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a six-acre sanctuary inspired by the barrier island’s own natural history and geography reviving the elements that originally made Palm Beach an incomparable scenic retreat, its jungle paths, tree canopies, coconut walks, pineapple fields and tangled trails.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.
“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.
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.
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 …
Casa Bendita …
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.
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
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.
Earthly Delights …
The Ant Farm …
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.
Photographs by Augustus Mayhew. Historical photos courtesy of the Palm Beach Daily News.