Palm Beach Social Diary: Past Lives Recollections On Dunbar Road

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Casa del Pastor, Dunbar Road. Boston-Providence department store scion John Shepard Jr., pictured above, was one of Palm Beach's revered mayors and good-natured public figures. Shepard's birthday open house held every New Year's Day was a must-attend social summit. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach’s social calendar and impressive houses are as much an attraction as its lush landscapes suspended in spring’s perpetual bloom, an island getaway intended for pleasure and leisure, where for the ageless, time stands still. Yesterday’s Social Register swells appreciated Palm Beach cottages for their originality, provenance and craftsmanship, much like today’s anonymous limited liability companies value enormous showplaces for their size, staging and fixtures. While the resort’s ionospheric real estate market has been inundated by the influx of the nameless wanting to dodge public scrutiny, a 97-year-old house located on Dunbar Road has a multi-layered kaleidoscopic architectural history amassed by an eclectic ensemble of owners.

Villa Fontana, Dunbar Road. 2017.

Considering virtually every Palm Beach street is lined with picturesque doorways that open into spellbinding chronicles, the main house at 127 Dunbar Road reimagined its façade as many times as it changed its name from Villa Firenze to Casa del Pastor to Il Paradiso to Villa Fontana.

Described as both Italian and Spanish, the estate has been associated with prolific mansion builder Cooper Lightbown, actress Billie Burke and her husband impresario Flo Ziegfeld, Boston department store scion John Shepard Jr., Italian artist-opera singer-social director Francesco Guardabassi and his wife woolen heiress Rosalind Wood — styled Count and Countess Guardabassi by Premier Benito Mussolini — and legendary NYC designer and Cherry Grove developer John Eberhardt.

Much like Palm Beach’s unabated enthusiasm for construction, producing indistinct amalgams after years of additions and alterations, the resort has attracted a far-ranging assortment of most everyone who is a someone somewhere else, known for something at some time. While a few even reinvent themselves from backroom felonthropists to black-tie philanthropists, compiling a chronicle of their lives can be as challenging as unscrambling a Rubik’s Cube.

Here is a look back at the various incarnations of a house on Dunbar Road and selected memories of the individuals who lived there.

Today & Yesterday

Villa Fontana, 2017. The main house has evolved into a generic interpretation of the textbook Mediterranean Revival classification rather than an exemplar of historic preservation, having lost its original architectural interest, deportment and details. John and Flora Shephard made considerable alterations to the main house. With the acquisition of the vacant lot to the west, the Shepards added a detached arcade, loggia and garden area during the 1930s designed by the Treanor & Fatio firm that, for the most part,87 years later are in their original condition. Even though the main house has no resemblance to its original structural presence, the entire property was designated a local landmark in 2013.
Villa Firenze, c. 1922. This photograph takes the same house back to its original appearance and configuration as it was first constructed in the newly-platted Adams subdivision by builder Cooper Lightbown. Although the original house lacked the stylistic stamp of a noted architect, there was a harmonious integrity in its structural simplicity. While it could have been eligible as a contributing building in a historic district, it hardly reaches the significance of The Breakers cottages, Villa Artemis and Rabbit Hill, among others, that have never been designated local landmarks. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Thomas Adams Estate – Wells Road & Dunbar Road

Located south of what would become Ned and Eva Stotesbury’s legendary El Mirasol estate, the ocean-to-lake Thomas Adams estate was subdivided and developed under the supervision of builder Cooper Lightbown. Heirs to a Brooklyn-based chewing gum fortune, the Thomas Adams family first visited Palm Beach during the 1880s, acquiring a section of the Figulus property owned by the Potter family. The subdivision’s streets were named for members of the Adams family. The builder of several Addison Mizner mansions, Lightbown probably relied on one of the many draftsman in the Mizner office for the design and floorplans for his spec house on Dunbar Road.

September 1917. Cooper Lightbown supervised ” the clearing, filling in, opening streets, and laying sidewalks” on Wells Road and Dunbar Road as well as the land development for the John S. Phipps property to the north. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection of newspaper clippings from The Palm Beach Daily News and The Palm Beach Post.
August, 1918. New York financier Jules Bache was the first spec buyer for one of the subdivision’s oceanfront parcels. Bache would eventually acquire a Mizner-designed house on Barton Avenue. Eventually, Elizabeth Slater (Costa Bella, 1920), Edward Shearson ( Villa Flora, 1923) and Daniel Carstairs (1923) would build oceanfront houses in the Adams subdivision. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Villa Firenze – Cooper Lightbown

Born the son of a bricklayer in 1886, Cooper Lightbown began his building career in Washington DC before resettling at Palm Beach where he is credited with the construction of several Mizner oceanfront mansions as well as Mar-a-Lago. Following his last tenure as mayor, he left South Florida to establish a family-based building company of middle-class houses in Maryland where he was best known for building the English village-styled Brookdale community.

Cooper Lightbown (1886-1941), Mayor of Palm Beach, 1922-1928. Courtesy Town of Palm Beach.
March, 1920. Lightbown set up an office in the Adams subdivision but never occupied at the Dunbar Road spec house.
August, 1920. Villa Firenze was first leased to Nevada gold mining heiress Alice Delamar and her white Russian wolfhound. Because Delamar was delayed in New York, Lightbown rented the house to Flo Ziegfeld and Billie Burke.
Alice Delamar and Evangeline Johnson arrived later during the 1921 season. At one time, Delamar and Johnson reportedly flew over The Breakers beach dropping flyers opposing beach censors who monitored women’s bathing suits. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
December 1920. Billie Burke and her daughter Patricia arrived several weeks before her husband. Flo Ziegfeld who was a familiar figure at the Beach Club’s gaming tables. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.
Billie Burke, daughter Patricia, and Flo Ziegfeld were a part of the resort’s café society era. A longtime friend of Marjorie Merriweather Post, years later Billie Burke was a houseguest at Mar-a-Lago when she appeared at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
November, 1921. Cooper Lightbown remarried in 1921. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.

1922 – 1950
Casa del Pastor – John Shepard Jr.

During the spring of 1922 Cooper Lightbown sold Villa Firenze to New Englanders Flora and John Shepard Jr. who lived there for nearly 30 years. The Shepards renamed the house Casa del Pastor. Following the 1928 hurricane, the couple made substantial alterations to the main house and acquired the adjacent vacant lot. Former head of the Boston-Providence Shepard Department Stores, the civic-minded Shepard served as mayor from 1930 until 1935. Re-elected without opposition, he played a key role in the resort’s development, accomplished with his good manners and generous philanthropy to the betterment of Palm Beach. “I’ve refused to take part in anything that was political … I am strictly a family man,” said Shepard.

L. to r.: March 1922. John and Flora Shepard acquired Villa Firenze, then described as “of Spanish architecture.” Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.; Newspaper article, c. 1925. The Shepards acquired the adjacent lot to add gardens to Casa del Pastor. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.
December 1928. Casa del Pastor, drawings. Following the September 1928 hurricane, the Shepards redesigned the main house’s façade and roof lines. Treanor & Fatio, architect. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
December 1928. Casa del Pastor, new balcony design. Treanor & Fatio, architect. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
December 1930. Main house, additions and alterations, with a new driveway and port cochere entrance on the west elevation. Treanor & Fatio, architect. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
June 1930. Casa del Pastor, drawing No. 105. Loggia addition. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
June 1930. Casa del Pastor, drawing No. 104. Arcade detail, south elevation. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
December 1930. Casa del Pastor, proposed additions: Loggia, arcade, patio, and garden. The addition on the adjacent vacant lot remains intact except the garden was supplanted with a swimming pool. Treanor & Fatio, architect. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
December 1930. Casa del Pastor, arcade, elevations looking south & north from garden. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
December 1930. Casa del Pastor, ceiling drawings, arcade & loggia addition. Treanor & Fatio, architect. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Casa del Pastor, c. 1935. Arcade addition, south elevation facing Dunbar Road. The arched wrought-iron grilles were later replaced with colored glass panels. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Casa del Pastor, c. 1935. View from central arcade north to patio and gardens. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Casa del Pastor, invitation. 1939. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
January 1941. John and Flora Shepard in the garden at Casa del Pastor. Shepard attributed his longevity to “the Florida climate, golf and the care of his wife.”
L. to r.: December, 1942. John Shepard’s 85th birthday announcement. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.; December 22, 1948. John Shepard Jr. obituary. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.

Il Paradiso — Count Francesco Maria Guardabassi and Countess Rosalind Wood Guardabassi

In December 1950 a social columnist noted that Count and Countess Guardabassi leased a cottage at 132 Seminole Avenue, returning to Palm Beach “after an absence of 14 years,” having spent time at their villa near Perugia.  The following December, Mrs. Shepard moved to a new house on Via Vizcaya, selling  Casa del Pastor to Francesco and Rosalind Guardabassi, two individuals with intriguing lives that often placed them more in the political spotlight than in social columns. Rosalind “Didah” Wood Guardabassi (1889-1971) had spent childhood winters at Palm Beach.

William Madison Wood, “The Woolen King.” 1858-1926. Rosalind Wood’s father was president of the American Woolen Company. Described as a “… a desperately unhappy man …,” Wood committed suicide in 1926. Library of Congress.

In 1923 her father, “Woolen King” William Madison Wood, commissioned Addison Mizner to design The Towers, an elaborate oceanfront house. Three years later, her father committed suicide in Florida, leaving his daughter a wealthy heiress. Didah would become a leading patron and activist for political groups, donating “substantial amounts” to, among others, the National State’s Rights Party and Alabama governor George Wallace’s presidential campaigns.

“She lived all her life on an emotional tightrope of wild enthusiasm, eccentric beaux, passionate opinions, and violent tantrums …” wrote Ruth Ellen Patton Totten, describing her cousin Didah in a biographical book about her mother titled The Button Box: A Memoir of Mrs. George S. Patton. Rosalind Wood’s uncle was General George S. Patton, “Uncle Georgie.”  In 1928, Didah, then 40, married 61-year-old Francesco Mario Guardabassi.  Family members were first suspicious, judging him “an Italian adventurer,” but were soon charmed by his constant singing and affable manner, according to Totten, who was the Patton family’s genealogist. Didah was “… very bright, very scatty and had been engaged to somebody or other for years but this engagement took.” Didah told her family she met him in New York where he was a restaurateur, having been “a student priest, an opera singer, an Italian army officer, and a portrait painter.”

Contemporaneous newspaper reports document Guardabassi’s performances with the Chicago Opera Company, Newport musicales, Washington embassy soirees, and private Park Avenue penthouse concerts, before becoming a society portrait artist (“Mario hummed and sang while he did portraits.”) and social director at the Hotel Alba at Palm Beach. Most of all, Guardabassi “enjoyed spending money,” wrote Totten. Available records also indicate that Guardabassi was a “member of the Italian Military Mission” under the supervision of the Minister of Propaganda. He was “sent by the government to give the United States a better understanding of the aims and needs of Italy …”

During the 1930s Guardabassi voiced his support for Premier Benito Mussolini, as had other Palm Beachers. Photographer E. F. Foley spoke highly of Mussolini after his visit. Sara Jane Sanford married Mario Pansa, Mussolini’s social advisor and diplomatic attaché. Joseph Urban modeled Mar-a-Lago’s dining room, calling it the “Mussolini Room,” on Rome’s Chigi Palace that was then occupied by Il Duce. During the war Guardabassi was held in a detention camp in the Midwest for a period of time because “his title had been given by Mussolini and because he became a close friend of Mussolini’s son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano. Didah created such a rumpus, he was finally released …” stated Totten.

The Towers, North County Road. 1923. Addison Mizner, architect. Years later, railroad tycoon Robert R. Young shot himself at The Towers, making for Addison Mizner’s most tragic house. Young’s widow demolished the house and built Montsorrel. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

April 1918. Djuna Barnes wrote a literary feature for a New York newspaper on then Captain Guardabassi’s varied career. Library of Congress, Chronicling America, The Sun.
L. to r.: August 1918. Guardabassi regaled readers with tales of wartime heroism. Library of Congress. Chronicling America, New York Evening World.; September 1918. Guardabassi was temporarily “recalled to Rome by the Minister of Propaganda.” The New York Times.
February 1921. Next, Guardabassi was a society portrait artist in New York. Library of Congress, Chronicling America, The New York Herald.
April 1926. During the 1926 season Captain Guardabassi was the social director at the Hotel Alba at Palm Beach. Two years later, he was said to be a New York restaurateur when he married heiress Rosalind Wood. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.
April 1931. This Palm Beach Post column took note of the Guardabassis newly acquired title and their villa in Perugia. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County Collection.
Villa Torre, circa 1931 -1935. The Guardabassis undertook a substantial renovation of a 17th century villa built around an existing tower that led to them be honored with a title by King Vittore Emmanuelle and Premier Benito Mussolini, subsequently referenced as Count and Countess Guardabassi. Today the villa serves as a picturesque event space.
December 30,1936. “Duce annoyed by America’s failure to accept Fascism.” Count Guardabassi praised Mussolini and Fascism at every opportunity. Associated Press.
Noted Palm Beach-New York photographer E. F. Foley found Mussolini to be a “wholly human individual.”
November 1951. Following World War II, the Count and Countess acquired a Palm Beach house on Dunbar Road. Six months later, Francesco Guardabassi died.
April 1952. Newspaper columns documented the Guardabassi’s brief social life at Il Paradiso on Dunbar Road.
May 1952. Count Guardabassi’s obituaries recalled selected highlights from the diverse life he made for himself in the United States.
Il Paradiso, Loggia and central patio, looking east. Following Countess Guardabassi’s death in 1971, the house on Dunbar Road was sold to New York designer John Eberhardt. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

1972 – 2014
Villa Fontana — John Eberhardt

The legendary John Eberhardt (1921-2014) was a self-taught scenic artist and designer. Before exhibiting his flair for faux finishes in his Palm Beach home, he operated On Display, a New York commercial graphic arts company designing and manufacturing prefabricated exhibits, custom trade shows, and department store displays. While building and renovating numerous Fire Island cottages, he transformed his Belvedere Guest House into an iconic destination. Villa Fontana’s repeated motifs and tromp l’oeil murals are much like the improvisational amalgam expressed at his Cherry Grove magnum opus.

Known for its neoclassical domes, gilt mirrors and marble statues, as well as Sunday Tea Dance bacchanals, the Belvedere’s architectural pastiche, described as “a southern antebellum mansion built in the Greek classical style with Versailles mirrors and Roman statues,” was as inspired by its Venetian setting as its assorted demolition décor salvaged from Newport and North Shore mansions. Following Eberhardt’s death, his son William H. Eberhardt resides at Villa Fontana.

Villa Fontana, 2017. Main house, Dunbar Road elevation. The loss of the arcade and the original roof lines suggest a major departure from the house’s original blueprint.
Villa Fontana, 2017. Façade, detail.
Villa Fontana, ceiling detail.
Villa Fontana, 2017. A garden folly on the southwest lawn is reminiscent of Eberhardt’s panache at the Belvedere Guest House.
Belvedere Guest House, Cherry Grove-Fire Island, New York. John Eberhardt’s architectural tour de force.
Villa Fontana, east elevation, port cochere entrance.
Villa Fontana. Fountain, detail.
Villa Fontana. East elevation, port cochere entrance.
Villa Fontana. Ceiling faux finish, detail.
Villa Fontana. Formal dining room.
Villa Fontana. Living room, wall cover panel.

Villa Fontana. Ceiling, faux finish detail.
Villa Fontana. A di Chiricoesque landscape of a painter painting the same painting.
Villa Fontana. Venetian bedroom.
Villa Fontana. Ceiling, faux finish detail.
Villa Fontana. Central patio, now enclosed.
Villa Fontana, west elevation. Former west driveway transformed into an inner enclosed atrium between the original house and the Treanor & Fatio designed arcade and loggia addition built during the early 1930s.
Villa Fontana, 2017. Arcade addition, looking west. Treanor & Fatio architect. View west to a tromp l’oeil painting of an archway. Original wrought-iron braced arches to the south are now enclosed with multi-colored glass pane doors.
Villa Fontana, view southeast from garden to the arcade.
Villa Fontana. View west northwest from the arcade toward the garden.
Villa Fontana. View from central arcade north to garden and pool.
Villa Fontana. Central fountain bowl.
Villa Fontana. Swimming pool looking east.
Villa Fontana. View of central fountain, loggia and arcade, looking southeast.
Villa Fontana. Loggia, view east from the garden.
Villa Fontana. Loggia.
Villa Fontana. Loggia, detail.
Villa Fontana. Loggia, detail.
Villa Fontana. Loggia, alcove tableau.
Villa Fontana, façade, 2017.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur

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