Preserving Palm Beach

The South Florida city balances grand tradition with an eye toward the future.

WORDS Beth Dunlop
January / February 2020

Byzantine-influenced doorways at Villa Flora, 1920. / Photography by Steven Brooke

To really experience Palm Beach, start on Worth Avenue, one of the world’s great streets. It has all the requisite tony shops and restaurants, but it’s the architecture that sets it apart. “I’ve lived in Paris. I’ve lived in London. And yet every single time I walk on Worth Avenue, I feel excited and so very lucky to live in Palm Beach,” says Richard René Silvin, an author and lecturer whose talks on history in general and Palm Beach in particular attract sellout crowds. 

Worth Avenue is a masterpiece of urban design, the vision of architect Addison Mizner, who arrived in Palm Beach in 1918 as the guest of friend and patron Paris Singer, heir to the sewing-machine company. At the time, Palm Beach was already a winter destination for the rich, pioneered by Henry Flagler, who took his Standard Oil fortune and parlayed it into a second one building hotels and railroads in Florida. Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel, opened in 1894, became a magnet for Gilded Age society, but the town Mizner found still featured such visceral attractions as Alligator Joe’s. Singer’s Everglades Club—now just more than a century old and Mizner’s first building on Palm Beach—sits on the west end of Worth Avenue where the swamp wrestler Joe once faced off against his reptiles.

Boutiques on Worth Avenue. / Alamy

My love affair with Palm Beach dates back decades, from the time when as a young architecture critic I began walking Worth Avenue, poking into the vias that lead, like secret passages, into charming piazzas off the street, another Mizner architectural legacy. I spent days meandering along the ocean where there are long views of some of the town’s major houses and prowling along the many inland residential streets. I visited the shops that line South County Road, the town’s main north-south arterial, and spent many hours admiring the architecture of The Breakers, the third iteration (after fire took versions one and two) of Palm Beach’s grand oceanfront resort, built in 1925. The architects were Schultze & Weaver, who also designed the Waldorf Astoria in New York and the Biltmores in Coral Gables, Havana and Los Angeles. 

Last year, my admiration of Palm Beach came to fruition with the publication of Rizzoli’s Addison Mizner: Architect of Fantasy and Romance, with photographs by Steven Brooke. In it, I look at Mizner’s work in Palm Beach through a lens that is partly architectural, partly sociological and historical. 

Before Mizner, Palm Beach looked like other resort towns of its time. Flagler’s own house, Whitehall, designed by the New York firm of Carrère and Hastings, is a handsome structure, but it is also ponderous, classicized and not especially tropical. Most of the early residences were Shingle-style or bungalow-like cottages, Northern in origin. But Mizner was a world traveler, whose earliest interest in architecture had been piqued by family travels to Central America, where his father held a government post in Guatemala, and subsequent wanderings that included, importantly, Spain.

The Flagler Kenan Pavilion at Whitehall, overlooking Lake Worth. / Photography by Nicholas Mele

He brought to Palm Beach an unfettered imagination coupled with a scholarly rigor (for many years he made scrapbooks of architectural and decorative details ranging from a street or a facade to a small chair or even a carved bracket). More, Mizner was an unabashed storyteller. He brought all of this to his work, giving clients a kind of instant aristocratic pedigree through their houses and hangouts—clubs, shops, restaurants—and in so doing defined the look of Palm Beach. He said, “I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner has added a very rich Renaissance addition.”

Mizner’s career in Palm Beach was a compressed one, basically from 1919 to 1925, when he turned his sights south to embark on his dream town of Boca Raton (a project ultimately thwarted by bankruptcy). In that short time, though, he built, decorated and furnished elaborate Mediterranean-inspired houses for some of America’s wealthiest families—Vanderbilts, Stotesburys, Dodges, Wanamakers and more—filling them with treasures brought back from Europe along with furniture, tile and wrought iron that he fabricated at his own Mizner Industries to evoke the patina of ages past.

Many of these houses live on today, though others have been demolished and the threat to Palm Beach’s historic architecture still looms. Happily, the town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission remains fervently protective. “We’re on the right track now,” says Silvin, the commission’s vice chair as well as Mizner scholar and the author of a lively book on the architect’s own home, Villa Mizner: The House That Changed Palm Beach.

Living room at Addison Mizner’s El Solano, 1919. / Photography by Steven Brooke

If Mizner set the standard in Palm Beach—a town with elegant streets, palazzo-worthy houses, civic spaces, churches and monuments—the architects who joined him added to its beauty. Maurice Fatio, Marion Sims Wyeth, Gustav Maass, John Volk and Joseph Urban all contributed their own distinctive style. The houses Mizner and others built were not only sumptuous, but also bore exotic names to match: Villa dei Fiori, Collado Hueco, Il Palmetto, Buenos Recuerdos, Cielito Lindo and of course Mar-a-Lago, completed in 1927 for cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. In 1929, The Garden Club of Palm Beach, still active today in part as guardians of the exquisite demonstration gardens at The Society of the Four Arts, created the first town plan. 

“In Palm Beach, the architecture is everything,” says Edward Kassatly, who with his brother, Robert, runs Worth Avenue’s oldest shop, the eponymous Kassatly’s, which opened in 1923 and sells fine linens and cashmere. Palm Beach boasts international shopping, from Chanel to Valentino and beyond, but it is also the birthplace of Lilly Pulitzer’s bright pastel clothing and, legend has it, white shoes for men. On any given day, locals and visitors alike line the bar drinking a trademark Palm Beach martini (with an orange slice and cherry as garnish) at the island’s longest-running restaurant, Ta-boo. And in the Via Mizner, just off Worth Avenue, regulars while away afternoons at Pizza al Fresco, next to the gravestone of the architect’s companion, a spider monkey named Johnnie Brown.

Ta-boo restaurant. / Photography by Nicholas Mele

Over the years, preservation battles have been hard-fought in Palm Beach, as styles and tastes changed along with public policy. The town’s 40-year-old zoning code discourages the kind of eccentric, meandering houses that gave Palm Beach its character, meaning that many of the new structures are what Silvin calls “big ugly lumps.”

Still, some 70 percent of the town’s buildings predate this code. And that—say architects and preservationists—is a good thing.

“What is the magic of Palm Beach?” asks architect Anne Fairfax, who with her partner and husband, Richard Sammons, runs a prizewinning practice that focuses on classical and traditional architecture with offices in New York and Palm Beach. Fairfax & Sammons has not only renovated houses by a number of Palm Beach’s important early architects, but also designed new homes drawing inspiration from history. Fairfax says that every building has a story, and the architect’s role is to “bring a house to life.”

This is evident in a recent Fairfax & Sammons renovation done in conjunction with designer Betsy Shiverick. A 1920s house on Golfview Road was restored to its original intent by removing such alterations as large plate-glass windows and re-creating early ornamental details. Palm Beach’s architecture, Fairfax says, was about creating a lifestyle.

Even so, for many years Palm Beach had a reputation of being rich but dull. But that is changing, as the town gets a new infusion of life. Sarah Gavlak is the owner of Palm Beach’s only internationally regarded contemporary-art gallery, which she opened in 2005 as a kind of field of dreams. “People discouraged me at first, saying I’d never be able to show contemporary art,” she says. But the opposite proved to be true.

The Breakers hotel. / Photography by Nicholas Mele

For many years Gavlak participated in Miami’s Art Basel fair, but now runs a parallel event in Palm Beach called New Wave Art Wknd that celebrates some of the town’s superb private collections while exploring the outer edges of the art world. The 2019 edition took a further step by establishing a West Palm Beach residency for immigrant artists in conjunction with the Pittsburgh-based City of Asylum. “I wanted to bring attention to the issues in our world today,” says Gavlak.  

It is a window into Palm Beach’s future, one in which collectors fill 1920s houses with antique furniture and avant-garde art, and where the town’s oldest restaurant serves classics (Dover sole meunière) alongside modern dishes (ahi tuna tartare with wasabi tobiko). It’s a place where old and storied architecture can lead to new promise. As Fairfax says, “Given Mizner’s enormous legacy here, the first question should be, ‘What would Addison do now?’”


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