To an inveterate design snoop, the hyper-manicured ficus hedges of Palm Beach are an implausible challenge.Towering walls of glistening green enshroud Florida’s premiere architectural elegance with a supercilious selfishness that speaks more of lowbrow snobbery and narrow-minded exclusivity than a genuine need for privacy. Who in their right mind would crowd themselves onto a tiny island, one on top of the other, and then demand privacy?
If I wasn’t such an avid gardener, I would dance with glee that Florida’s ficus is suffering from an unstoppable white fly epidemic that is destroying this plant, leaving only blackened rotting skeletons of tangled branches. But I would, ironically, also realize that another plant material would soon refortify Palm Beach’s unfortunate ramparts, so ingrained is this self-protective impulse.
Coming from Kansas City, where visionary developer J.C. Nichols laid out beautiful residential sections with zoning laws that restricted fencing off or hedging off one’s home from the street view, I find Palm Beach’s loin-girding a fruitless mistake. Need I mention that this loin-girding extends its umbrella over the Hamptons as well?
All this aside, Palm Beach is treasure trove of gorgeous architecture and successful urban planning. Echoing architect Robert A.M. Stern, “Despite (the fact that) silly people do silly things, in Palm Beach, its serious lessons about town and building design are (not to be) ignored. It is a remarkable work of environmental and architectural design.”
As opposed to Newport, Rhode Island, or Southampton or East Hampton, Palm Beach was not a resort colony sprung from an existing colonial city. More akin to Pompeii and Bath, Palm Beach was founded on the romantic principles of pleasure, escape and renewal.
Henry Flagler—an industrialist and millionaire many times over through his partnership in Standard Oil—while pushing his railroad ever farther south in search of clement weather, paused at Lake Worth, across from Palm Beach, to commission the Royal Poinciana Hotel in 1894. Though attracting the wealthy upper crust from up North to Palm Beach, Flagler did not attempt to build a town, but he did build White Hall, a magnificent Beaux-Arts neoclassic mansion in the grand Newport tradition. It functioned as the influential social vortex for his equally ambitious, beautiful and much younger third wife.
Though Flagler established this tiny barrier island as an exclusive resort, it was really Paris Singer and Addison Mizner who brilliantly joined forces and created this premier winter resort town that so many parvenu copyists attempt to emulate around this country today.
Singer—a romantic entrepreneur and heir to the sewing machine fortune—and Mizner—an adventurer and inventive architect—integrated clubs, houses, hotels and a remarkable shopping district into a place that “taught the post-Puritan rich Americans how to enjoy their wealth, how to relax and how to have fun in the sun,” said Mr. Stern.
Although Palm Beach can often seem lacerated as a theatrical pastiche of historical styles, Mizner cunningly eschewed the colonial clapboard and shingle styles of New England so alien to the tropical vegetation and climate. Having traveled extensively throughout Europe, he was instantly drawn to the Mediterranean- and Adriatic architectural sensibility with a special kinship to Moorish Spanish influences. Besides knowing that these styles suited these tropical environs better, Mizner and Singer wisely also viewed the change of architectural style as an attractive advantage to wealthy northerners as well as the fortuitous change of climate.
Mizner’s and Singer’s first collaboration, the Touchstone Convalescent Club, now known as the “Everglades Club,” donned an asymmetrical Mediterranean façade, a domed tower, cantilevered spiral staircase, pecky cypress beams, ancient Tunisian tiles, antique paneling, sunlit terraces and patios, colonnades and verandas. It became an instant success, guaranteeing decades of commissions for Mizner and hefty real estate sales for Singer.
As a 21st-century visitor walking Worth Avenue’s human-scale sidewalks and exploring the tucked-away vias, one is transported to Venice or some medieval Mediterranean village where one chances upon intimate courtyards with gurgling tile fountains, mysterious stairwells ascending to modestly scaled apartments, ancient architectural fragments emerging from roughly plastered walls and antique doors heralding passageways into mysterious abodes. This blends with charming small shops displaying tantalizingly unique wares. And despite the relatively small shopping area, the visitor feels slightly lost in this transporting Lilliputian labyrinth.
Mizner and Singer intelligently acknowledged the automobile as well. The ample parking along Worth Avenue allows for an ostentatious display of trophy vehicles whose hood ornaments compete with the priceless necklaces and ear-bobs on view in the jewelry stores that the automobiles sit alongside.
Worth Avenue can be easily compared to Venice’s Grand Canal with the branching offshoots of maze-like walking streets feeding onto it. And like the Grand Canal, Worth Avenue offers the distinct opportunity to see and be seen.
The hidden outdoor cafés also allow for great people watching, observing sometimes too close at hand the latest in cosmetic surgery and tropical resort fashion. Be prepared that more than merchandise is on display here, and every entrance one makes is actively assessed, not unlike at some summertime East End watering holes.
What does lie at your feet in Palm Beach is one of America’s greatest assemblages of residential architecture and urban planning. There’s lots to see and appreciate, from the central Memorial Fountain, and Royal Palm Way’s colonnade of palm trees, to the Society of the Four Arts and Bethesda by the Sea Episcopal Church. Then there are the great mansions of Mar-a-Lago, Villa des Cygnes, Il Palmetto, Casa Nana, and countless others by renowned architects, such as Maurice Fatio, Marion Wyeth, Joseph Urban, John Volk, Richard Meier, John Merven Carrère, Thomas Hastings and Mizner.
Thought tricky, the island of Palm Beach is a design snoop’s paradise. Despite the monstrous hedges, enough inspiration can be gleaned from the sidewalks, especially for the bicyclist—an advisable way to get around.
Great lessons in proportion, detail, romance, audacity and design ingenuity can be gleaned not only from the superb examples of Spanish, Moorish and Italian architecture, but also from the French neoclassical, Andalusian baroque, tropical Georgian and Palladian style. Travel the small side streets too in order to glimpse (through the breaks in the hedges) beautifully designed and executed residences that are also meticulously maintained.
Palm Beach has had its financial ups and downs and devastating hurricanes, as has our East End, which have allowed for many grotesque and architectural blunders. But elitism, snobbery, scandal and fruitless capitalism aside, this well preserved, historically protected and strictly zoned enclave is still a national treasure whose civilized grace is there for all to experience.