Considering the world’s insatiable obsession with Palm Beach mansions, notably their price and size, last January I gave a presentation on when the jungle was the island’s main attraction, exploring the now vanished
Lost Landscapes at Palm Beachfor the Speaker Series at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. Since the event was SRO, I thought readers might enjoy perusing clips from the lecture highlighting this once terra incognita’s origins when hammocks and marshes surfaced with black mud oozed the smell of sulfur while along the lakefront dark fertile soil covered a coral ridge dotted with scrub palmetto and Indian rubber trees shrouded by a tangle of vines.
A crisscross of footpaths led to a summit bluff covered with trees that ran along the ocean giving wide views north and south overlooking a beach blanketed with shells. By the turn of the century, Palm Beach’s terrain was unearthed by golf courses and tennis courts, as the barrier island refuge became a resort. And later, another makeover, as the spirit of speculation swept the island with a maze of residential subdivisions, as automobiles, streets, and shopping blocks took hold.
, commissioned by the Garden Club of Palm Beach, proposed civic improvements and led to the establishment of the first Planning Board. The Town of Palm Beach’s 1973 1929 Plan of Palm Beach resulted in a survey of 100 different tree species with 40 native trees and the specific historic designation of significant trees and native species. However valuable these documents in creating public awareness and patronage, the Town’s 1973 survey noted “… except for a small area on the lakefront near Cherry Lane, all-natural vegetation has been destroyed in Palm Beach.” Palm Beach Historical & Specimen Tree Ordinance
Unbuilt, Town Public Beach. 1929 Plan of Palm Beach.
Unbuilt, Inlet Garden & Trail. 1929 Plan of Palm Beach.
The survey included photographs of trees no longer part of the landscape while noting the 500-year-old live oak at Duck’s Nest, the sycamore fig at Bethesda-by-the-Sea, the kapok at Royal Poinciana Chapel, and the town’s largest kapok at 8 South Lake Trail. Originally the site of Charles J. Clarke’s Primavera and Elisha Dimick’s Cocoanut Grove Hotel, Clarke’s 1899 will forbid his heirs from selling Primavera until ten years after his death. At that time, the house with the kapok tree was sold to Philadelphia traction magnate Edward Lowber Welsh who hosted Garden Club events at the historic site. Welsh’s estate sold the property to Charles Davis who demolished the existing house in 1930.
Late Friday afternoon on November 23, 1973, fire trucks raced to 1250 South Ocean Boulevard and found Figulus, pictured above, engulfed in flames. Having weathered the century’s most powerful storms and designated months earlier a National Register of Historic Places landmark, the Bingham House had stood empty for four years. After the fire, Palm Beach’s oldest oceanfront cottage was demolished. The 1973 survey stated Figulus contained “a wider variety of native and imported flora are not to be found anywhere else in Palm Beach County,” many planted by botanist David Fairchild. The following year, The Banyans, the historic lakefront Brelsford House was listed in the National Register. Months later, that showplace was also demolished. As if to remedy these past paradoxical scenarios, in 1979 the town passed a Landmark Preservation ordinance. Image courtesy Historic American Building Survey, 1972.
Figulus, 2020. Since 2012 the Figulus historic landscape has been curated and maintained by owner Ken Griffin who has assured the town the property’s historic trees and specimen plantings are attended at a remote location and will be reinstated whenever he builds.
In 1952 the Bingham Islands, located to the west of Figulus, sheltered as many as 7,000 birds; in 2020, maybe six or seven.
II. Terra Incognita to Island Jungle to Garden of Eden
Lake Worth map, c. 1870. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach, 1878. “Hammock, black muck land with a strip of soil above a coral ridge – Indian rubber trees, sea grapes, cocoplum, limes, orange, lemon, guavas, bananas sapodillas, star apples, avocados, dates, Chinese cherries, coffee plants, and 30 or more older than ten-year old cocoanut trees bearing fruit, as well as thousands of newly-planted cocoanut trees on the lakefront from the Dimick Place to Cragin’s Garden of Eden. The Providencia shipwreck of January 1878 had about 20,000 cocoanuts aboard … These were piled up along the beach and divided among the various settlers, who set them out upon their homesteads, and they have since grown luxuriously. The coconuts which had their husks on them, came from Baracoa, in southeastern Cuba.” — Florida Agriculturist, September 1878.
Palm Beach, North End aerial view looking southeast from inlet. June 1884. By then, Palm Beach was a fabled outpost, difficult to access without a bridge associating it with the outer world … “Clear water … exposing the eye of the astonished visitor to the curiosities of a tropical ocean, growing sponges, corals, and seaweeds of innumerable varieties and colors, starfish from whitish red to dark brown; conch shells of various colors, and fish darting back and forth, schools of mullet chased by trout, bass, and shark, the striped sheepshead, the large drum fish, standing on their heads, tail up, and digging among the seaweed for food. Looking up from this dazzling beauty, the sight is arrested by settlements along the east banks, snug little houses looking through the parklike vegetation of palmetto, cocoanut palms, bananas, guavas, and sugar apples — June 1884.” Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
During the summer of 1886, the first Royal Poinciana bloomed. The Dimicks imported poinciana and kapok seeds from the Bahamas. At the same time, plumbago and geiger trees were planted with oleander borders. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Palm Beach, 1890. “Would you like to take a walk?” You will not lose your way; there is but one path, and it winds by the lake shore, but at several places, Mr. McCormick’s, Mr. Cragin’s, Mr. Barton’s, and others, you can turn and walk east … then comes a bit of wild forest, a perfect jungle of palmetto and rubber trees, shrubs, and vines; then the sand dunes; then ah! Old ocean is dashing on your feet … The shells are more beautiful … Look quick! That is a shark, full four-foot long …” Life under the Palms, Victoria (Mrs. Enoch) Root. Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper, 1890. Image courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
During the early 1890s, the New York Times reported Lake Worth was the “Garden spot of Florida … banana plants, trails, cocoanut trees – still too immature to bear fruit, planted 12-15 years ago, guava jelly trees everywhere, avocados, sugar apples, pawpaws … best assortment of vegetables in the State … acres of roses, violets, dahlias, pineapples from Africa, Antigua, and Nassau … lakefront arises to a bluff, 20 to 30 feet high that hides the ocean from view. Afar, the distant Gulf Stream current … more than half the width are saltwater marshes … walk to beach thru muddy islets with black slime.” Courtesy Library of Congress.
Soap company president Charles Cragin and his wife Frances planted their garden before they built their home in the North End of the island. Along with serving as an experimental botanical station for the USDA, the couple imported exotic trees, double-pink hibiscus, cactus, and frangipani, from their travels. The cactus garden contained more than 500 varieties.
Reve d’Ete, the Cragins’ cottage at their lake-to-ocean Garden of Eden estate. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Garden of Eden, cactus garden. Courtesy Library of Congress.
“The Cocoanut Grove Hotel at Palm Beach was burned last night. The loss is about $60,000, partly insured. A heavy gale was blowing at the time. The origin of the fire is unknown. The hotel formerly belonged to E. N. Dimick and was sold to Mr. Charles J. Clarke, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and was to have opened for the winter season next month. It was occupied all summer by Mr. Flagler’s mechanics. They lost everything.” Nov 1, 1893, Florida Agriculturist.
Pittsburgh native Charles J. Clarke acquired more than 50 lake-to-ocean acres where he built Primavera on the site of the Cocoanut Grove Hotel. According to Clarke’s son Thomas Shields Clarke, “Palm Beach was dominated by groves of tall palm trees of twenty or more varieties – the palmetto the only one native to Florida. At palm-shaded Primavera, the soil overlying the coral reefs make for favorable growing conditions for yellow allamanda, lavender clusters of jacaranda trees, pale blue plumbago, and jasmine.” In 1919 Primavera was the cover story for Country Life magazine where Clarke detailed Primavera’s extensive plantings.
Color Studies in My Gardens, Country Life magazine, August 1919. Vol. XXXVI, No. 1.
Primavera cornucopia. Country Life magazine, August 1919.
“The spicy perfume of night-blooming jasmines, the wafted fragrance of sea-grape along the ocean beach, and the orange groves spread perfume for a half-mile around in competition with the date palm trees, whose ivory flowers atone for lack of color by shedding a fragrance.” Country Life magazine, August 1919.
Rabbit Hill, John & Mary Brelsford House. 3 South Lake Trail. Built at the turn-of-the-century, Rabbit Hill is one of Palm Beach’s most historically significant landmarks. Photo Augustus Mayhew.
Plantings at Rabbit Hill are included in 1973 Historic Tree Survey. Photo Augustus Mayhew.
Lac a Mer, later known as Sea Gull cottage, entrance. The Robert McCormick cottage was bought by Henry Flagler as the cornerstone of his Palm Beach acquisitions.
Flagler holdings. Plat, c. 1900. In 1892, Henry Flagler arrived at Palm Beach and bought ocean to lake tracts extending for more than 100 acres from Main Street to where Pendleton Avenue is today.
III. Refuge to Resort to Subdivisions
Palm Beach’s allure was its secluded tropical setting connected by quays and footpaths. The resort’s centerpiece became a golf course, encircled with railroad tracks, and flanked by oceanfront and lakeside hotels.
Royal Poinciana Hotel, c.1895. View North and View South from atop the hotel, before landscaping. Courtesy Library of Congress.
The first train arrived on Palm Beach in April 1896, two years after the hotel opened. Courtesy Library of Congress.
The Flagler empire at Palm Beach. Courtesy Library of Congress.
The Royal Poinciana Hotel’s ornamental bloom gardens gave the timeless appearance of perpetual spring.
The Cocoanut Grove was the setting for musicales, afternoon tea dances and moonlight cakewalks. Courtesy Library of Congress.
The Breakers, aerial, showing the oceanfront loggia before it was enclosed to house the Mediterranean and Venetian ballrooms. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Breakers oceanfront tea garden washed away during the 1928 hurricane. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Breakers pier was destroyed during the 1928 hurricane. State of Florida Archives.
The oceanfront at The Breakers, pictured above, in c. 1900. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Oceanfront at The Breakers. Note width and slope of beachfront.
In 2010, a circa 1900 Shingle-style golf course building was demolished at The Breakers Golf Course. Photo Augustus Mayhew.
The manicured Jungle Trail. Years after the opening of the hotels, Palm Beach still consisted of only a few hotels, a small number of multi-acre estates, hotels, and 30 cottages, with visitors and pioneer families sharing the same appreciation for the island’s uncultivated nature amid trails and walkways.
The island jungle, the natural landscape, became a tourist attraction.
Alligator Joe would barge his curated collection of alligators from the Miami River to Palm Beach for the season.
Gulf Stream Boulevard (Ocean Boulevard). During the summer of 1912, Col. Samuel Goodman signed a contract for $10,000 to build an ocean road. First called Gulf Stream Drive, the scenic road would extend north five miles from the pier to the inlet and south eighteen miles to Delray Beach. Courtesy Mizner Library Foundation.
Yes, that is Gurnee Munn winning a Red Bug race along North Ocean Boulevard that ran in front of Louwana, his oceanfront home. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Ocean Boulevard. When back-to-back hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 washed out the ocean boulevard, it was moved off the ocean to the west of Playa Riente. The Hurricane of 1926 took 30 to 40 feet of coastline, causing severe damage to the South End’s coastline. The more destructive Hurricane of 1928 eroded 70 to 80 feet, bringing about a complete collapse of Ocean Boulevard from Palm Beach to Delray Beach. The shore road’s subsequent reconfiguration became one the town’s most bitterly contested issues. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
“The jungleland gave way to macadamized roads and velvet lawns …” a feeling of regret for the riot of tropical trees and plants and flowers tangled into a picturesque mass … Palm Beach is being combed and brushed and groomed, not a semblance of her former wild and tangled appearance.”
This c. 1915 imaginative concept drawing pictured Palm Beach as an idyllic resort from Mid-Town north to the Inlet, replete with cottages fronting golf course greens edged with lakefront and seaside pursuits. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
IV. Shangri-La to Showplaces
Having shed its image as a refuge and resort to reinvent itself as an exclusive residential enclave, Palm Beach replaced its subtropical wilds with platted subdivisions, making room for picture-book cottages and oceanfront mansions with imposing facades aligned on paved cul de sacs and boulevards.
Insurance map, 1907. Shaded area denotes 166-acre Royal Park subdivision. Beginning in 1910, the Palm Beach Improvement Company started dredged the lake to fill-in the marshes and bogs before platting the Royal Park residential subdivision. For more than the next year, cranes on barges installed a 2,000-foot seawall and filled-in the hammocks and marshland from Royal Palm Way (south of E. W. Histed’s) to Worth Avenue (south end of Cocoanut Groves).
Royal Park Subdivision. The streets were named Worth Avenue for the famed 2nd Seminole War leader Brigadier General William Jenkins Worth. Cocoanut and Hibiscus were named for the plantings that lined them. Australian, Brazilian, and Chilean added exotic locations. Royal Palm Way connected with the ocean boulevard to the east and, in 1911, the newly opened Royal Park bridge that led to Phillips’ Point in West Palm Beach.
Royal Park Subdivision The subdivision’s impressive entranceway was named Royal Palm Way, patterned after Chicago’s Drexel Boulevard. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The lion was the work of Westhampton sculptor Theophilus Brouwer.
The Balmoral featured 5,000 roses in its Peruvian Avenue garden located across the street from Omar Berberyan’s gardens.
Berberyan Gardens. The Jardin Latin at the Berberyan Gardens was a forerunner of the Mizner-designed Alhambra-inspired fountain at Memorial Park.
In 1914 Chicago photographer William Louis Koehne commissioned this Chicago Modern house for his Peruvian Avenue lot, located across the street from Paris Singer’s Chinese Villa. Demolished.
Paris Singer’s Chinese villa located on Peruvian Avenue was designed by Addison Mizner and featured a Chinese garden.
The earliest sketch for the clubhouse that became the Everglades Club was modeled with the Venetian gondola poles that Mizner and Singer saw during their visit to Vizcaya in March 2018.
Everglades Club, aerial. 1922. Boston landscape designer H. L. Clark cleared the jungle in seven weeks. Along with clubhouse, apartments, tennis courts, the once dense jungle became a nine-hole golf course, first links then Bermuda grass. Along the lakefront before the 9-hole links course became an 18-hole course there were greenhouses filled with crotons, as well as West Indies almond trees, hibiscus, oleander, palms, and vines. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Everglades Club, Court of the Oranges. The Court of the Oranges is today’s Marble Patio. The Orange Gardens supplanted the Venetian Terrace along the lakeside.
Everglades Club, Venetian Terrace. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
A February 1923 headline read: “The Jungle Trail is to be destroyed, succumbing to home hunters.” With the platting and development of El Bravo Park south of the Everglades Club golf course, the town’s oldest and largest remaining collection of gumbo limbo, live oaks, mangroves, and cabbage palms was destroyed, replaced with Spanish patios and Italian courtyards. After a decade of developers supplanting habitats with Spanish patios and Italian courtyards, Palm Beach’s unceasing growth was thwarted by a combination of events resulting in a more disconnected pattern of development.
Lone Cabbage Island becomes Everglades Island. After decades of legal tangling, the Phipps-owned company acquired a clear deed in 1931 and began developing the island as a residential enclave. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
During the early 1930s work began on the south end of the island as the Everglades Club finished its 18-hole golf course. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Everglades Island was completed after World War II. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Casa Ananda. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In the North End, Amy Phipps Guest and Otto Kahn’s estates included a historic Native American site. By the mid-1930s, the ponds and marshes between County Road and the lakefront were still not filled-in.
The Guest Mound Complex, as it was once called, included a shell midden in the village component and a sand burial mound located directly to the west of the entrance of Oheka that became the old Graham Eckes School. During the 1940s, archaeologists determined the mound contained the remains of more than 150 individuals. Burials at the mound were secondary; grave goods or artifacts were never recovered. Work done in 2011 and 2012 in both the habitation and burial mound sites yielded human remains and intact archaeological contexts. It is likely that the habitation area was destroyed by construction at the Graham-Eckes School.
Villa Artemis, designed by Vizcaya’s architect F. Burrall Hoffman Jr. with August Geiger, supervising architect, was built when the ocean boulevard ran along the ocean to the east of the house. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
North End hammocks repurposed as building lots. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Amado, original façade entrance on Ocean Boulevard, c. 1925. View from over the ocean looking northwest toward the North End swamps. Collection of Anthony Baker.
Along the oceanfront from Heamaw to Villa Artemis looking northwest, 1932.
Casa Bendita and Heamaw, 1932.
Casa Bendita, 1922. Façade. A rare glimpse with the tower entrance.
Flamingos flock at Casa Bendita. Image US Department of Agriculture.
El Mirasol. View east from the lake house to the oceanfront main house. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
El Mirasol. October 26, 1935. East India rubber tree leaf. Annice Cameron took impressions of tree and plant leaves at El Mirasol, identified them, and put them in a scrapbook, making for a valuable research resource. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
El Mirasol, colorized photograph. Landscape by Thomas W. Sears. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
EL Mirasol, aerial. 1932. To the south, Wells Road, north to Los Incas and Heamaw.
El Mirasol, central courtyard.
March 1927.South End from Pier at Worth Avenue south to Bath & Tennis Club. To the northwest, work would not start on Everglades Island, Island Road, Tarpon Island, or the point on El Vedado for another decade. At Mar-a-Lago, the Huttons filed-in more than 400-feet of waterfront to accommodate their Donald Ross-designed golf course. To their north, on the other side of the Harry Payne Bingham house, the lot would soon be cleared, and construction started on Cielito Lindo. Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Cielito Lindo, a view east from the pool and gardens.
Cielito Lindo, Moonlight garden. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Lagomar, aerial. 1932,
Ocean Boulevard, pre-1928 hurricane when the Ocean Boulevard was an ocean boulevard. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach’s fabled jungle was destroyed, its immeasurable allure displaced by an ever-changing unsettled landscape where remembering the past has become a far worthier diversion than living with the past. After all, Palm Beach is a place of unusual charm where it is not uncommon when a host hears you do not live on Palm Beach they expound on how they would live nowhere else in the world and wax about their property’s virtues before, in the same breath, they ask if you would like to buy it, the house they have just told you they could never imagine living anywhere else.