America First: Howard Major at Palm Beach
Architect Howard Major was Palm Beach’s leading advocate for an American-based classical building style during the post-WW I boom when Spanish and Italian reproductions became commonplace. Foreshadowing today’s “America First” populist sentiment, Major believed a mix of Old World styles should never represent Palm Beach’s architectural character. Disparaging South Florida’s version of Tuscan villas and Venetian palazzos, he labeled its supporters as infidels.
Writing various essays for professional journals, magazine features and newspaper articles, he criticized the aesthetic qualities of Via Mizner’s Andalusian-styled passageway and questioned whether Palm Beach streets were the proper context for barrel-tiled roofs and stucco facades. Major considered replacing domestic colonial-styled cottages with imported European designs was fundamentally un-American. “Too much foreign influence has crept into the architecture of the South,” Major wrote. “What can be more inappropriate than a Southerner in a Spanish home … the travesty of Spanish architecture is a rank fad sponsored first by California, then Florida (Southern Architect, February 1927),” If one needed to look beyond the nation’s border, Major declared Cuba, Bermuda, Nassau and the West Indies were South Florida’s proper building models not Granada’s Alhambra or Seville’s Giralda Tower.
In his essay “Major’s War,” author and historian Donald W. Curl detailed Major’s contempt for Palm Beach’s ersatz architectural amalgams. Curl credits Major with delineating the scholarly particulars and aesthetic aspects that introduced the resort to Georgian and British Colonial residential designs. Curl also pointed out that Major never received proper recognition for his groundbreaking contribution of Major Alley (1925), considered his most innovative work. Instead, two of the style’s prolific partisans Marion Sims Wyeth and John Volk, were often credited for originating the style that was inspired by Major’s work.
Following the collapse of the 1920s Boom and as the resort’s enthusiasm for showplaces waned, Major’s brand of British Colonial-West Indies motifs took hold at Palm Beach. During the 1930s Major’s white-tiled roofs and louvered shutters fostered an appreciative audience. Then, during the prelude to World War II as America’s backing of England and France grew, Howard Major became an outspoken critic of Washington’s support for its European allies. Apparently, he preferred spending more time at his typewriter than drafting table, dashing off editorials, essays and public letters opposing President Roosevelt’s foreign policy. Even after the US joined the conflict against the Axis forces, Major grumbled about food and gasoline rationing, writing that Floridians should not be forced to live like “hermits” or prove their patriotism by “taking a taxi rather than a private car.”
Before coming to Palm Beach, Howard Brougham Major (1883-1975) had built a relatively successful practice as a New York-New Jersey country house architect with a penchant for gilt consoles and crystal chandeliers.
Howard Major in New York
Born in Brooklyn, Howard Major graduated from the Pratt Institute (1903). He was affiliated with architect Charles Alonzo Rich as one of the firm’s head draftsman from 1904 to 1914. By the time Major set up his own Park Avenue atelier, he was already a bold-faced mention at Park Avenue weddings and Louis Sherry-receptions, most often circulating with the North Shore’s East Egg set. What became Howard Major’s definitive style can be found in many of the 60 country house commissions and major additions credited to him during the period. Known as an architect who maintained “a painful devotion to an idea …” Major’s blueprints featured recessed entrances and steep-pitched gables. His drawing rooms and foyers were fashioned with sharply-turned Louis XVI staircases and diamond pattern black-and-white marble squares. His work was described as “… both simple and luxurious satisfying the taste for the elegant and the refined without introducing anything obtrusive either in color or design.”
“It must bear the imprint of my own taste and skill as I never turn work over to others to execute for me.” – Howard Major, 1919.
Major believed clients often overlooked the importance of their architect supervising the interior décor and furnishings. “An architect entrusted with the interior decorations of a house has an opportunity for complete expression … The architects of the 18th-century well understood this important phase of not only arranging but actually designing the various pieces necessary for a completely furnished home. The well-known example of the brothers Adam may be cited as their designs in furniture and even in silverware are famous,” wrote Howard Major (Architectural Forum, June 1922).
Among Howard Major’s clients were: Charles Staudinger (Sound Beach, NY, 1914), Kenneth Cranston (Summit, NJ, 1914), and W. T. Grant (Pelham, 1918). At Glen Cove, Long Island: H. M. Adams (1914), Harold Boehm (1914), William Beard (1915), William H. Bliss (1915), Christopher D. Smithers, Samuel Brewster (1916), Walter Gibb, Howard Maxwell (1918), Andrew Fletcher, and H. F. Eldridge (1920). At Locust Valley: Harold Carhart (1917) and Norman W. Toerge (1921).
Howard Major in Florida
Gulf Stream – Palm Beach – Naples – Miami Beach
During the early 1920s Howard Major was only a passing seasonal visitor at Palm Beach and Nassau while other New York architects were establishing a foothold in the Palm Beach market. Social columns described him as “ a rising young architect” during his February stays at The Breakers although rather than hooking new mansion commissions he garnered mentions as the resort’s leading shimmy dancer. In 1924, when one of his Glen Cove clients Howard & Louise Whitney called on him to design their oceanfront house in Gulf Stream, he packed up his pencils and T-squares, reserved a Pullman compartment, and headed south. Although his prolific five-decade long career produced notable works, Major’s standing never achieved Palm Beach’s architectural pantheon, reserved for the likes of Mizner, Wyeth and Fatio. In addition to Major’s rigid adherence to architectural standards, he, more than any other architect, openly criticized works designed by the resort’s close-knit architectural fraternity. Thus, it should have come as no surprise in 1929 when Major threatened to sue the Town of Palm Beach unless he was appointed to the influential Art Jury, the committee that decided on the architectural appropriateness of the resort’s new buildings. Major claimed he had been intentionally overlooked.
Major’s Peruvian Avenue iconic Midtown complex, known as Major Alley (1925), clearly set him apart from the resort’s other architects. Even so, at the same time he was preaching against the resort’s hybrid versions of European style imports some of his earliest works were rendered in the same, less than pure, Mediterranean styles that he disparaged. For example, the Whitney house and Nelson & Helen Odmann’s Lake Como-inspired villa La Torre Bianca in the South End shared common Old World features. During the spring of 1925 Addison Mizner’s office announced Howard Major had affiliated with the firm as an architect and interior decorator. With Mizner focused on his Boca Raton development and his clients seeking seasonal alterations and additions, Major undertook several projects. Among them, a new patio and a wing for 30 servants for El Mirasol’s northwest elevation and a new entrance and two-story library wing for Barclay Warburton’s Villa des Cygnes on Worth Avenue. The Mizner-Major association was short-lived. By the following season, Major was once again a sole practitioner.
Here are some highlights from Howard Major at Palm Beach.
Howard & Louise Whitney house, 1924
2817 North Ocean Boulevard – Gulf Stream
Howard Whitney was one of Howard Major’s Glen Cove patrons. When he and his wife Louise decided to build a Florida house, they retained him to design a “Spanish-style farmhouse” on an oceanfront parcel north of the newly formed Gulf Stream Golf Club with a golf course designed by Donald Ross. Whitney, a partner with the Wall Street banking and brokerage firm of Kissam, Whitney & Company, was probably best known for his association with the United States Golf Association (USGA), serving as president in 1922. Whitney’s father Henry N. Whitney first worked as a clerk at the Vanderbilt family related Wall Street firm headed by Benjamin Kissam whose sister Maria Louise Kissam Vanderbilt was married to William H. Vanderbilt. When Whitney was made a partner, the concern changed its name to Kissam, Whitney & Co., representing among its clients, the Vanderbilt’s New York Central Railroad.
Palm Beach, 1925
Major Alley, 1925
417 Peruvian Avenue
However much Major Alley was regarded as anomalous at Palm Beach, it was a continuation of Major’s established residential style. Just as his 1919 “House of Seven Gables” in Newark, New Jersey, was sited on a lot three times as wide as it was long, Major Alley consisted of six attached houses compacted on a 100-foot lot and rendered in what was then described as a “British Colonial adaptation of Georgian architecture common to Bermuda.” Similar in silhouette to several of Major’s other Northeast country houses, Major Alley was finished with white stucco walls, louvered shutters and flat white tile roofs.
Floranada Club, 1925-1926
As the 1920s building boom peaked, Howard Major was drawn into the speculative Floranada Club development (“The Biarritz of the Americas”) devised by the American – British Improvement Company. The Fort Lauderdale-area project was under the aegis of the Countess of Lauderdale and James H. R. Cromwell. Major provided eyewash sketches for proposed model homes and a magnificent residence to supposedly house the King of Greece. Cromwell’s mother Eva Stotesbury and mother-in-law Palm Beacher Anna Dodge Dillman were investors. Devastated by the 1926 hurricane and the collapse of the real estate market, the venture ended in a series of lawsuits charging the principals with fraud. In 1928 Jimmy Cromwell and Delphine Dodge divorced.
La Torre Bianca, 1926
235 Banyan Road
In 1926 La Torre Bianca was featured in Architectural Forum and House & Garden.
Allyne House, 1927-1928
1000 South Ocean Boulevard, Manalapan
John Demarest house, 1928
Palm Beach-Miami Beach, 1928-1930
From his newly established office on Via Parigi, Major worked on a guest house for Jules Bache on Barton Avenue and made alterations for George Dobyne at 100 El Bravo. He added a patio to the Frank Skiff house. At 135 El Vedado, Major designed a Spanish-style house for Thomas Cowell. That same year, there were also several large projects on Miami Beach. For Albert Lasker, board chairman of US Shipping, he designed a $150,000 Spanish Colonial mansion on Collins Avenue near the Bath Club. Another Spanish- style house was completed for John Hertz, president of Yellow Cab Company.
Palm Beach, 1929
Snyder House, 1930
124 Via Bethesda
Kenlewinal, James H. Kennedy house
158 South Ocean Boulevard
Howard Major, architect. Renovation & Additions, c. 1930-1932
Although partially designated by the local landmarks commission, several years ago Kenlewinal faced possible de-designation and demolition before David and Julia Koch undertook a significant renovation in 2005-2006, incorporating the Tropical Colonial house into their adjacent estate at Villa del Sarmiento. During the early 1930s, the Kennedy’s hired Major to completely renovate and update their oceanfront Palm Beach cottage. Adding a new side entrance hall on Clarke Avenue, Major enhanced the pre-WW I house with West Indies flourishes, an upper story veranda, an arched loggia looking east, and a distinctive loggia with louvered shutters on the west elevation as well as a chimney highlighted with whitewashed bricks.
Villa de Fiori, c. 1932
163 Seminole Avenue
Howard Major designed an early 1930s addition to Casa dei Fiori that included a new formal entrance leading into a garden courtyard, a central fountain, and a white-washed brick loggia. The original 1921 Mizner designed main house had already been embellished by later Treanor & Fatio alterations and additions.
Palm Beach 1934-1940
During the mid-1930s, Major designed 830 South Ocean Boulevard for Henry & Blanche Ittleson, a British Colonial house for Kenneth Williamson at 167 Seaview Avenue, a Bermuda style residence for W. T. Grant, and a pair of cottages at Phipps Plaza (1939) for the Palm Beach Company. During the same pre-WW II era, Major also designed a classical style residence for Thomas Wright at 234 El Brillo Way as well as homes on Tangier Avenue and Queens Lane.
Port Royal, 1950-1952
During the early 1950s Naples developer John G. Sample commissioned Howard Major to design the master plan for Port Royal. Major themed the development after the Jamaican port town. The same year in Naples, Major designed the three model houses for the Port Royal development, Sample’s own house and the Trinity-by-the-Cove Episcopal Church.
Bee Toy, 1959
Blanche Frank Ittleson house, 756 Slope Trail
Photography by Augustus Mayhew.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur