923 and 1927, the mansion boasts perhaps the most dramatic outdoor entertaining space in all of Palm Beach--a cloistered courtyard featuring a pebble-design walkway inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. The living rooms gilded ceiling was inspired by the Galleria DellAccademias Thousand Wing ceiling in Venice.

Before the Huttons met Urban, another prominent Palm Beach architect, Marion Sims Wyeth, who had built the couples Golfview Road house, had begun to design Mar-a-Lago. Wyeth, whose grandfather J. Marion Sims founded New Yorks Womens Hospital, and whose father, John Wyeth, founded New Yorks Polyclinic Hospital, moved to Palm Beach in 1919, only two years after Addison Mizner, leaving his job at Carrère & Hastings. Although Mizner offered him a position, Wyeth began his own company, Wyeth and King, with business partner Rhinelander King. Wyeths work was less dramatic than Mizners and his plans were meticulously thought out, perhaps as a result of his training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. There he was awarded the Prix Jean LeClerc in 1913 and the Deuxième Prix Rougevin in 1914, and he became the first Palm Beach architect to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.

Paris-educated Wyeth and Maurice Fatio, a dashing Swiss architect, became good friends when Fatio moved to Palm Beach in 1925. Fatio graduated from the Polytechnical School at the University of Zurich and studied under Swiss architect Karl Moser. In Palm Beach he began designing harmonious Mediterranean-style houses and eventually branched out into everything from Georgian to contemporary.

Howard Major, who also came to Palm Beach in 1925, with a degree from Pratt Institute, was a chief proponent of Georgian style, especially as it had been adapted in the British West Indies. By the end of the thirties Majors less pretentious and adorned forms became the favored style in Palm Beach.

John Volk, a Columbia graduate, came to the island in 1926 and became one of Palm Beachs most prolific architects, obtaining over one thousand commissions. He proved he could design in almost any style, from Colonial (such as his own house, White Gables) and Mediterranean (his buildings on Worth Avenue) to Regency (the Poinciana Playhouse) and modern (including a house called La Ronda on North Lake Drive). For one of his most eccentric clients, Lily Fuller, Polk built a house with a resplendent Portuguese tile roof. Now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Fomon, it is endearingly called the Buddha House by locals. When Lily wanted a smaller house, she commissioned Volk to build a Samoan-looking structure complete with a goldfish pond; it is now owned by Mrs. Walter Gubelmann, whose sense of style and wit are strong enough to carry off the house.

Whatever idiosyncratic whims architects have catered to over the years, they must take the islands subtropical setting into consideration. Kitchens are placed in the northwest part of houses so that prevailing southeast winds dont reveal whats being cooked to the rest of the house. Ceilings are high and peppered with fans. Palm Beach architect Jeff Smith continues to use design elements that have been employed since the towns inception. "We, like Mizner, use a lot of loggias as a way not only to connect rooms but also to allow you to sit outside when it is raining and the temperature is still nice." Some wooden houses are raised slightly off the ground so that winds can sweep above and below the structure. An example is the "stick" house at the corner of Seabreeze and Cocoanut Row, painted an intense orange at the suggestion of the owners friend, the late designer Isabelle ONeill.

Because of the intensity and profusion of light, colors are used in abundance. Stephanie Wrightsman, who lives in a pale brick house on the islands north end, is constantly recoloring her interiors. At the time this book was written the living room was hydrangea orange, the staircase Flagler yellow, and a bathroom orchid violet; these colors suit the island perfectly.

Patios and outdoor living space are prized, especially if they are surrounded by hedges and other foliage. Hedges soar thirty feet beside the modest tennis house that gardening author C. Z. Guest retained as her tropical hideaway when the Guest estate, Villa Artemis, was sold after the death of Mrs. Frederick Churchill Guest. Hedges fifty feet high shielded Charles Wrightsmans famous oceanfront villa, but the new owner demolished the Fatio-designed house hours before the Landmarks Commission could build legal barricades strong enough to stop the bulldozers.

Sadly, Palm Beach has lost some of its most significant residences. However, many--big and small--remain, and our camera has penetrated the hedges behind which they normally hide. A number of the houses on these pages have never before been photographed for publication. Permission to do so was motivated by the need to document a life-style and craftsmanship that are unique to this enchanting island.

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