Cathleen McFarlane Ross at Villa des Cygnes
By Augustus Mayhew
“At 9:20 she was on the phone with Bill Brooks’ widow; at 9:25 she was unconscious,” said Walter Ross, when recalling his late wife, Cathleen McFarlane Ross’ last moments on the morning of February 8 when she died suddenly.
“She was gone. What a way to go but it has left the rest of us with a sense of incompleteness,” said Mr. Ross, who I telephoned this past week at his summer place in Canada.
The day before I was going through hundreds of Mary Sanford photographs, prepping for a talk on the sobering topic of PB’s social history. I was struck by Mrs. Sanford’s incandescence, appearing to light up a room with her presence, when I thought about Cathleen McFarlane Ross, and how I had never accepted her and Mr. Ross’ kind invitation to visit their landmarked house on Worth Avenue. I had written a feature about Mizner houses and when they noticed I overlooked their house, they wrote me a note. We had the most pleasant conversation and agreed I omitted it because their house was originally part of a larger house that I did mention. For some reason, I never made it by the house.
|On Thursday I called Mr. Ross and reintroduced myself, apologizing for never coming by and meeting him and Mrs. Ross. I told him I was thinking about a feature on his wife’s remarkable kindnesses and her thoughtful makeover of Villa des Cygnes, once a part of the Barclay Warburton and Mary Wanamaker Warburton house. Mr. Ross, Christy Peterson, Mrs. Ross’ assistant for more than a decade, and Patrick, the house manager, could not have been more helpful.
As I walked around the house, I couldn’t help but sense an ethereal expectation that Mrs. Ross had just stepped out or would be walking through the door at any moment. Here are some scenes from Cathleen McFarlane Ross’ well-spent life, a 40-year resident of Palm Beach, and a browse through Villa des Cygnes, a Palm Beach house that underwent numerous transformations before it finally found an owner who turned it into a harmonious statuesque swan.
|A supporter of the Animal Rescue League, Mrs. Ross’ portrait includes her two poodles. Along with her work for the Salvation Army and the Heart Association, she supported the Boys & Girls Club; the Children's Home Society, the National Trust for Scotland, the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and the Palm Beach Theater Guild.||After Eugenie Marron’s decade-long tenure as chair for the annual Salvation Army gala, in 1983 Cathleen McFarlane headed up the event. During the mid-1980s she was a founder of the Palm Beach Flappers, a group of dedicated souls who raise funds for The Lord’s Place and St. Ann’s Place. Although she lost a race for a Palm Beach Town Council seat to Leslie Shaw in 1994, she continued a pro-active role in the issues that concerned her.|
|After the death of her second husband, James Healey, she married industrialist Norris McFarlane in 1973, pictured above, moving once again, to Youngstown, Ohio. In 1994, Mr. McFarlane died. A metallurgist and a Penn State graduate, Norris McFarlane was president of Macalloy Corporation, the nation’s largest manufacturer of chrome. Mrs. McFarlane Ross donated $1 million to her late husband’s alma mater in his honor. In 1997 she momentarily placed Villa des Cygnes on the market for $10 million.||After being introduced by friends and striking up a romance, Houston businessman Walter Ross and Cathleen McFarlane were married in September 2000.|
|The Warburtons occupied the house until 1954 when the following year their estate later sold the property to Harold and Sue Whitmore. Mrs. Whitmore was a lifelong Palm Beach resident who would continue living at the property for the next five decades. In 1956, they conducted a 5-day auction attended by more than 2,400 bidders and “stripped it of every stick of furniture and garden piece,” raising $92,000 for various local charities. The sale did not include the French paneling in the Warburtons’ bedroom, the wallpaper from Jules Verne’s house in Naples or the statue of the Virgin Mary. Following the auction, the Whitmores proceeded to make major changes, hiring Wyeth, King and Johnson to head up the “Warburton Estate Conversion Project,” dividing the estate into several separate residences, including in 1965 converting the southwest point portion into a six-unit apartment house.|
|Cathleen and Norris McFarlane bought the house in 1986, during historic preservation’s infancy in Palm Beach. With the guidance of local AIA Jeffery Smith, they proceeded to gut the house, removing the apartments and reformulating the interior of the house. Although none of Addison Mizner’s original principal rooms remain, the house evokes the era’s aura and ambiance.
|A radiant “Our Lady of Guadalupe” faces the afternoon sun each day.||A shell fountain.|
|The balustrades add to the Venetian flavor.||A wrought-iron lantern from Mizner Industries.|
|A doorway leads into the octagonal formal salon.||The living room fireplace features a distinctive swan fire screen.|
|Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.|