| 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.|
|La Claridad: The Clarence Geists in 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 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.|
|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.|
|The dining room's beamed ceiling is one of La Claridad’s original features.|
|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.|
|From Golfview Road to Camino Real|
|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.
|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.|
|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.|
|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.