150 years of Palm Beach
Paul du Quenoy learns how this enclave for the American elite shifted from swamp to swank in Russell Kelley’s: An Illustrated History of Palm Beach
Champagne flowed recently at the Norton Museum of Art, where the American Friends of British Art hosted its spring cocktail party almost as though nothing had happened since last year. Temperatures were checked at the entrance, and there was much talk of vaccines as masked attendants served delightful canapés to a charming mix of old guard Palm Beach residents and recent transplants. Although the Florida town’s grand galas were all called off this season, vibrant social and artistic life continue here.
Long a sleepy and secretive enclave for a discrete and very private American elite, Palm Beach has vaulted into international headlines over the past year. Only lightly touched by the pandemic – “social distancing” has been a way of life for decades here in one of the world’s first municipalities to make vaccines available to residents, – the island community has become a rare outpost of luxurious living as its New York and California analogues continue to languish under Blue State restrictions, rising crime rates, and punishing taxation. Hardly a day goes by without some media report of our southern oasis’s unfettered delights, whether new or old. Unhappy New Yorkers move down by the planeload, where they find lively branches of their former city’s galleries and restaurants open and waiting for them. Cultural life is at its zenith, featuring virtually the only live performances in North America. Schools, businesses, museums, and nature activities are all open with minimal safety requirements. Major companies are relocating to the vicinity from blighted northern US states that may never fully recover. Donald Trump’s residence at his iconic Mar-a-Lago property has created a virtual shadow presidency, drawing weighty money and power networks to an area that could have scarcely imagined them just a few months ago. Just fifteen miles in length, “the Island,” as those in the know call it, is said to be the world’s hottest real estate market, with housing inventory virtually exhausted and prices spiked to exclude all but the very top.
How timely it was, then, that Russell Kelley, an accomplished writer native to Palm Beach who returned to live here in 2012, should have published a new and well researched illustrated history just as this remarkable pandemic-fueled transformation was taking place. Produced by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, which possesses some four million items pertaining to local history, Kelley culled its collections for evocative images of the town’s origins, fin-de-siècle glamour, art deco magnificence, and rapid modernisation. Promisingly subtitled How Palm Beach Evolved Over 150 Years From Wilderness to Wonderland, Kelley’s An Illustrated History of Palm Beach has already achieved a well-deserved iconic status among the many books about the town. Earlier this month, he presented the book in two lectures for the town’s Society of the Four Arts, its major cultural and intellectual center, which was founded in 1936.
Told through images as well as informative text, the story is a marvel to behold, easily as magical over the long duration as in its very recent transformation
Told through images as well as informative text, the story is a marvel to behold, easily as magical over the long duration as in its very recent transformation. Originally home to swarms of mosquitos, ferocious alligators, and other wildlife, what is today “the Island” was trackless wilderness that barely registered on anyone’s radar as European and later American colonists settled Florida. Beginning in the 1860s, a handful of eccentrics arrived, building makeshift homes out of scavenged wood and tent canvases. It was wild enough to qualify for settlement under the Homestead Act of 1862, a US federal law that granted 160-acre plots of agricultural land, usually in the Midwest, to anyone who staked a claim and promised to cultivate it for at least five years. The area had no particular purpose other than hosting a lighthouse and rescue stations for occasional shipwrecks of vessels plying the Gulf Stream trade. Originally called Lake Worth after a commander in US wars against the Seminole Indians (themselves recent arrivals to Florida), Palm Beach obtained its name after a Spanish ship, the appositely named Providencia, ran aground in January 1878 with a cargo of 20,000 cocoanuts that the locals promptly salvaged and sold off to local growers, who developed elaborate palm groves.
By the 1870s, the inland lakes just behind the shore became a conduit for steamboats transporting agricultural produce from emerging farms in South Florida to northern markets. An occasional natural breach of the coastline was made into a permanent inlet, allowing egress to the Atlantic and creating the Island as we know it. Commercial opportunity soon yielded to leisurely pursuits as rich northerners with a taste for the exotic arrived to build vacation homes. The most important figure among them was Henry Morrison Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil who brought his ailing wife to northern Florida to benefit from the mild climate. She died, but Flagler sensed opportunity and, virtually as a retirement project, built railroad and hospitality developments all the way down the Florida coast. By 1894, he had a home and large hotel, the Royal Poinciana, in Palm Beach, which was formally incorporated as a town in 1911. The Royal Poinciana was torn down in the 1930s, but additions had made it the largest hotel in the world by 1901, scarcely a decade after the town’s development had begun in earnest. The following year saw Flagler’s newly built beaux-arts mansion, Whitehall, rise beside it, a gift to his third wife Mary Lily Kenan. It later became a hotel, but since 1960 it has existed as a museum commemorating grand life in Florida’s Gilded Age.
Flagler drew other magnates, who staked out vast estates extending from the sea to the lake, as Mar-a-Lago’s name testifies in Spanish. Most did not last beyond the lifetime of their original owners. Upkeep became increasingly expensive, and the land quickly became so valuable that the economics favoured subdivision into lesser properties where smaller but still elegant and ornate houses could rise. Such eccentric architects as Addison Mizner, Marion Sims Wyeth, Joseph Urban, and Maurice Fatio built custom-designed homes for the rich and ambitious in a variety of styles borrowed from Europe and adapted to local conditions. About 75 percent of them still stand due to their heritage value and strict local preservation laws. Their architects also designed a civic infrastructure of commercial buildings, hotels, private clubs, and government offices that mostly went up in a rush of construction over a three-year period from 1925 to 1928 and largely remain in place today.
The Great Depression and the needs of World War II put a stop to frenetic building, but an extensive expansion of military facilities in Florida led to a spike in population, while air conditioning and fumigation made it more livable. Palm Beach retained its elegance and popularity as well as its discretion. No signs indicate where it is, how to go there, or that one has arrived. Its permanent population has increased by only 2,400 people in the last six decades, while seasonal visitors crowd in with a studied respect that eludes other Florida communities. By the 1980s, a new generation of celebrity residents – Trump not the least among them – added a frisson of excitement and fodder for gossip columnists. No one knows what the new era will bring, but Palm Beach’s next 150 years are already underway.
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