Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Palm Beach & Boca Raton Social Diary

Designed in 1924 for utilities magnate and golf enthusiast Clarence Geist by architect Marion Sims Wyeth, La Claridad was partitioned more than sixty years ago into two residences. The villa’s more architecturally significant west section is owned by third-generation Palm Beacher Frank Butler II; pictured above, the Geists’ original dining room now serves as Mr. Butler’s living room.
Clarence Geist: Palm Beach & Boca Raton
By Augustus Mayhew

However much Palm Beach and Boca Raton are separated by only a few miles of sandcastles and subdivisions, these two distinctive resorts have evolved into disparate cultural realms and distant social milieus, making it easy to forget that the Camino Real's most enduring iconic landmark was predominately the work of two Worth Avenue denizens, Addison Mizner and Clarence Geist.

And while Mizner’s epic rise and fall as Boca Raton ’s visionary, architect and planner has been often recounted, Clarence Geist’s transformation of the monastic Cloister Inn into an immense country club resort has been less-widely chronicled. Instead of being acknowledged for his pivotal pioneer role boosting Boca Raton's development, Mr. Geist was frequently disparaged and caricaturized, being put down as “Crude Geist.”
Philadelphians Clarence and Florence Hewitt Geist were a popular Palm Beach couple, among the earliest members of the Everglades Club and the B & T. Given to a tic of eccentricities, Mr. Geist always walked with a cane. Local Boca Raton wags portrayed him as a cane-thumper, telling the tale of Geist tapping his cane several times before asking a stranger, “Do you know who I am?” Photo: Boca Raton Historical Society. Charles G. Dawes, pictured above, and his brothers, Rufus and Henry, gave Clarence Geist his initial opportunity in acquiring public utility companies. Geist had left Indiana to work for the Dawes family’s various financial interests in Chicago. At the same time, Rufus and Henry Dawes were part of Geist’s Boca Raton Syndicate that purchased Mizner’s failed Boca Raton project, Charles G. Dawes was sworn in as Calvin Coolidge’s vice president. Photo: Library of Congress.
Having amassed ownership of more than 100 public utility companies, Clarence Geist (1866-1938) could well afford a considerable Philadelphia Main Line mansion. Originally designed as Hillsover for Lincoln Godfrey in 1895 by Theophilus Porsche Chandler, founder and first chairman of Penn’s School of Architecture, the Geists renamed the estate Launfal and retained Paul Philippe Cret in 1928 to double the size of the house and add an elaborate gatehouse.

An avid tournament golfer, Clarence Geist and family, the Geists had three daughters, were first mentioned visiting Palm Beach in 1912, followed by subsequent seasonal visits. In 1914 he opened his own 650-acre private club, the Seaview Golf Club near Atlantic City and in close proximity to his Philadelphia residence. According to legend, Mr. Geist had the New Jersey course designed with extra-wide paths not for golf carts but so he could motor from hole-to-hole in his chauffeur-driven Packard accompanied by armed guards.
In 1921 Paris Singer, founder and suzerain of the Everglades Club, organized the Golf View Development Company to develop an 18-lot residential development on the land east of the club overlooking the golf course, to be offered exclusively to present or prospective Everglades Club members.

Thus, when club members Clarence and Florence Geist decided to build a Palm Beach house, during the winter of 1922 they bought Lots 14 and 15 next door to the Everglades Club and across the street from Hogarcito, the winter cottage of E. F. Hutton and his wife, Battle Creek cereal heiress Marjorie Post Hutton.
In 1921 the E. F. Huttons were the first to buy lots directly on the Everglades golf course. For the high-profile socially ambitious couple, architect Marion Sims Wyeth, the development’s sole architect, designed an eclectic house, Hogarcito, that however lovely would later prove too confining for Mrs. Hutton. Singer’s plan was to build “beautiful bijou houses, each in a different color” crafted by Harry Corwin, the island’s premier builder. By January 1923, eight houses could be found constructed amidst palms, hibiscus and bougainvillea, forming an idyllic picturesque aesthetic.
For the Jay Carlisles, friends of the Huttons, Wyeth designed Las Campanas. Located on two lots, the house would later be divided into two separate houses much like the Geist’s house, La Claridad.
La Claridad: The Clarence Geists in Palm Beach
La Claridad, c. 1925, looking west to east along Golfview Road . Among the last of the original houses built on Golfview, by the time the Geists retained Wyeth to design their villa, the scenic secluded lane had become a fashionable enclave. La Claridad’s guests took pleasure in the house’s “interesting architecture and beautiful interior arrangement.” As much as many of the Geists’ original furnishings appear to have been manufactured at the Mizner Industries factory in West Palm Beach , a 1925 newspaper article noted Mr. and Mrs. Geist were “scouring all of Spain for the furnishings.” Photo: Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
La Claridad, c. 1925, looking east to west along Golfview Road .
La Claridad, July 2010, a view from Hogarcito across the street at what appears to be two separate houses. While some of Palm Beach's big houses were torn down after WW II, making way for subdivisions, in 1948 architect Belford Shoumate turned La Claridad into two houses. After removing ten-feet from the Geist’s original entrance hall, the living room became the focal point for a house rebuilt to the east (right of the hedge); the original entry, loggia, staircase and dining room remained with the corner house to the west (left of the hedge).
The original floor plans with the split segments marked in red that were utilized by Shoumate to formulate the additional house.
La Claridad, courtyard. c. 1925. A view of the original 4-bay loggia and upper gallery before the house split in 1948. Photo: Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
A courtyard view shows the faux window on the left, once part of the Geist’s loggia, now overlooking the ten-foot gap that divides the two houses. Much like a magician’s sawing illusion where it appears the assistant’s body has moved apart, these two houses are actually still connected by an exterior wall that jigsaws around the property. The faux window peers into the chasm that splits the two houses, once a part of the loggia that opened to the living room on the east side and the dining room to the west.
The current owner has preserved many of La Claridad’s defining compositional features and details, including the façade and west elevation. The elaborate Plateresque front entrance remains a part of Mr. Butler’s house. To the right of the front entrance, the open gap, originally a lady’s powder room according to the original plans, with the adjacent house’s west wall. The landscape includes an atmospheric Spanish jar planted in a flower bed, adding a touch of authenticity to one of Palm Beach ’s historic recreations.
The balcony and parapet elements are finely detailed.
Each of the original wrought-iron grilles are monogrammed with CG, Clarence Geist.
Above the front entrance, a heraldic motif has been embellished by a faux marbleized treatment.
The sketches for the original Wyeth-designed front entrance door panels are part of the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach’s collection of architectural drawings. Mr. Butler replicated the original Wyeth-designed front doors as interior door panels. The living room is floored with sensational diamond and rectangular-shaped Mizner black tiles.
La Claridad, staircase. C. 1925. Photo: Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
The main staircase looks much the same as it did in 1925 with the original Mizner square and octagonal terra cotta tile flooring. The upper staircase lit by a wrought-iron Mizner chandelier.
A view of the loggia looking east towards the original living room, now located on the other side of the wall behind the tapestry.
The same view of Mr. Butler's loggia, c.1925, when it led into the original living room. Photo: Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
A view of the original Geist living room, now a part of the house next door to Mr. Butler's. Photo: Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The dining room's beamed ceiling is one of La Claridad’s original features.
The original beamed ceiling is detailed with decorative patterns.
The ivory-tusked elephant painting adds an unexpected Wild Kingdom flair to the otherwise Old World living room.
From the living room, a view towards the loggia.
The original dining room fireplace is now the living room’s centerpiece. The courtyard looking southeast from the present dining room towards the west wall of the adjacent house.
The courtyard fountain, sans the central water element, deserves an encore, especially the chorus of Mizner blue tiles since many unearthed these fountains and supplanted these artful works with swimming pools.
From Golfview Road to Camino Real
The “sportsman’s paradise, which became known as the Boca Raton Club.
Following the court's acceptance of Clarence Geist's $71,000 offer and assumption of the existing several million in liens and mortgages, the Philadelphia tycoon first announced his acquisition of the Ritz Carlton Cloister Inn and surrounding 15,000 acres, calling it the Seaview Club, just as he had named his New Jersey golf club.

But within several months, the “sportsman’s paradise” became the Boca Raton Club, much as it still known today, promising “every facility for outdoor life and sport.” For the multi-million dollar renovation, Geist brought in Toomey & Flynn to design another golf course and Schultze & Weaver to give the 100-room hotel more of a country club presence, including a 300-room addition, a number of patios, motion picture theatre, grand courtyards, a cathedral-size dining room, lounges, a dance hall, a rocking chair terrace, healthatorium and shops. Additionally, Geist dredged the Lake Boca Raton basin and opened an ocean inlet. The bridge connecting Camino Real with Geist's Spanish River residential estates subdivision became known as the Clarence Geist Memorial Bridge.
Considered the Cloister Inn’s most dramatic room, Mizner's dining room was modeled on a 15th-century Catalonian hospital, featuring wash basins built into the side walls allowing diners to rinse-and-wash during dinner. Mizner’s dream to rival Deauville and Monte Carlo included “combining a monastic atmosphere with a modern hotel on a 16,000-acre tract with four golf courses, a Venetian lake with gondolas, a complete Spanish village and Irving Berlin’s Cabaret.”
This aerial depicts the Geist era’s enhancements to the club with Camino Real’s S-shape sweep bordering the south end of the golf course, leading west to the FEC railway depot.
In 1930, Geist opened the FEC railroad depot, allowing for guests to arrive at the west end of Camino Real and shuttle directly to the club’s facilities. Faced with demolition during the 1970s, a decade later, the station was restored by the Boca Raton Historical Society and converted into the Boca Express Train Museum.
Mizner’s Cloister Inn was an Old World setting, the scale of its arcades and patios diminished after the Geist additions were completed.
The Boca Raton Historical Society’s collection of Mizner-era artifacts includes these original headboards from the Cloister Inn.
Mizner’s craftsmen worked hastily to prepare the Cloister Inn’s antiqued furnishings for its February 1926 opening. Although the Palm Beach A-list attended the gala opening with much fanfare, the building boom had bust. South Florida ’s Michelangelo was being pursued by creditors rather than patrons. Some of Mizner’s investors had pulled out; several months after the opening, the Mizner Development Corporation was history.
Mizner’s Venetian lakefront, described as “simple elegance,” was planned for gondolas.
Geist’s more dimensional club facilities catered to ocean-going yachts and motorboats.
An elaborate entrance feature and fountain added character and style to the Boca Raton clubhouse. For Clarence Geist’s Boca Raton Club, designers recreated facsimiles of Mizner’s authentic imported Spanish Renaissance heraldry plaques, transforming these decorative painted tile motifs into jardinières to enhance the country club ambience.
Clarence Geist’s syndicate formed the Spanish River Land Company to develop their Boca Raton property as well as an oceanfront parcel and residential areas around the club, including houses designed by Palm Beach architect Maurice Fatio. Above: Hedgerows, a Fatio-designed Georgian brick waterfront house. Faced with demolition during the 1980s, Hedgerows was severed in half and barged down the Intracoastal Waterway to another location in north Boca Raton where it is still located.
Once they became involved with the Boca Raton Club, the Geists would park their railroad car in West Palm Beach, sometimes renting the Golfview house, staying at the Royal Poinciana or The Breakers, as they shuttled back and forth from the club's penthouse suite. Following Clarence Geist’s death in 1938, Florence Geist, "The First Lady of the Club,” continued to run it until 1940 when it underwent reorganization. Two years later, the US Army took it over as barracks during WW II, much as they did The Breakers and Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach. In 1944, Clarence Geist’s estate sold the club to J. Meyer Schine.
Today’s Boca Raton Resort & Club still shows a strong regard for Clarence Geist’s plan with faint reminders of Mizner’s convent-like Cloister Inn. In 2008, as part of a $220 million renovation by LXR Luxist Hotels, interior designer Thierry Despont added touches to revive some of the resort’s public areas, guided by “Mizner’s DNA,” according to press reports. Although often regarded as one of the most historically significant hotels in the United States, the Boca Raton Resort is not designated as a local landmark and has never been placed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Boca Raton Resort & Club, 2010. 85 years after it first opened, The Boca Raton Resort, part of the Hilton Hotel chain’s Waldorf Astoria Collection, is an exclusive 356-acre major international destination with 1043 rooms and a staff of 2,200 employees.
For further information contact:
Boca Raton Historical Society
71 North Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL 33432

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.
Historic photographs courtesy of: Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, Boca Raton Historical Society, Historical Society of Palm Beach County, and the Library of Congress.

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