Thursday, April 23, 2009

Palm Beach Social History

"The Kenan family commissioned Schultze and Weaver to design The Breakers as an international landmark so the world would always remember Henry Flagler's legacy as Florida's greatest patron," said Jim Ponce, historian at The Breakers. Shown above, looking upwardly north across the Lobby's cross-vaulted ceiling modeled from the Great Hall at the Palazzo Carega in Genoa.
by Augustus Mayhew

Last week I toured The Breakers with James Augustine Ponce, the hotel's historian and Palm Beach's only designated Living Landmark, and spent time with Alexandra Fatio Taylor, making her annual pilgrimage to Palm Beach from Geneva, who though apart from today's Palm Beach remains a part of the island's legendary history. Jim and Alex are two of the resort's most regarded historical personalities in a town where nearly everyone is/was a bold-faced someone somewhere at sometime.

Born in St. Augustine, Jim Ponce, 91, is a descendant of Florida's oldest European family and may be actual proof the Fountain of Youth really exists. Please join the one-and-only Mr. Ponce and NYSD for a scroll through The Breakers.
Mr. Ponce first came to work at The Breakers in 1952 and is now considered the last word on the history of Palm Beach and Henry Flagler, whom he portrays at many local functions. Along with his weekly tours of The Breakers, Mr. Ponce is also known for his monthly Worth Avenue walking tours.
Ann Margo Peart, a public relations manager at The Breakers, insures the hotel keeps its personal touch. Framed with travertine columns, the 200-foot Main Lobby is a north-south axis that right angles to form the North and South Loggias.
"It took eleven-and-a-half months for more than 1,200 workmen and 75 Italian artisans to build The Breakers. Now, you couldn't possibly do all the necessary permitting in that length of time," said Mr. Ponce. Formed in 1921, the Schultze and Weaver partnership began by designing luxury hotels for the Biltmore chain in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and Havana. In New York, their hotel portfolio includes the Waldorf-Astoria, Pierre, Sherry-Netherland and the Lexington.
Schultze and Weaver patterned The Breakers twin-towers exterior after Villa Medici's Italian Renaissance façade scaled with a 3:1 ratio, readapting the villa's 16th-century urban setting in Rome to the hotel's 140-acre oceanfront location.
The fountain was designed by an Italian sculptor, Leo Lentelli (1879-1961), best known for his bas-reliefs at Rockefeller Center.
Cherubs frolic with swans as nude water nymphs shoulder the weight of the fountain's large bowl, inspired by a similar water feature in Florence's Boboli Gardens. As you enter the Main Lobby from beneath the port cochere, a Venetian chandelier is among a visitor's first impressions.
Separated by balustrades from the dining promenade, the North Loggia extends from the Main Lobby east to the Grand Loggia, now the Mediterranean Ballroom.
Located between the North Loggia and The Circle, where better than the Tapestry Bar's comfort to converge for cocktails, caviar, conversation and the walking tour. To the left of the salmon-coated Mr. Ponce, Flemish tapestries belonging to the Kenan family, and to the right, a 19th-century dark wood mantel imported from Caxton Hall, London.
The view from the Tapestry Bar looking north to the doors leading to The Circle and east to L' Escalier & Brasserie, the hotel's "touch of Paris in Palm Beach."
A staged tableaux separates the L'Escalier from the Tapestry Bar.
With 30-foot frescoed ceilings and ocean views, The Circle dining room offers some of the hotel's most dramatic artistry as well as an incomparable breakfast and brunch experience. In the center of the room, a chandelier hangs suspended from the domed skylight. Mr. Ponce emphasized the enormous scale of The Circle, the hotel's famed rotunda dining room added in 1928 and patterned from the Davanzati Palace in Florence.
During an afternoon rain, a view from the Mediterranean Ballroom, looking west across the central courtyard to the Main Lobby.
Another view from the Mediterranean Ballroom, looking southwest across the central courtyard towards the steps leading into the South Loggia.
A painting in the South Loggia captures the essence of relaxation from another era. "When the Ponce deLeon Hotel in St. Augustine closed, the Lewises sent this 1886 painting to The Breakers," said Mr. Ponce.
The South Loggia's Gold Room is highlighted by its gilded ceiling supported by groined vaults framing portraits of Christopher Columbus, King Ferdinand and New World rulers and explorers.
Henry Flagler's portrait hangs in the hotel's South Loggia at The Breakers but Mr. Flagler is spending eternity with his first wife, Mary Harkness Flagler, and their daughter, Jennie, in the Flagler Mausoleum at the Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Augustine.
Mr. Ponce on Mr. Flagler ...

"My father buried Henry Flagler. The family business, Ponce Funeral Home, was located in St. Augustine. So, when word came that Henry Flagler died at his cottage at The Breakers, my father handled the local arrangements. The train left at ten, hundreds gathered along the tracks to pay their last respects. As the train crossed the San Sebastian River every locomotive in the FEC yard blew its whistle with an unending blast, all of St. Augustine knew Mr. Flagler had come home to his beloved Ancient City. The sound frightened my father's horse, Nellie, who was at the station waiting to pull the hearse with Flagler's body. When the train arrived, my father led the hearse to the private railway car and the pallbearers moved the body onto the wagon. The procession moved slowly, the streets filled with people. Minna Oliveras, a shopkeeper at the time, she was 105 when I spoke with her, told me she was there when Flagler was given a "once-around-the-plaza," as was the tradition for the prominent, with all the shopkeepers standing at solemn attention. It was the defining moment of my father's life, as Flagler's life had become to all who came to Florida. It was a story told and retold around our dinner table."
From the Palm Court's southwest corner, a view looking northeast towards the new Ponce deLeon Ballroom addition and the hotel's original facade.
The Breakers is eco-conscious.
Looking from the Main Lobby's south end towards the new Ponce deLeon Ballroom, the shopping arcade and beyond the doors further to the south, the Beach Club and Spa. Nonagenarian Jim Ponce keeps the spirit of the island's history alive. Pictured above, Jim with Penny, his dalmation, sharing a moment in his orchid garden.
Palm Beach's Fascinating Fatios ...
The Fatio Arch at El Mirasol, North County Road, Palm Beach. "For the past twenty years the arch was mistakenly attributed to Mizner, even landmarked as the Mizner Arch, only recently has this existing Moorish arch been correctly shown to be my father's work," said Alex Fatio Taylor.
Ever since the publication of Alex Fatio Taylor's now out-of-print book, Maurice Fatio, New York & Palm Beach, the stature of her father's houses and buildings has been greatly enhanced, insuring their continued appreciation as landmarks. More recently, Alex provided the material for the biography, Eleanor of Palm Beach, about her mother, Eleanor Chase Fatio (1901-1944), a poet and author whose Wisconsin lumber-and-banking family were members of Palm Beach's international set. Although Maurice Fatio (1897-1943) might not recognize today's Palm Beach, its grand estates transformed into subdivisions, its once seasonal cottages now consumed by corpulent spec houses packaged in styles masking their voluminous cubic content, some of his most notable compositions, Il Palmetto, Casa Eleda, Villa Today and Casa della Porta, among them, remain definitive elements of the Palm Beach landscape. Alex visits to the island nearly every season, a tireless advocate for the preservation of her father's legacy.

Whenever Alex arrives from Geneva, she and I have lively exchanges over lunch about beach erosion and sub-prime mortgages, usually followed by a windshield survey of the island's latest ups-and-downs, construction sites and demolitions. Considered by many Palm Beach's most accomplished architect, Maurice Fatio is the subject of an upcoming monograph from Acanthus Press and his house designed for Pio Crespi in Dallas is featured in the most recent Architectural Digest. As well as her few opinions about most everything, Alex shared her many memories of Alice DeLamar (1901-1983), the reclusive heiress who lived in Palm Beach, New York, Weston and Paris. Last week our tour ended at James Hunt Barker's house, an old friend whose house was on fire, "we saw the smoke," as she was on her way to the airport for her last season's return to Geneva and who she had not seen since the tragedy that took the life of one of Barker's friends and left him exiled in his guest house.
Alex Fatio, age 5, with her father, Maurice Fatio, at the Bath & Tennis Club, Palm Beach. 1937.
Alex, fast forward a few tomorrows, having lunch at The Restaurant inside the Palm Beach Towers. "Oh Clemmer, you can't possibly take my picture ... I haven't been photographed since ... since ... I don't know when," said Alex.
Alex created the book on her father around letters he wrote from Palm Beach and New York to his parents in Switzerland as well as original photographs and drawings for the architect's many projects. For her mother's book she worked with another author in telling the story of her mother's literary rise and her revel and romance in Palm Beach. Alex's parents were among Palm Beach's most popular, their storybook life ended in her father's death at 46, and the following year, her mother's death, apparently overwhelmed with despair, leaving Alex and her brother, Pierre "Petey," to be raised by a housekeeper in Wisconsin.

"I really only know my father through his letters, his houses and buildings, and also, from hearing about him by people who knew him and enjoyed his company. I can't remember my father except just before he died when my mother took him to Chicago for some kind of special treatment. That is my most vivid memory of him," said Alex.
The cover of Alex's book, Maurice Fatio, now out of print. "They just sold one at the Classic Bookshop for $250," said Alex. Maurice Fatio on the beach in Palm Beach, 1923.
Maurice Fatio in Palm Beach, 1927. "My parents met in Palm Beach. They knew each other five years before they got married. I really couldn't rest until I had done something for her," said Alex, who assisted the author, Hubert Pryor, with the book, Eleanor of Palm Beach, published in 2002.
At 25, Eleanor Chase was a best-selling novelist, her work attracted the admiration of Robert Benchley and Marc Connolly, but it would be her marriage to Maurice Fatio that defined her life. Eleanor Chase, a social beauty, winters in Palm Beach, summers in Biarritz.
Pennagan Place, Eleanor Chase's best-selling book, enjoyed three editions. "When my grandmother asked my father what his fee would be for designing their Palm Beach house, he said, 'your daughter's hand in marriage.' So after knowing each other five years, imagine, they married at the Wilson's Point house in South Norwalk, the first house Treanor and Fatio had designed. I tried to buy it years ago," said Alex.
While many of Maurice Fatio's designs were notable, here are a few views of the house some consider among his best, Casa della Porta at 195 Via del Mar, Palm Beach, as seen in photographs from a 1970 Historic American Building Survey.
Casa della Porta, overlooking the pool.
Casa della Porta, front entrance. Casa della Porta. A finely detailed Fatio hall.
Casa della Porta, loggia. The loggia ceiling was an elaborate and complex geometry of tie beams and cross beams, forming a series of intricate 8-pointed stars.
Casa della Porta, the gryphon fountain.
Casa della Porta, entrance detail.
Eleanor Chase Fatio, Alex Fatio, Maurice Pierre "Petey" Fatio, Guillame Fatio and Maurice Fatio. Palm Beach, 1935. "My grandfather came from Geneva to visit us in Palm Beach," recalls Alex. "My brother, Petey, died of lung cancer in 1961. So, its just me."
Maurice Fatio (1897-1943). In Alex's book, she included a note from her grandparents who had kept all of their son's letters since he first arrived in New York and Palm Beach.
Our lunch talk turned to Alice DeLamar, the only daughter of Captain Joseph Rafael DeLamar (1843-1918), who died after becoming known as the "Mystery Man of Wall Street" and amassing a mining fortune, leaving Alice one of the era's most gilded heiresses. At 18 Alice Delamar inherited $10 million but unlike some of her deb contemporaries, who collected titles, husbands and misfortune, she became an benefactor and patron, supporting artists, writers, choreographers and architects.

"Alice's best friend was my mother-in-law, so when I divorced my husband, of course, Alice insisted that my four children and I move in with her in Weston… what a world. She had her own nature preserve on hundreds of acres. She knew my parents, and really, she knew everyone," said Alex.
Alice DeLamar, age 5, seen in a popular poster photograph. In later life, DeLamar eschewed photographs; her gifts and donations were mostly anonymous. Her photograph file at the Palm Beach Daily News archive is empty; most all her Letters to the Editor are signed " Name withheld."
Capt. DeLamar had built houses that his daughter considered embarrassments, the 1902 Cass Gilbert-designed Beaux-Arts showcase at 233 Madison, now the residence of the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland, and Pembroke, a titanic-sized Glen Cove heap, that left her tearless when she sold it in 1920 to MGM founder, Marcus Loew, whose son, Arthur Loew, later demolished it.

"We would come to Palm Beach every Christmas and Christmas at Alice's was magical. Piero Aversa would dress up as Santa Claus for the kids, the house was decorated and there were several parties every day," remembers Alex. In Paris, we stayed at her house on rue Git L'Coeur across from the Seine, unbelievably wonderful. Alice was a friend of Esther Murphy's, Gerald Murphy's sister, and very much a part of that earlier Lost Generation."
"Alice and Eva were together a long time. Eva outlived Alice and Alice left her the house and property that she had bought for her," recalls Alex.
Instead, DeLamar kept more modest surroundings, an apartment at 530 Park Avenue, a South Ocean Boulevard house with 350 feet of oceanfront on Palm Beach, the former Gerald Murphy townhouse in Paris, and her Weston estate, where her neighbors and house guests included Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Christopher Walken, Barbara Baxley, Sandy Dennis, Pavel Tchelitchev and Paul Cadmus, among others. DeLamar's Cobb's Mill Inn in Weston became a gathering place for the art world of her time.

"My Lorenzo the Magnificent," is how Addison Mizner referred to DeLamar, first meeting the architect in Palm Beach through his nephew, Horace Chase, when Mizner was living at 720 South Ocean Blvd. and his work was in demand. And, while Mizner and DeLamar enjoyed each other's company and she considered him "her favorite uncle," they were both members of the Everglades Club, when Mizner's experienced a downturn following his Boca Raton fiasco, it was DeLamar who supervised and subsidized a book about his work, commissioning Ida Tarbell to write it and Frank Geisler (1867-1935) to photograph the architect's work.

"Alice DeLamar drove Frank Geisler around Palm Beach in the back of a pick-up truck so Geisler would have the best perspective for his photographs of Mizner's houses," said Donald W. Curl, the Mizner scholar who detailed Mizner and DeLamar's relationship in a new introduction for the Dover 1992 edition of Florida Architecture of Addison Mizner. "Miss DeLamar chose all the photographs and wrote the captions," said Curl.

After having 100 gold-tooled, leather bound and slipcased "Edicion Imperial" published, DeLamar called the book, her tribute to Mizner's genius, "Flowers for the living instead of the dead."

Curl added, "Although DeLamar and I exchanged many, many letters, we met only once, the day she came to the Historical Society and introduced me to Alex Fatio. I don't recall her answering any of my questions, she was, let's say, shy. "

"Don Curl and I have talked about putting our letters from Alice in a book," said Alex. But, I don't know what happened to Alice's scrapbooks, although she was never photographed, everyone who came to her house was photographed and she had them bound into photo books that after she died I thought her lawyer at the Cromwell office kept. Anthony Baker always said he might know someone who could maybe get a hold of these books but now Anthony is gone. It has been more than 20 years, and still, I have never known what happened to Alice's photographs," she explained.

"I was with Alice at the end. I had driven her to the hospital in South Norwalk at three in the morning. Her cook would bring her things but she couldn't eat. She had liver cancer but that is not how she died. They had taken her for an X-ray, left her standing ,waiting unattended, and she fell, hit her head and never recovered.
Alice Delamar, 3rd from left, with Lucia Davidova, Stravinsky's associate, with their entourage in Havana, probably during the 1920s. "Alice was never, never photographed, so this is a fairly rare glimpse. I'm surprised Hemingway isn't in the picture, Alice knew him well. There was always an entourage, she never wanted to meet anyone she didn't know. If there was a Stravinsky premiere in Venice, she would gather together some friends and go to Venice. But, never alone, always a group around her," said Alex. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
'Sue them,' those were the last words I ever heard her say. Her father had pretty much dictated the terms of her will, much of it going to Johns Hopkins, Harvard, and, I think, Columbia," said Alex.

"The last year of her life Alice had Eva Chevalier drive her around looking at cemeteries in Connecticut and New York. She was cremated, her ashes shipped to a cemetery in West Palm Beach, her eternal resting place, of all places," Alex said.

Our last stop on our hard-hat PB tour was James Hunt Barker's, his Wyeth-designed Brazilian Avenue house still a shuttered burned-out shell, we walked back to the guest house where everything was boxed and packed.

"We were suppose to close on Tuesday but the buyer said he couldn't get financing, so we are not closing, and my code enforcement fines continue to add up," said Barker, tending to last-minute details before heading to his historic Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk for the summer.
James Hunt Barker and Alex Fatio Taylor, Palm Beach, 2009. "Alice owned the Worth Avenue Gallery and Jimmy had his art gallery. He and Alice were great friends," said Alex.
Jimmy Barker's anti-aging, exfoliating, skin-renewing King Charles spaniels.
One of more than twenty Paul Cadmus drawings that were in an upstairs bedroom at Jimmy Barker's guest house, saved from the fire that took the life of a friend, destroyed his house and most of his Palm Beach art collection.
Portrait, James Hunt Barker. Paul Cadmus, 1962. "Paul Cadmus lived in Weston near Alice," said Alex. Self-portrait. Paul Cadmus. Collection of James Hunt Barker.
Playful pups chase an elusive butterfly at Jimmy Barker's guest house.
L. to r.: Mary Lou Whitney and Jimmy Barker photographed at the races; Alex being chased down Jimmy Barker's stairs by one of his spaniels. Alex remembers, "Jimmy would bring all 20-something of his King Charles Spaniels to Alice's, so they could play in the ocean. Alice loved it. How do you stay so young looking, I once asked Jimmy. 'I let my dogs lick my face,' he said."
For all of Palm Beach's priceless real estate and granite countertops, its fashionable shops, drop-dead cars, swell menus and clipped hedges, Jim Ponce, Henry Flagler, Alex Fatio, Alice DeLamar and Jimmy Barker are a reminder that it is really the island's history of remarkable personalities that make Palm Beach like no other place in the world.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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