Garden Grandeur endures at Casa Phippsberger

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Looking towards the main house’s central pavilion, a bright mid-afternoon sun casts shadows highlighting the view framed by flanking formal gardens punctuated with towering royal palms.

In Palm Beach, where escapist landscapes borrowed from English rose gardens, French parterres, Spanish cloisters and Tuscan courtyards amplify the surreal allure of streets lined with imported architectural facades, Casa Phippsberger’s tropical splendor is a welcome relief, a six-acre sanctuary inspired by the barrier island’s own natural history and geography reviving the elements that originally made Palm Beach an incomparable scenic retreat, its jungle paths, tree canopies, coconut walks, pineapple fields and tangled trails.

As Old Westbury Gardens, the John S. Phipps family’s Long Island estate, represents a refined expression of English architecture and landscape, what remains of Casa Bendita, the family’s ocean-to-lake Palm Beach property now known as Casa Phippsberger, has evolved into a noteworthy botanical landmark, its distinctive aesthetic reinvented by Robert Eigelberger, a historic preservationist, and his wife, sculptor Susan Phipps Cochran, Phipps’ granddaughter and a fourth-generation Palm Beacher. By reimagining their ensemble of architecture, landscape and art, Phipps and Eigelberger have made yesterday’s Palm Beach as viable today as it was a century ago when Phipps’ great-grandfather, Henry Phipps, first bought the island property.

The early morning sun overwhelms the understated back terrace with soft light while the canvas awnings and louvered shutters shade the drawing room below and master bedroom above that overlook the formal gardens.

“Except for a few very nice gardens, there are always exceptions, thank goodness, Palm Beach landscapes, as a whole, are not creative or beautiful,” said Eigelberger. “Many are mundane, too many ficus trees, too many ficus hedges and too manicured,” he added. The island’s ficus ubiquitous compulsion is exacerbated by a profusion of spec and corporate-owned houses with predictable landscapes programmed more to meet code requirements than to create a pleasing aesthetic.

Indeed, between Mountain Lakes Colony and Bok Gardens, Frederick Law Olmsted’s luscious Central Florida landscape, and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, William Lyman Phillips’ quintessential South Florida sanctuary, there are few, if any, private residences that rival Casa Phippsberger’s significant assemblage of plants and trees transformed into a horticultural kaleidoscope.

These views may look like a Palm Beach postcard from 1909 but actually they are the 21st-century version of Palm Beach as a sublime tropical island refuge.

Casa Phippsberger’s subtropical collage of thousands of plants and trees reflects Palm Beach’s earliest traditions before the train, automobile and cosmetic counters changed the island forever. The island’s first known resident, Augustus Lang, was a lone botanist who reportedly spent his time archiving the island’s extravagant plant life and collecting shells. Later, he was joined by the Charles Cragins, whose North End estate, Reve D’Ete, was called the Garden of Eden because they introduced hundreds of exotic plants to the island. Then, in the South End at Figulus, the Chester Bolton family retained noted botanist Dr. David Fairchild to import a variety of specimen by steamer and sailboat from Africa, Asia, Central America and Cuba.

Further, however difficult it may be to imagine, such was the resort’s renown as am Arcadian destination that at the beginning of the 20th century the nation’s gold-medal photographers converged on Palm Beach to photograph visitors posing next to and climbing up into banyan trees.

The colorful landscape plot plan highlights the property’s geometric flow between various micro-environments. With the house angled on the rectangular parcel of ten platted lots, the principal living areas, sun decks and terraces are positioned towards the southeast morning sun and ocean breezes.

A former St. Louis developer who restored properties in the city’s gaslight district, Robert Eigelberger moved to Palm Beach, attracted by the town’s “tropical cosmopolitan” ambience as well as its neglected historic houses. By the mid-1980s, Mr. Eigelberger had become one of the town’s formidable advocates for historic preservation with his restoration of Bienestar and the Warden House, among his most notable efforts. In 1989 Eigelberger and Cochran were married and the couple lived at her family’s Midtown estate that they renamed Casa Phippsberger.

After the couple sold fourteen acres from their twenty-acre estate to a developer in 1993, they began the task of restoring the privacy they previously enjoyed, having found themselves surrounded by a platted subdivision called Phipps Estates. Eigelberger retooled his historic preservation skills, turning his passion for gardening and conservation into a multi-hat botanist-landscape architect-gardener-horticulturalist, that resulted in creating not just another Palm Beach compound but a paradise regained. As early as 1987, Eigelberger had described himself as an “environmental planner.” Despite several years of back-to-back-to-back hurricanes that unearthed most of their more than a decade’s work and leveled many of the estate’s oldest plantings, not only did Phipps and Eigelberger endure and revive what was but also they recaptured the spirit of Palm Beach.

Here are some recent looks at Casa Phippsberger …

On North Lake Way an ensemble of coconut palms, teddy bear palms, spindle palms and bell orchids, along with bronze sculptures and architectural fragments salvaged from Casa Bendita, line the estate’s main entrance paved with bricks leading past the gate anchored with columns topped with pineapple finials.
Slow is the only way to navigate the Phippsberger Parkway, as you never know what to expect around the next twist-and-turn.

If you arrive on foot, and feel adventuresome, new jungle paths can lead you around the perimeter of the grounds as well as to the courtyard. Clay pots line another path, in case you have the urge to garden.
You know you have arrived when the last curve opens onto the motor court and the magnificent Indian Laurel tree is there to greet you.
With one of the estate’s surviving canopy trees as its centerpiece, the courtyard, serving as the foreground for the entrance to the main pavilion beyond, .is a burst of colors, scents and forms,shading staghorns, orchids and bromeliads flanked by garden rooms with ruin walls and fountains composed of architectural salvage from Casa Bendita.
L to R.: A terra-cotta urn
fountain is the focus of the west ruin garden, a 12-foot wall composed of keystones, archstones, coral and stone brackets from Casa Bendita, now completely covered with vines, orchids, begonias and home to lizards.; The 2,000-gallon fish pond is guarded by shielded lions and curtained by a chorus of peach angel trumpets that cover the east ruin wall also made from fragments from Casa Bendita.

Casa Bendita …

Looking from the southwest through the pool colonnade toward Casa Bendita’s front entrance along the west elevation. During the 1920s the house was a popular setting for tableaux vivants staged by Florenz Ziegfeld.

Extending from the ocean to the lake, Casa Bendita was designed byAddison Mizner and built for the John S. “Jay” Phipps family in 1921 for $150,000 along the highest point of the ridgeline on 375 feet of ocean front. After more than a decade of leasing seasonal cottages at The Breakers and on Lake Worth, Jay Phipps’ father, Henry Phipps, bought 1000 feet of ocean front for $90,000 for his three children, John S., Henry C. and Amy (Mrs. Frederick Guest) in 1912, the same year that he gave his sons control over his immense real estate empire. Five years earlier, the elder Phipps set up Bessemer Trust as an umbrella for the family’s various investments, eventually including as much as one-third of the Town of Palm Beach and more than 25 miles of oceanfront between Palm Beach and Miami.

Married in April 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Phipps seen at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Born in Bombay to English parents, Mr. and Mrs. Phipps met in India, where Phipps had gone to play polo. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Daily News.

Named for Mrs. John S. Phipps, nee Margarita “Dita” Grace, Casa Bendita took two years to build and became known as Phipps Castle, located to the north of Heamaw, the Henry C. Phipps estate designed Francis Burrall Hoffman, the architect of Vizcaya. Reached at the end of a long winding drive from County Road and distinguished by its four-story octagonal tower, Casa Bendita’s ground floor north entrance had a stairway that led up to an open cloister where another staircase rose to the second-floor’s eight bedrooms.

Known as one of Mizner’s finest, featuring expansive loggias, patios, sweeping staircases, a roofed open pool framed by colonnades and a fountain replica of Charles V horse trough at Alhambra, that still exists and is the only remaining fragment of the house historically

Mrs. Michael Phipps, c. 1947. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Daily News.

designated. With Clark and DeGottrau as their landscape architects, Jay and Dita Phipps had a walled English garden and surrounded the house with rose de Montana, bougainvillea, tecama radicans,salandria, beaumonia grandiflora, coconut trees, colorful vines and sea gapes. To the west across County Road extending to their boat house on Lake Worth, the Phipps family maintained greenhouses, tennis courts and guest and staff cottages.

In 1960, two years after John S. Phipps died, Casa Bendita and the oceanfront parcel were sold for $350,000, making for twelve-lot subdivision, with the family keeping the 20-acre parcel west of County Road. In January 1961 Big Chief Wrecking Company obtained a demolition permit to level the house. The property’s new owner said, “Great old palaces are no longer attractive to modern buyers in Palm Beach. The demand is for less pretentious but strictly modern dwellings.” The next month, Trosby Galleries auctioned more than 400 furniture pieces and artifacts from Casa Bendita, a mix of authentic Renaissance Spanish and Italian pieces and those fabricated by Mizner Industries at its Bunker Road factory in West Palm Beach.

Two years later, Jay Phipps’ son, Michael Grace Phipps ( 1910-1973) commissioned architect John Volk to design a house on the estate’s remaining acreage located between County Road and the lake front, for many years known as the largest private estate in Palm Beach. In 1972, Suzy, the society columnist, reported that even though the Michael Phipps house had never been photographed, Phipps retained Volk to design a miniature version of it as a four-room guest house. Mr. Phipps liked it so much that he barged it forty miles north to Westbury Farms in Martin County, his race horse training facility where he kept a private track. Mrs. Phipps, nee Muriel P. “Molly” Lane, died in 1969, and following Michael Phipps’ sudden death several years later, the estate became the property of his surviving daughter, Susan Grace Phipps Cochran.

L to R.: Fragments from Casa Bendita can be found throughout Casa Phippsberger, on the ruin walls, the front terrace and the fish pond with Japanese koi. ;Looking from the fish pond through what were the estate’s original entrance columns topped with deer heads, a view across the courtyard to the far ruin wall.
In the courtyard, Friends, a bronze by sculptor Susan Phipps Cochran, whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Phipps, built the existing house in 1963. Michael Phipps was an international poloist and painter.
Paddy Collins leading Amber, International Field at Meadowbrook, c. 1938. Michael G. Phipps (1910-1973), artist. National Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame Collection.
These pink-and-green coleus plants jazz up the clay pot palms throughout the courtyard, Palm Beach’s most iconic color combination.
L to R.: The front iron doors to the main house with a painted bronze, Blossom (2003) by Susan Phipps Cochran.; Looking towards the original entrance into the courtyard and the fish pond, a colorful tile table awaits dinner guests in the front courtyard.
A tile table on the front terrace overlooks the courtyard.
Early morning at Casa Phippsberger, looking northwest, with the sculpture studio to the right beyond the hibiscus beds and behind the palms.
A blazing sunny afternoon on the back terrace.
A cloudy early afternoon with the colorful bromeliads beginning to brighten the formal gardens; a vanda ready to bloom.
The view from terrace looking southeast towards the curvaceous beds surrounding the formal gardens.
Looking southwest from beneath the pool lanai’s canvas awning.
The pool is steps from the lanai, even on a gray day it is a play of vibrant color.
Composed with stone elements from Casa Bendita, the pool fountain takes on the look of an altarpiece.
With a triumphal arch entrance, a guest cottage is just beyond the pool.

Earthly Delights …

Bitter aloe.

Giant leaf begonia.

The Ant Farm …

The always friendly Earwig, bronze, 99″H x 121″W x 144″ D, could make for a chaise lounge, set on slate stones on an elevated center island filled with agave univitiata, blue wave agave, joewood, beaked yucca, mason Congo paddle. South African blue fingers and surrounded by mast trees.

Set amidst a desert-like environment with succulents, cacti, Senegal date palms and agaves, the Ant Colony thrive in their own domain, a series of exhilarating bronze sculptures by Susan Phipps Cochran, recently exhibited in Dubai, now back at home.

Soaking up a few afternoon rays.
The ant will politely usher you through the garden gate, then your on your own with the puppy on the other side.

L to R.: Andreas with snippers at the ready.; Inigo Eigelberger on guard, making sure everything is green, green, green at Casa Phippsberger.
Seen in 1988, Wynne Ballinger presenting Robert Eigelberger with the first Robert I. Ballinger Award for historic preservation from the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach for his work at the Warden House and Bienestar. Mr. Eigelberger serves on the board of the Mounts Botanical Garden and is a founding member of Gentlemen of the Garden, a long established group that funds gardening projects in Palm Beach County.
L to R.: Robert Eigelberger seen at a 2009 Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting.; Susan Phipps Cochran. Photo courtesy of Lucien Capehart.
“The gardens will never be finished,” said Mr. Eigelberger, who mentioned that China, Thailand, Ecuador and Cuba were still on his itinerary.

Photographs by Augustus Mayhew. Historical photos courtesy of the Palm Beach Daily News.

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