Graceful Living: The Phipps Family in Gulf Stream
The polo world’s exclusive old money mystique has waned, for the most part now found amidst sepia photos, bookshelves, anecdotes and rows of silver cups in trophy rooms. But 85 years ago, when the Phipps family conceived and developed Gulf Stream as an exclusive resort sporting center, polo was the touchstone that gave the two-mile stretch of oceanfront its uniqueness outside of Palm Beach’s social orbit. And although polo has long since moved on to splashier realms and loftier audiences, the spirit of the sport remains forever identified with Gulf Stream, defining the town’s matchless class and character.
Here is a glimpse at Gulf Stream’s heyday, today’s Gulf Stream and the Phipps family’s enduring architectural and cultural legacy.
Several years after Henry S. Phipps established Bessemer Trust to manage his assets that would be shared by his offspring following his death, he relinquished control of more than $20 million worth of property holdings in Pittsburgh, New York, Salt Lake City and Florida, gifting them in 1912 to his three sons, John S. “Jay”, Henry C., and Howard. During that same year, Phipps and his wife Anne, while wintering at their lakeside villa, Rosemont, purchased one-thousand feet of oceanfront along Palm Beach’s North End for $90,000. The elder Phipps subdivided his interest into three parcels where within a few years his son, Henry C. built Heamaw; his daughter Amy Phipps Guest, built Villa Artemis; and where after WWI, his son, John, would built Casa Bendita in 1921. Heamaw and Villa Artemis were known as the town’s earliest oceanfront mansions, designed before WW I in the Beauxs-Arts style by Vizcaya architect F. Burrall Hoffman.
By 1913 construction had already begun on a twenty-nine mile oceanfront road between Palm Beach and Boca Raton, first known as Gulf Stream Drive before becoming Ocean Boulevard. The Phipps family’s development interest, Bessemer Properties, bought much of the available land along today’s Ocean Boulevard, as much as 25 miles of oceanfront, dividing much of it into ten-acre parcels. Doing business as Henry C Phipps Estates, Inc., along with the family’s Bessemer Properties, the Phipps sons began developing commercial and residential projects in New York and Florida, its holdings not only included the two miles of oceanfront that became the Town of Gulf Stream but also much of South Florida. At one time, the Phipps family owned one-third of Palm Beach as well as much of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, where the family financed the Miami International Airport, the Venetian Causeway, the University of Miami and developed Miami Shores and Bay Point.
Always seeking a quieter, more reserved setting apart from the social crowd, and with Palm Beach’s social and sport season having become less exclusive, the Phipps brothers were the focal developers of Gulf Stream as a sporting enclave, building family houses near the polo fields and golf club in addition to their Palm Beach houses. Before the Gulf Stream Golf Club opened in January 1924, Bessemer subdivided and sold the oceanfront lots north and south of the club, offering golf club memberships to the new owners.
Just north of the golf club, Bessemer commissioned architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design an enclave of oceanfront cottages they would make available for seasonal leases, J. Cameron Forbes, Stuyvesant Pierrepont, and cartoonist Fontaine Fox were among the first. Within this compound, family friend and polo star Stewart Iglehart retained Treanor and Fatio to design La Centenela, a Chilean- styled oceanfront cottage.
Polo at Phipps Field
In the late fall of 1923 Bessemer Properties acquired a sixty-acre parcel north of the golf course along the Intracoastal Waterway. The following year, several months after the golf club opened, the Phipps brothers announced plans on developing a winter destination for Long Island’s polo enthusiasts that would rival Meadowbrook, establishing the Palm Beach Polo Club at Phipps Field, Gulf Stream that later became known as the Gulf Stream Polo Club.
By the next season, Phipps Field at Gulf Stream was the largest polo enclave south of Aiken, an international destination for poloists. There were three fields with fourteen stables housing more than 150 polo ponies along with a complex of frame polo cottages built for the players and their families. Although the three fields were intended as the beginning of an even more elaborate equestrian center that never materialized, Gulf Stream reigned as polo’s winter capital for 35 years.
In 1935 the Gulf Stream Polo Club formed as a separate entity and leased Phipps Field from the family.
In 1936 Prince Serge Mdivani became the first-and-only casualty in Gulf Stream Polo’s thirty-year history, killed during an afternoon game. The month before the accident Prince Serge had divorced starlet, Pola Negri and married his sister-in-law, socialite Louise Astor Van Alen, who was sitting in the Gulf Stream stands when the tragic fall happened. Van Alen was divorced from her husband’s brother, Alexis, who had already hooked up with serial bride Barbara Hutton. Mdivani’s funeral was held in the living room of Van Alen’s Palm Beach house.
During the war years competition halted at Gulf Stream Polo, but the club’s stables were put to good use. The Shore Patrol housed their horses to patrol and protect the beach front against possible invasion.
In 1946, Stewart “Mr. Polo” Iglehart, George Oliver and Michael Phipps revived polo play at the fields. Once again, polo matches became a weekend spectator sport even more popular than the 1930s. Every Sunday thousands flocked to watch the world’s finest players. Mike Phipps would arrive in his boat-plane; Laddie and Mary Sanford motored down from Las Incas in their Rolls-Royce station wagon; Robert and Anita Young shared box seats with their prized house guests, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
In December 1954 a Palm Beach Polo Club was set up in West Palm Beach on Military trail with fields on Congress Avenue. The same year the first Polo Ball was held at the Boca Raton Hotel where more than 1,000 guests, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, arrived by “yacht, train, car, blimp and helicopter.” Next to the ballroom, a tack room and stable were recreated where six polo ponies awaited the Queen of the Polo Ball, who led the grand march into the ballroom riding one of the ponies.
In 1955 the Phipps interests leased the Gulf Stream fields to B.B. “Bert” Beveridge and A.D. “Don” Beveridge from Detroit, whose schedule of matches continued to attract large crowds. In 1964 Gulf Stream Polo merged with Royal Palm Polo in Boca Raton, sponsored by Arvida, former Alcoa president Arthur Vining Davis’ development company.
Afterwards, the existing fields and stables developed into a full-time private school, a subdivision of Bermuda-styled houses, and the Little Club golf course. After 38 seasons, polo at Gulf Stream came to an end in 1964.
In 1965, Philip Iglehart, joined by Noberto Azqueta Sr, Will Farish, Paul Butler, and others who wanted to continue Gulf Stream Polo, purchased land west of Lake Worth, where the current Gulfstream Polo Club is now located. Today there are 25 privately owned properties surrounding the club’s 90+ acres that include playing fields and the club’s barns with stabling for 600 horses.
Along the oceanfront, many of the classic Spanish villas were demolished accommodating more modern mansions and condominiums. Inspired by the Gulf Stream Golf Club, the Town of Gulf Stream’s first building and centerpiece, the houses and estates have conformed to the conservative constraints of the town’s subdued architectural tradition.
John S. Phipps house
Maurice Fatio, architect
Howard Phipps house
Philip L. Goodwin, architect
“Howard Phipps, who has built a new house in Gulf Stream, has arrived in town accompanied by Philip Goodwin, the architect of the house,” reads a 5 December 1927 item in The New York Times.
“My father and Phil Goodwin went to school together (Yale-07),” said Howard Phipps, Jr.
Phipps added that in 1935 when Adams and Prentice designed “Erchless,” their U-shaped Georgian Colonial Revival-style Old Westbury house, there was a strong influence of Goodwin’s work.
“Though obviously not the same on the outside, from the inside there were a lot of similarities,” said Mr. Phipps.
Today much of the original Howard Phipps house remains intact, however much later owners have made additions, alterations and embellishments.
Architect Philip L. Goodwin (1885-1958) was best-known for his 1939 modernist Museum of Modern Art building designed with Edward Durell Stone, considered the first major International style building in the United States. In 1916 Philip Goodwin became a partner in the New York architectural firm of Goodwin, Bullard and Woolsey. From a prominent Hartford family, Goodwin’s father, banker James J. Goodwin, was a cousin of J.P. Morgan’s. His mother, Josephine Lippincott, was from the Philadelphia publishing family. In Hartford, Goodwin Castle dwarfed every other Gilded Age mansion and was regarded as the largest house in Connecticut. When Mr. Goodwin died in 1915, he left his wife and three sons an estate of $30 million. Before the house was demolished in 1940, the Goodwins donated the Victorian parlor to the Wadsworth Athenaeum. The Goodwin family is the subject of the book The Architectural History of an American Family (Philadelphia: F. B. Lippincott Company, 1933).
Architect Philip L. Goodwin was the author of Rooftrees, a 1933 compilation of family houses he designed. In addition, he wrote and edited several MoMA publications including, Brazil Builds, 1652-1942 and Built in USA, 1932-1944.
Historic photographs courtesy of the Town of Gulf Stream, Library of Congress, the Museum of Polo and the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.