Thursday, September 9, 2010

Palm Beach Social Diary

In a surprising moment of synchronization, when I snapped this photo of Villa des Cygnes’ dining room mirror, one of Cathleen and Walter Ross’ house cats leapt dead center into the picture, perfectly poised, as if from another dimension. Where did it come from? Palm Beach Cats and the Animal Rescue League were among the late Cathleen McFarlane Ross’ philanthropic passions, along with the needs of the neglected, the homeless, and the hungry.
Swan Song:
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.
At Villa des Cygnes, the living room features full-length portraits of Cathleen McFarlane Ross and her husband, industrialist Norris McFarlane, as well as her last husband, Walter Ross’ magnificent grand piano.
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 office walls are covered with tributes to Mrs. Ross’ generosity, especially for causes some consider unattractive. When she wasn’t putting together the jigsaw puzzle pieces restoring her house, she could be found driving a delivery truck to Belle Glade, if needed. "Homelessness is a tragedy of our times," Mrs. Ross once said.
Cathleen McFarlane Ross enjoyed painting in her home studio, including this captivating porcine group found in the dining room. In an April 2008 interview for Grandeur magazine, she explained her fascination with pigs, “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, but give me a pig, and it will look at you straight in the eye.”
Built at the western tip of Worth Avenue where Alligator Joe’s farm was once the town’s main attraction, Villa des Cygnes “House of the Swans” was Philadelphians Barclay and Minnie Warburton first name for their Addison Mizner-designed lakeside compound, later changing the name to Villa Maria Marrone. Manager of the E. F. Hutton Company and president of the Seminole Golf Club, Mr. Warburton was mayor of Palm Beach in 1928; earlier, Mrs. Warburton, nee Mary Wanamaker, had opened a dairy-and-egg shop on Via Mizner. Legend is that Mr. Warburton was the model for Daddy Warbucks in the popular comic strip Little Orphan Annie.
Villa des Cygnes was under construction when this aerial was taken in 1921. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Situated east of Villa des Cygnes and constructed a year earlier on the first lot west of the Everglades Club, Casa de Leoni was a Mizner designed Venetian Gothic palazzo built for Leonard Thomas.
As originally designed by Addison Mizner, with additions by Howard Major, Lester Geisler and Marion Sims Wyeth, the Warburton house extended almost the entire length of the basin along Worth Avenue. During the mid-1950s Harold and Sue Whitmore divided the mansion into four properties, “Sue City,” subdividing the main house into two separate residences, and later, converting the point structure with the Wyeth-designed cylindrical tower into an apartment house with five kitchens and eleven bathrooms.
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.
From afar, Villa des Cygnes eclectic architectural mix makes for a scenic counterpoint to the Howard Chilton-designed 1960s modernist condominium, the 389 South Lake building, to the left.
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.
The Wyeth-designed cylindrical tower addition completely redefined the house’s context, making for a bold presence at the entrance to the Everglades Club’s basin.
Looking west from the terrace along the side canal across to West Palm Beach. Just before her transition in February, Mrs. Ross had scheduled a fundraiser for Haiti, inviting guests to watch the implosion of the Arkona condominium at 1515 South Flagler Drive from her terraces.
Paved with bricks, the motor court flows into one of the property’s many courtyards.
The gate leads into the courtyard separating the main house from the office-guest-service areas.
Foo dogs guard a gated courtyard entrance.
“The Portuguese Girl” stands center stage in the stone-and-brick paved courtyard.
A radiant “Our Lady of Guadalupe” faces the afternoon sun each day. A shell fountain.
A courtyard path leads to the waterway terrace and the pool.
A mid-day view looking northwest from the pool towards the Intracoastal Waterway.
At sunset, the villa’s waterfront develops a golden glow.
Photographed from the Palm Beach marina docks 100 yards away, the sweeping Venetian staircase into the Intracoastal Waterway at Villa des Cygnes is one of Palm Beach’s most other-worldly architectural landmarks. “Not something you’re ever likely to see the US Army Corps of Engineers permit today,” said one of the marina’s staff.
Villa des Cygnes is one of the few remaining Palm Beach houses with its own artfully-designed double staircase leading into the water.
The balustrades add to the Venetian flavor. A wrought-iron lantern from Mizner Industries.
A Mizner lantern is attached to the tower’s outer wall extending over the waterway.
The dining room opens up onto the terrace overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. At this point, I moved over to the center of the table to photograph the mirror, when from out of nowhere the cat appeared in the photograph.
A tableau in the dining room.
Perhaps not quite the Swan Lake Tchaikovsky envisioned, this evocative painting enlivens the kitchen.
A doorway leads into the octagonal formal salon. The living room fireplace features a distinctive swan fire screen.
A hand-carved screen from India of Venice’s Grand Canal aligns the living room’s north wall, a find from a Palm Beach estate sale.
The enclosed loggia overlooks the side canal towards the south.
A view of the enclosed loggia looking west towards the living room.
In the loggia below the fireplace, a small mantle is framed with Mizner blue tiles.
In a 2003 interview, Mrs. Ross revealed that without a doubt there was a resident ghost living in her house, having experienced a close encounter with “the female spirit …and having made peace with it.”
Villa des Cygnes, a desecrated house reformed, a swan song for Cathleen McFarlane Ross, whose remarkable life’s journey lifted the spirit of everyone who crossed her path, especially those less fortunate. When she reached the top of the stairs, she certainly must have been heard a chorus of “When the Saints go marching in …”

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew.

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