At Palm Beach, where most everyone was a somebody at some time somewhere for something, prominent Jewish personalities are not customarily included in the telling of the resort’s history. By recounting their lives, it enriches our appreciation for the complex social order that once existed when notables like Otto Kahn made Palm Beach their refuge.
From the Gilded Age until the Great Depression, Otto Hermann Kahn attained undisputable prominence in New York and London. On Ocean Boulevard, however, the legendary banker, builder and benefactor’s uncommon mix of cosmopolitan savvy and cultural savoir-faire never garnered the same long-lasting social luster. Despite producing a considerable architectural legacy, supporting many local charities, and playing a lead role in founding the resort’s most exclusive private clubs, the legendary financier’s social rank remained tenuous at a time when families and their fortunes were governed as much by society’s unspoken rules as its capricious deliberations. For a conservative German-born British subject, like Otto Kahn, who became a naturalized US citizen during World War I, there might have been a myriad of reasons why he never secured a more lasting legacy at Palm Beach where periodic shifts in social regimes resulted in differing standards.
During the more than three decades that Otto Kahn was one of the town’s most enthusiastic boosters, he was a generous philanthropist, as supportive of the local Palm Beach Art League as the Palm Beach Shrine Club. Far from corporate boardrooms, Kahn enjoyed the camaraderie of golf course foursomes and the company of his fishing companions more so than social demands. Dressed in his Saville Row suits, he reveled in his daily walks, tipping his hat along the seaside boardwalk at The Breakers. He took pleasure having afternoon tea with Ned and Eva Stotesbury, to whom he expressed “My admiration for the grace, dignity, aesthetic feeling, and perfect taste of El Mirasol.” Rather than hosting extravagant soirees or elaborate fundraisers, his wife Adelaide “Addie” Wolff Kahn actively guided the design of the couple’s various building projects, including the Metropolitan Opera. Instead of planning guest lists or arranging place cards, Addie Kahn spent years perusing Rembrandts and Van Goghs, credited with amassing the couple’s considerable art collection
And yet, because repeated myths can attain more credibility than documented facts, today some may believe Kahn’s most enduring achievement is his lookalike persona that became the iconic symbol for the Monopoly board game. Rather than relying primarily on anecdotes and newspaper reports, a more in depth view of Kahn’s time at Palm Beach can be gleaned from the detailed Otto Kahn Papers at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. These detailed records bring to light a paradoxical era when canons for social conduct and acceptance were as much imported from other social realms as they were based on café society’s broadminded laissez-faire.
Otto Kahn was Jewish, albeit non-practicing, coming from a wealthy cultured family where French and English were studied instead of Hebrew. He married Addie Wolff, the daughter of Kuhn, Loeb & Company partner Abraham Wolff. The couple shared a passion for art museums, literary salons and operas rather than attending synagogue. In response to a lifetime of fabricated allegations that Kahn was Episcopalian or Catholic, he once responded: “My parents were not practicing Jews and did not bring me up to be a practicing Jew. But I have never left Judaism and have no idea of doing so.” Especially during the last decade of his life, Otto Kahn reaffirmed his Jewish heritage, having become a declared enemy of the Nazi German state.
Before adding Palm Beach to their stationery, the Kahns relocated to London where there was already a movement afoot encouraging Kahn to stand for Parliament. In September 1912, he bought a house to accommodate his family of six and fifteen servants. Months later, he bought an even larger estate, St. Dunstan’s Lodge, situated on fifteen acres in Regent’s Park. And then, as the war engulfed Europe, he changed course again, donating the London villa as a sanctuary to house blind soldiers and sailors. Returning to the United States, Kahn opted to continue in banking and took steps to become an American citizen.
While in residence at their East 68th Street townhouse and at Cedar Court, a New Jersey estate, construction was underway on a magnificent palazzo at 1100 Fifth Avenue and a colossal French-styled country house in Cold Spring Harbor. Along with starting plans for a new summer house in Isleboro, Maine, Kahn began searching for a house site at Palm Beach where the couple made brief seasonal visits during the past decade.
Among the tropical palms
During the 1916 season, Otto Kahn spent several weeks at Lotus Cottage, located on the grounds of the Hotel Royal Poinciana. While there, prominent Anti-Defamation League lawyer Samuel Untermyer made headlines when he paid $73,000 for a thirty-two acre ocean-to-lake tract south of the Palm Beach Country Club, previously owned by pioneer Mel Spenser.
At the same time, close friend E. Clarence Jones sent Kahn a note with a map pinpointing various tracts for sale on Palm Beach. A well-known Wall Street stockbroker, who would later become the Everglades Club’s first vice-president, Jones was among the resort’s most popular bachelors. He had arranged Kahn’s membership in the newly built Donald Ross-designed Palm Beach Country Club. Earlier in the year, Kahn coordinated Jones’ membership at Long Island’s Lido Golf Club.
Jones offered to assist Kahn in acquiring any specific Palm Beach property and, if needed, “I will explain locations to you …” After several months of reviewing potential parcels, and having become an American citizen in January 1917, Otto Kahn bought a Midtown oceanfront parcel in Floral Park for $11,500. Once the site of the popular Gus’ Baths, the lots extended from Sunset to Sunrise Avenue on both sides of the newly paved Ocean Boulevard, one block from the North Breakers Walk that ran in front of the hotel’s cottages.
As Kahn was preparing to build, Phipps family members were already putting up three oceanfront houses in the North End, credited to Vizcaya architect F. Burrall Hoffman Jr. Between two of them, Villa Artemis and Heamaw, Robert Dun Douglas was building Blythdunes, a Tuscan-style house designed by Miami-based architect H. Hastings Mundy. To the south of Heamaw, John S. Phipps’ father-in-law Michael P. Grace was building a red-tile roofed Spanish-style villa that later became known as Los Incas. At the same time, Eva and E. T. Stotesbury bought a large ocean-to-lake tract they called El Mirasol. Two seasons later, the Stotesburys would retain Addison Mizner to design his first notable Palm Beach residence.
Oheka Cottage: At Home on Palm Beach
For their Palm Beach villa, Otto and Addie Kahn selected Miami-Palm Beach architect August Geiger. Having opened an office in Miami in 1905, Geiger established a Palm Beach studio a decade later, three years before the ubiquitous Addison Mizner who is mistakenly credited with introducing the Mediterranean style actually originated by Geiger. For their villa at 122 North Ocean Boulevard, the Kahns were influenced by Geiger’s Spanish-style motif for the Fashion Beaux-Art shopping complex along North Lake Trail, launched during the 1917 season. The couple carefully analyzed the architect’s plans and cost estimates, having their New York builder and E. Clarence Jones, their now Palm Beach neighbor, suggest revisions. During August 1917, Geiger and Kahn exchanged several letters, agreeing on contractor George W. Brown’s bid of $32,900. Brown and Geiger had worked together on the Fashion Beaux Arts development. A. A. Jones, a New York decorator, would work with Addie Kahn on the house’s interior, determining the specifications for the ornamental plaster, clear cathedral glass, and copper basins, or selecting the period furnishings.
Oheka Cottage’s entrance faced south on Sunset Avenue as guests entered through wrought-iron gates opening into a spacious courtyard. A gallery supported by Corinthian columns led into the living room overlooking the ocean, detailed with paneled ceilings and walls. Aligned on the north side, the dining room, butler’s pantry and kitchen; along the southerly street side, Kahn’s private office was adjacent to his secretary’s office and one guest bedroom with bath. A central staircase led to “… a large commodious lounge above the living room with numerous ocean view windows to the east.” On the second floor, the Kahns’ quarters were to the south with views of The Breakers; four guest bedrooms were situated on the north side. A detached structure housed a garage on the ground level with room for a Rolls Royce and three wheelchairs; upstairs, five servants’ rooms were located. However accommodating and spacious, Oheka Cottage did not rival the scale of the Kahns’ new Fifth Avenue palazzo, their 127-room castle on Long Island, or the greater grandeur that swept Palm Beach during the 1920s.
In late February 1918, the Kahns arrived at the completed cottage aboard their private rail car with several guests, among them, Henry Rogers Winthrop, longtime president of the Piping Rock Club. During their first season, they entertained Ned and Eva Stotesbury. For decades, Otto Kahn and Eva Stotesbury exchanged letters on topics ranging from her son James Cromwell’s latest schemes to her recommendations for a maestro to play at the Metropolitan Opera that she might have heard in Budapest. Kahn always responded by complimenting her impeccable taste before usually expressing his polite regrets. Kahn was a shareholder at Palm Beach Stores on Main Street and County Road, a private co-operative purveyor of high-quality groceries for the cottage colony. An avid golfer and fisherman, as well as having a weakness for thousand-dollar chips at Bradley’s Beach Club, Kahn also enjoyed real estate speculation, the island’s favorite post World War I diversion.
During the next few years, he acquired lots adjacent to his Floral Park property as well as partnered with Palm Beach Estates, a Phipps-family owned company, acquiring several blocks of the Richard and Bula Crocker property in the South End. Kahn indicated interest an acquiring Whitehall but it was snapped up with a $50,000 deposit before he could act. When Paris Singer acquired Gus’ Bath and transformed it into the private Palm Beach Swimming Club, he approached Kahn about becoming an investor in the project. When entertaining offers for an oceanfront parcel south of The Breakers, Kahn indicated in a letter to T. T. “Tip” Reese he was ready to accept $125 a front foot after Hiriam Hammon sold a nearby tract for $65 a front foot.
Further south along Ocean Boulevard, Kahn bought and sold several large parcels. In 1921, he paid Hubert Krantz $28,000 for 2650 feet of oceanfront in the Delray Beach and Gulf Stream area, selling it three years later for $39,000. For an ocean-to-lake parcel near Vita Serena, where his friend E. Clarence Jones would later build his estate, Kahn commissioned architect August Geiger to sketch a large Italian Renaissance Vizcaya-styled mansion. After Kahn became a partner, stockholder, and property owner in Addison Mizner’s development of Boca Raton, he encouraged other investors. “Best tip on the market today, Buy South,” said Kahn in a speech shortly before the Mizner folly went bankrupt leaving more than 90 investors counting their losses.
During the 1921 season, Kahn spent three weeks at Oheka Cottage, having arrived aboard his private rail car that slept fourteen. He was assured his staff “provided liquids” for the house in Prohibition-era Palm Beach before his arrival. In February, he was invited to speak at the Palm Beach Rotary Club. The following month, Kahn received several letters from architect Marion Sims Wyeth. Indicating his interest in working with Kahn on a site adjacent to Oheka Cottage, Wyeth sent elevation drawings and floor plans for a Mediterranean style villa proposed for the corner of North Ocean Boulevard and Sunrise Avenue. Wyeth’s design was “influenced by the patio entrance of the Thomas Hastings house at Westbury” and Casa Mia, the eight-bedroom house Wyeth designed for Henry and Adele Seligman on Sunset Avenue. Wyeth’s plan called for a façade of “considerable importance” along Sunrise, allowing it to be seen by “every car coming down the Ocean Boulevard.”
When Kahn requested an elaborate loggia directly along the oceanfront, Wyeth argued that placing a loggia or patio along the eastside was impractical because there was “too much wind on the ocean side and guests would be unable to sit facing the Southeast trade wind … and further, the ocean trail affords no privacy.” Because of this evident disagreement, Kahn selected Bruce Paxton Kitchell, a former Mizner architect, to design the villa, said to be planned for the Kahns’ daughters, Margaret “Nin” Kahn Ryan and Maud Emily Kahn Marriott. In May 1921, Otto Kahn signed a contract for $40,000 with Brown and Wilcox Company, headed by George W. Brown, who five years earlier built Oheka Cottage. Sunrise Villa, as the house was known, would later serve as a model for a much grander oceanfront mansion, also named Oheka, that a decade later Fatio & Treanor designed in a more secluded location on North County Road.
In mid-December 1921, construction began on Otto Kahn’s second Palm Beach house at the same time as The Breakers opened its new Casino with 1,000 changing rooms and a 150-by-50-foot swimming pool, advertised as “the finest in the country. Kahn’s H-shaped two-story Italian-style villa, called Sunrise Villa, offered more than 6,000 square feet of living space. A 21-by-31-foot entrance hall with three large French doors overlooked the ocean. Facing southeast, the 17-by-29-foot living room also afforded ocean views. Along Sunrise Avenue, the north wing featured a 17-by-21-foot dining room, serviced by a butler’s pantry, opening onto a large terrace. The second floor housed five bedrooms, each with a private bath. The five-bedroom staff quarters were above the detached garage. With construction nearing completion, Kahn and his architect Bruce Kitchell became involved in a dispute about cost over runs. Before he resigned, Kitchell expressed in a letter dated April 22, 1922 that this was “my first experience in which any action of mine as an architect representing the owner has ever been questioned …”
Despite the friction with his current architect, Kahn and August Geiger maintained a continuing relationship. Geiger designed several additions to Oheka Cottage and proposed sketches that Kahn requested for an elaborate Vizcaya-like estate near E. Clarence Jones’ plot at Vita Serena. After daughters Nin and Maud apparently changed their plans, in early summer Sunrise Villa was leased for $7,500 annually to Pennsylvania steel magnate and card sharp J. Leonard Replogle. That fall, Leonard and Blanche Replogle bought the house for $135,000. The following season, while encamped next door at Oheka Cottage, the Replogles made elaborate plans for an Italian garden and other improvements, adding several parcels to the west along Sunrise Avenue. A close friend of Flo Ziegfeld’s, Replogle was best known on Palm Beach as the originator of Towie, a popular three-handed bridge game.
After several seasons, the Replogles moved to North Lake Trail and leased Sunrise Villa set on 250 feet of oceanfront to the Alba-Ambassador Hotel for use as a beach club by their guests. Entangled for several years in litigation with the Town of Palm Beach, S. W. Straus, the hotel’s chairman, paid Replogle $500,000 for the property. The Colony-Ambassador Beach Club, as it was first called before being renamed the Sun & Surf Beach Club, opened on January 15, 1932. With the addition of tennis courts and more than $800,000 in improvements, this intense activity next door may have been what caused Kahn to sell Oheka Cottage and relocate to a more secluded enclave in the North End.
After spending 14 seasons at Oheka Cottage, and with a seasonal functioning beach club on the adjacent parcel, Otto Kahn paid $110,000 to Joseph Speidel for an oceanfront parcel adjacent to Villa Artemis on North County Road. With plans to build an Italian-style mansion designed by Treanor & Fatio, the February 1930 sale was contingent on the closure of North Ocean Boulevard that at the time ran in front of the house. Badly damaged during the Hurricane of 1928, property owners from Wells Road to the Palm Beach Country Club were successful in having the road permanently abandoned, after promising to pay for the necessary improvements that would convert North County Road into a primary access route. The month after the special election approving the closure, Kahn bought more land, transforming his property into an ocean-to-lake estate.
In April 1930, Kahn announced plans for a large-scale $250,000 elaborate Italian villa with George W. Brown again retained as the contractor. The Treanor & Fatio design called for an expansive living room facing the ocean flanked by Kahn’s office to the north and card room to the south. The formal dining room was off the hall leading from the foyer, opening onto the courtyard fountain. For the interiors, Addie Kahn opted for modernistic furnishings by her London designer Curtis Moffett rather than traditional period rooms. From the beginning, construction at 691 North County Road was beset with problems that might have even have rattled a de Medici, with whom Kahn was often likened. Because of the abandonment of the ocean road, there were conflicting property lines that postponed seawall building. The contractors use of dynamite to reform a rock ledge reef led to “breaking windows and damaging Villa Artemis,” causing the owners to file a civil suit and the Town Council to issue a stop work. While these issues were resolved in Kahn’s favor, they took a toll on his composure.
“I have found while at Palm Beach, I literally some days have had scarcely enough time to sit down for a quiet meal during which there are not some interruptions,” wrote Kahn, whose seasonal visits to Palm Beach were often reported as recuperative rather than pleasurable sojourns.
As much as Otto Kahn liked to say his Palm Beach visits left him reinvigorated, his daily agenda regularly included golf, deep-sea fishing, an afternoon at the racetrack, and dinner at Bradley’s Beach Club. In between these activities, he met with real estate agents, bankers and tax accountants. Moderately social by Palm Beach standards, Kahn also plunged into the island’s flurry of club life.
Otto and Addie Kahn were listed in the inaugural Palm Beach Social Directory published in1923. By then, they had already been resident Palm Beachers for six years. Every season the Social Directory listed the couple’s club memberships. Eventually, the Kahns subscribed to the Bath & Tennis Club, Seminole Golf Club, Oasis Club, Palm Beach Yacht Club, Palm Beach Country Club, and the Palm Beach Angler’s Club, later reformed as the Sailfish Club of Florida. Kahn also found time for the Palm Beach Men’s Club and the Palm Beach Gridiron Club. In the OHK Papers at Princeton there is never a reference of either a temporary or seasonal membership at the Everglades Club, where their Sunset Avenue neighbors Henry and Adele Seligman were members. It is undetermined whether the club’s founder Paris Singer, whose four sons were in uniform fighting against the Germans during World War I, was offended by Kahn’s German heritage, who still had several family members living in Germany, or if he and Kahn had a parting of the ways in New York.
In November 1925, Anthony “Tony” Drexel Biddle Jr. and Jules Bache enlisted Otto Kahn’s expertise in establishing the Oasis Club, a new men’s club. Utilizing Kahn’s financing skills, the organization acquired E. R. Bradley’s oceanfront parcel at the end of Main Street for $150,000. Along with Biddle and Bache, Kahn was among the founders of the Oasis Club with W. Forbes Morgan and Henry Rogers Winthrop.
The following summer, Otto Kahn, and Kuhn Loeb partner Mortimer Schiff, were tapped by E. F. Hutton and Tony Biddle for the board of directors of the Oceanfront Realty Corporation, organized to build a new $1 million Bath & Tennis Club at 1170 South Ocean Boulevard. As one of the club’s owners and founding subscribers, who each kicked in $10,000, Kahn’s perpetual membership was designated No.17 in the B&T’s records. Almost immediately after the club’s opening, when the club’s first president Tony Biddle increased the board’s subscription from $1 million to $1.25 million to cancel current debt, Kahn was among the first to contribute.
“We are picking our members. We want the cream of Who’s Who in America,” wrote the president of the Sailfish Club in a letter to Otto Kahn, inviting him to join “the most exclusive sports club in the world.” Previously, Kahn was a member of the Palm Beach Sports and Anglers Club whose clubhouse on North Lake Trail was taken over by the Sailfish Club of Florida when it merged with several of the island’s other fishing clubs. An ardent fisherman, Kahn provided mortgage financing for several of the club’s expansions as well as donating the Otto H. Kahn Cup for one of the annual sailfish derby’s division winners. In February 1933, the Sailfish Club extended four life memberships to Kahn’s children — his sons, Roger Kahn and Gilbert Kahn, and his daughters, Maud Kahn Marriott and Margaret “Nin” Kahn Ryan.
“I have taken two options for shares,” wrote Jules Bache to Otto Kahn in February 1929, inviting him to become a founder with proprietary interest in the newly formed Seminole Golf Club. “Ned Hutton’s plan is taking shape and I know you will want to be a part of it,” Bache said. The following month, Kahn received a formal invitation to be one of Seminole Golf Club’s first 100 founding members. “Dear Mr. Hutton,” responded Kahn, “I appreciate the fine spirit of your leadership in the creation of Seminole Golf Club.” Kahn not only sent his check for $2,500 but also sent an additional $2,500 donation for the club’s furnishings. With a championship Donald Ross golf course and a clubhouse designed by Marion Sims Wyeth, Seminole Golf Club was regarded one of the nation’s most exclusive golf clubs where Kahn and his family entertained each season.
Twilight at Palm Beach
In one of his final letters from Palm Beach, Otto Kahn described himself as “utterly overwhelmed by commitments and demand, distress and suffering …” As plans moved forward to relocate to their newly-built North End estate, the Kahns sold Oheka Cottage at 122 North Ocean Boulevard, now next to the Ambassador Sun & Surf Beach Club, for $122,000 to Florida Mogar Realty of Jacksonville. Because of Kahn’s declining health, he spent the most part of the 1933 season at European health spas, only enjoying a few weeks at his new house before his death. Shortly after spending six weeks of “rest and relaxation” at Palm Beach, Kahn returned to New York where died of a heart attack on March 29, 1934 while having lunch in a private dining room at his Kuhn, Loeb & Co. office. Temple Emanu-El handled the funeral arrangements for burial at the Cold Spring Harbor Cemetery.
Addie Kahn and her children’s families spent a few more seasons at Oheka before Otto Kahn’s estate sold the 40-room villa on five-and-one-half acres with a 70-foot pool for $60,000 to the Graham-Eckes School in 1941. The school relocated during the late 1960s, selling to an individual owner who converted the now landmarked school building back into a private residence.
Otto Kahn’s counsel and judgment were sought by US presidents, railroad titans and foreign leaders. Regarded as the nation’s greatest arts patron, he transformed the Metropolitan Opera into one of the world’s premier stages. His four-story house at 1100 Fifth Avenue was designated “the finest Italian Renaissance mansion in New York” by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The New York Times described Oheka Castle, his Long Island estate, as “the finest country house in America.”
“Of all the properties, Palm Beach became Otto’s favorite — a place like no other,” said the late John Barry Ryan III, Kahn’s grandson, according to Theresa M. Collins, author of Otto Kahn: Art, Money and Modern Time.
Then, Palm Beach was a close-knit seasonal rendezvous with a unique mix of Our Crowd, The 400 and Café Society. Following the end of World War II, former private club sites became condominiums, estates were divided into subdivisions, and another set of social arbiters ruled the island. During the post-war era, historical revisionism took hold on Palm Beach as each succeeding generation rewrote past chapters to best fit their present inclinations. The memory of the dapper generous gentleman had washed away as Otto Kahn’s Palm Beach was no longer a part of the resort’s past.