“Pay whatever the price” is as familiar a Palm Beach standard as “How Much and How Big?” The nation’s high rollers have been all-in on Palm Beach ever since the 1890s when Henry Flagler bought Midtown property that became the centerpiece for his resort network.
Today’s Palm Beach was as much as 75% submerged when the first train arrived crowded with unaccountable fortunes that replaced lakefront cottages with cakewalk mansions, forever transforming the remote island jungle into an international resort. Although the Beach Club’s gambling tables were mothballed decades ago, cliff dwellers have never lost their passion for no-limit bets on the gilded sandbar’s real estate roulette.
After all, is there a better playground to hide away your stash than a Palm Beach getaway where “the spirit of gambling prevails” and no one ever asks from where the money comes?
Not just anyplace
During the 1920s, Palm Beach was ” … like all Gaul, divided into three parts: the North, or Country Club section, the South, or Everglades Club section, and the Center, or heart of it all — the hotel section — revolving around The Royal Poinciana Hotel and The Breakers.” Soon after, the town’s real estate agents and social scribes bestowed special status on Estate Section houses located “between the clubs,” those located between the Everglades Club and the Bath & Tennis Club.
After years of marketing hyperboles were popularized with slogans like The Gold Coast, Millionaires Row, and Mansion Row, in 2000 a local real estate writer confided “people are now calling the South Ocean Boulevard area Billionaires Row … because of all the CEOs and Fortune 500-types who live there.” Since then, the Billionaires Row tag has been cited more than 900 times by local newspapers, regardless whether some residents lack 10-figure Forbes recognition or the elsewhere GPS of other billionaires, among them, Bill Gates’ 30-acre $60 million encampment on Wellington’s Mallet Hill Court and the late David Koch’s Midtown compound.
Today, this nonstop segment of South Ocean Boulevard is a two-mile magnetic field extending from The Mar-a-Lago Club’s uncommon aura to longtime Vegas impresario Steve Wynn’s $43 million hacienda at Sloan’s Curve. As much as Palm Beach tends to believe its architectural jewels are worlds apart from conspicuous Beverly Hills mansions or glitzy Miami Beach celebrity cribs, these gilded real estate bubbles share comparable facets, such as EEE-sized shoe closets. Los Angeles’ Billionaires Row includes Hillcrest Road, Bel-Air Road and Beverly Park mansions, where reaching the top translates as a 60,000-square-foot faux chateau with a champagne room accessed from a gold-plated spiral staircase. On Palm Beach, money market strategists and financiers claim the need for anonymity and privacy while paying colossal amounts for a location branded to publicize their wealth.
The Old Order
During the early 1880s cartoonist-artist George Potter and his brother Dr. Richard Potter moved from Biscayne Bay to Lake Worth, claiming a 160-acre homestead with one mile of oceanfront that today encompasses Billionaires Row. When the Potters owned their idyllic lakefront retreat, they were credited as the first to build a house facing the ocean, naming it Figulus, meaning “place of the potter.” George Potter sold off parcels to Brooklyn chewing gum king Thomas Adams and Cleveland’s Charles W. Bingham, before moving to West Palm Beach where he became a banker and businessman. While Adams moved from the South End to Midtown, Bingham retained architect Forrest A. Coburn to design a frame vernacular house. Within the next several years, Tammany boss Richard Croker and his wife Bula Edmondson Croker bought several thousand feet of oceanfront to the south of Figulus, where local contractor J. T. McDonald built their cottage named The Wigwam.
At that time, county engineers set about obtaining rights-of-way for a proposed scenic ocean road planned to follow the shoreline palisade from Palm Beach to Delray Beach. The Binghams balked. After years of failed offers and counteroffers, engineers finally agreed in 1915 to divert the proposed road from Figulus’ oceanfront to a 40-foot right-of way along the lakeside.
Richard and Bula Croker were more agreeable, as they agreed for the road to run directly along the shoreline. Thus, these decisions resulted in a significant Great Divide — two disparate segments of Billionaires Row. North of Wideners Curve would accommodate direct secluded oceanfront estates separated from their lakefront by the boulevard; to the south, on-display properties where the boulevard detached residents from their beachfront and sightseers could. Following the 1947 hurricane, considerable road washouts at the south end of the ocean boulevard, As they did in 1915, engineers resurveyed, returning the road to the lakeside through the Alfred Sloan estate, making for Billionaires Row’s present.
Apart from the landmarked Mar-a-Lago site, once a section of pioneer Hiram Hammon’s extensive holdings, the cornerstones for Billionaires Row were Figulus and The Wigwam. In 1919 Charles Bingham conveyed the Figulus homestead with 17 acres, to his daughter Elizabeth Bingham Blossom. To his other daughter Frances Bingham Bolton, he deeded an equal 17-acre parcel where the Boltons built Casa Apava. To the south, the remaining Bingham sections were sold off, split between Royal Park co-developer George Jonas, who platted the Ocean Vista subdivision, and Charles Kennedy, owner of the Atlantic Fish Company. Early on, the Crokers sold off two of their extensive southerly parcels, one to Thomas Adams; the other to a development group called Palm Beach Estates.
Both the Binghams and Crokers sold parcels during the 1920s Boom to Addison Mizner who staked out three positions along what was by then called South Ocean Boulevard (SOB). At the distant south end, Mizner began building Sin Cuidado (1800 SOB) that he sold to Edward S. Moore. Near Mahawata, he acquired a four-acre ocean to lake parcel, selling it to Alice Delamar. Along the oceanfront, Mizner acquired a direct oceanfront parcel where he designed La Billucia for Bill and Lucy Kingsley that years later would border the Bath & Tennis Club.
Decades later, developers for both Bingham parcels tapped out financially — Michael Burrows at his Blossom Estates and E. F. “Bud” Hansen’s Casa Apava subdivision. Burrows handed off what was left of Blossom Estates to Boca Raton-based Straub Capital. Hansen had sold off several individual parcels before Citibank took the house and remaining property, selling Casa Apava to Ron Perelman for $11.6 million.
Following the death of her husband in 1922, Bula Croker faced decades of lawsuits; the court finally declaring her “bankrupt with no assets” in 1943. Three years later, Bessemer Properties sold the Crokers’ remaining 1,200 feet of oceanfront for $230,000 to Cleveland lawyer and Cincinnati race track owner Edward P. Strong. According to the book The Silent Syndicate, Strong represented the heads of the Cleveland mob known as “Big Four” – Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker, Louis Rothkopf, and Morris Kleinman. Bessemer Properties retained an additional 4,000 feet of oceanfront in Palm Beach’s South End between what became Sloan’s Curve and the Lake Worth Casino.
The Bingham and Croker estates sparked numerous subdivisions inspiring a continuous building binge. For some, the boulevard became an enchanted journey’s end. For others, a dead-end street of twisting columns and winding stairways leading nowhere except to a maelstrom of unrealized expectations and unintended consequences.
Among Billionaires Row’s earliest settlers were Wolcott Blair, Alfred P. Sloan Jr., Louis Marron, Thomas Walton and Joseph Walton, Bernard Kroger, Victor Searles, Albert Worswick, Paul Moore, Edward Moore, E. F. Hutton, Frank Prior, John Magee, Edith (Mrs. Henry Robinson) Rea, Fred Glidden, Franklin Smith, Joseph Widener, Alice Delamar, William Kingsley, and Caroline Perkins.
Somewhere between heaven and earth
In 1918 an upstate New York dowager Caroline Erickson (Mrs. Gilman Hill) Perkins’ wanderlust for an idyllic winter home brought her to Palm Beach’s South Ocean Boulevard, described then as a “remote wooded jungle setting.” She had spent the previous twenty years as a globetrotter, collecting passport stamps and unpacking steamer trunks while acquiring retreats in Virginia, California, and North Carolina. Perkins’ adventures were detailed in her diaries, highlighted in the article “Mrs. Gilman H. Perkins and Her World,” by Cyrus Hoy (University of Rochester Library Bulletin, Vol. XXIX, No. 1). These unpublished volumes reveal an untold perspective on early Palm Beach.
Caroline Perkins acquired a parcel in the Ocean Vista subdivision affording the “placid beauty of the lake and the lulling roar of the ocean.” Her Brigadoon was located to the south of Figulus and to the north of Wigwam. In the spring of 1918 Perkins hired contractor Clarence Wilcox to build a Spanish Colonial-styled “red-tile roofed dream house” with five master bedrooms, a 33-foot center hall, a 22-by-16 living room and same-sized dining room, butler’s pantry, and service stairs. Built at a cost $25,000 with stucco over hollow-tile walls and Spanish floor tiles, the estate included an ocean bathing house, a lakeside boat house, and a garage building with basement plus upstairs living quarters. When the project was completed in February 1919, a year before her neighbors Chester and Frances Bolton moved into Casa Apava, she invited her children and friends to celebrate the occasion.
Shortly afterwards, Perkins was once again struck with restless discontent. Though built to her requests with every modern convenience, she expressed dissatisfaction. On March 20,1919, the house with 300 feet of oceanfront was sold for $75,000 to a Philadelphian. The following day, “as if tired at last of the way in which reality disappoints expectation,” Caroline Perkins died in the early morning hours. The new owner of this “dream house” was Martha (Mrs. Charles) Walton who christened her latest acquisition Mahawata.
For many years, Walton and her sons Joseph and Thomas Walton bought and sold several nearby properties, finally selling Mahawata after Mrs. Walton’s death in 1931 for $80,000 to New York lawyer Messmore Kendall. A prominent theater owner, Kendall had produced several of Somerset Maugham’s plays. His Dobbs Ferry house once served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War. During the late 1930s Kendall sold a remodeled Mahawata for $185,000 to Chicago publisher Robert McCormick. A Mizner Development Company investor, McCormick is best known locally for owning what was called McCormick Mile, a stretch of oceanfront making up much of today’s Town of Ocean Ridge. As Palm Beach’s real estate market cratered during World War II, New York skyscraper builder Louis Horowitz paid McCormick $50,000 for his South Ocean Boulevard estate. An Old Guard Society member who wintered for years at The Breakers, Horowitz was the subject of the autobiographical book The Towers of New York. Known for building the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, on Palm Beach it was his skills at deep-sea fishing for marlin and sailfish that made him a popular part of the cottage colony.
When Horowitz’s heirs sought to sell the Florida house following his death in 1956, they must of thought who better to sell it to than Bernard Gimbel, one of Horowitz’s pallbearers. The Gimbels paid $80,000 for their friend’s estate, renaming it Chieftans, the same name as their Greenwich property. In 1987 developer Patrick Carney paid $3.1 million for Alva Gimbel’s estate, subdividing it into ocean and lake lots. Today the ocean parcel is home to English rocker Rod Stewart.
Through the looking glass
In 1920 Chicago industrialist Ralph H. Norton and his first wife Elizabeth acquired a 3-acre ocean to lake parcel, expecting at some time to build a mansion. Instead, they became tangled in a maze of legal pitfalls. Rumors began circulating if Gus Jordahn sold his oceanfront facility Gus’ Baths (Welcome to Our Ocean) to Paris Singer then possibly access to Palm Beach’s public bathing beach would be curtailed. Having sold a section of their Ocean Vista parcel to William Randolph Hearst, the civic-minded Nortons were approached by a group offering to option the Nortons’ property. The optionees would then sell it to the City of West Palm Beach for use as a public beach at a higher price than the amount the optionees would pay the Nortons. This high-minded pursuit was subject to voters approving a bond issue. Thus, when the bond issue failed, the Nortons discovered their optionees had already made off with a considerable amount of funds, leaving them tangled in litigation for the next several years before ever being able to resell it. Eventually, the Nortons settled in West Palm Beach.
In contrast, there was no more enigmatic man-about-town during the 1920s and 1930s than Victor Searles. “Gee Victor was a funny duck. Vickey, as we called him, used to wear purple socks, little brown shoes, a red tie, and a green suit. When I met him on the street, he was a scream,” described a Palm Beach wag. Searles’ fortune came about after he contested a rich uncle’s will, parlaying a $250,000 bequest into a multi-million payday. Before his uncle’s male secretary and live-in companion could claim his $15 million inheritance, Searles threatened him by dangling the testimony of a Greek bellhop’s “father-son affair” with his uncle. Abracadabra! Having settled for an additional $4 million, the former Boston book illustrator became an overnight Palm Beach wheeler-dealer.
When Texas choir director Coleman Cooper bought Il Palmetto at auction in 1950 for $71,000 as headquarters and residence for his Apollo Boys’ Choir, he thought Palm Beach would applaud his unique cultural contribution. He believed Il Palmetto was the ideal place for him to achieve his dream. Once neighbors complained and Town Hall was in an uproar, Cooper’s plans were put down for a residential rehearsal hall housing adolescent sopranos. A year later, with his choir adrift, he sold Il Palmetto to Philadelphians Simon “Si” and Helen Neuman for $150,000. Si Neuman headed Continental Distilling Company, a gin-whiskey-scotch distributor, and later, his wife’s family business Publicker Distilleries, the largest alcohol distillers in the world.
The 1952 death of Helen Neuman’s father Harry Publicker, who left a reported $150 million estate, brought about a $25 million slander suit filed by Helen’s sister Elva Mangold against her husband Si Neuman. Elva had been disinherited by her father in a 1945 codicil. Mangold claimed Neuman “… tried to kill her as part of a calculated plan to influence the disposition of the estate.” Further, she alleged Si called her “a moron, a peanut brain … and was running around with eight men.”
That lawsuit was eventually dismissed. A year later, although cases were refiled in Florida and Pennsylvania as an $11 million slander suit, the court ruled a mistrial. The Newmans had paid one-third of what Philadelphian Joseph Widener spent 25 years earlier building the six-acre ocean-to-lake estate at 1500 South Ocean Boulevard. Principal heir of his father’s $90 million trolley fortune, Widener paid $200,000 for the tract and more than $250,000 to build the 15th-century Italian styled 42-room villa with nine master bedrooms each featuring a wall safe. The Treanor & Fatio architectural firm also designed Eastover, a house in Manalapan for Widener’s niece and nephew Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt and Harold Stirling “Mike” Vanderbilt. At the same time he built Il Palmetto. , Widener opened Hialeah Park Race Track where he introduced pari-mutuel betting.
While Widener’s 200-acre race track featured pink flamingoes and black swans, his Palm Beach estate was finished with teak and marble floors, bronze windows, a private tunnel to the beach, and a 60-by-30 saltwater pool. In May 1929, as plans for the move to Florida were being made, his wife Ella Pancoast Widener died suddenly of a heart ailment at Lynnewood Hall, the couple’s Elkins Park estate. Ella had married Widener in 1894, three years after her first husband William Whitney Heberton passed away suddenly in Paris while on the couple’s honeymoon.
Widener’s son Peter A. B. Widener had already succeeded him as president of Hialeah Park before his death in October 1943. His art collection including 99 paintings and 26 sculptures was already in place at The National Gallery Art. A year earlier, Widener’s “silent partner” Edward R. Bradley sold his minority interest to a syndicate headed by Joseph P. Kennedy. The horse world was abuzz as to Widener’s majority shares of Hialeah Park’s stock.
Two years after his death, the controlling interest was sold to 20 purchasers, including seven Widener family members. The family’s attempts to sell Il Palmetto for more than $250,000 were not as successful, finally extending a multi-year lease with a buy option to Robert T. Vanderbilt. When Vanderbilt declined the option, the family sought a tax reappraisal since apparently there was difficulty in selling a 60,000 square-foot main house. With the property valued at $200,000, Il Palmetto was offered at auction in January 1950, resulting in Coleman Cooper’s purchase for one-third of its appraised value.
Just to the south of Il Palmetto, Chicago industrialist Franklin P. Smith retained architect Marion Sims Wyeth in 1924 to design Il Sogno. More than 60 years later, the house made headlines. In 1987 real estate agent Mary Jacqueline Broadway Smith Levitz moved into Il Sogno as the sixth wife of furniture mogul Ralph Levitz who bought the house three wives earlier from Maine’s Millicent Carnegie Sprague Monks, granddaughter of Thomas Carnegie. Described as “a fairy tale creation” when her 3rd husband Ralph bought it, for Jacquie, life inside the Billionarium began with the couple’s wedding extravaganza at The Breakers for 90 guests followed by a reception and dinner on Il Sogno’s terrace.
“A pretty enough spread but not a showplace …” wrote historian Judge James R. Knott of Il Sogno in his wedding diary, a collection of contemporaneous reflections on wedding ceremonies he performed on Palm Beach. “The bride was blonde, rather pretty and chatty … there were 15 waiters flying around the house … she appeared overstimulated compared to the groom … she was decorating the house in chrome and glassy stuff … She has been in Palm Beach for less than a year, and doubtless, hopes for a future unclouded by economic concerns,” Knott noted.
Four years after their wedding night, Ralph Levitz made changes to his will and trusts, moving Il Sogno’s title from a personal trust to his and Jacquie’s name. Five months later, the couple sold Il Sogno for $3.9 million to Frederick Adler, and then, moved to 124 Cocoanut Row. In 1995 Ralph Levitz died, leaving his last bride a considerable fortune.
Months after Ralph’s death, Jacquie Levitz became the subject of a tabloid murder mystery. “It’s like she had one life in Texas, created another one in Maryland, then another in Florida,” observed a friend, when news of her disappearance made national headlines. While her estate inventory listed a Rolls Royce, a 25-carat emerald cut diamond, a 10-carat Van Cleef & Arpels bubble diamond ring, a Canadian lynx fur, and a Blackgama fur coat, the only traces of her ever found were a bloody mattress, a blood-pooled bathroom, and a trail of broken false fingernail tips.
Jacquie was declared missing. With her sister and children named as her beneficiaries, an attorney for Palm Beach’s best known psychic filed a court notice to remove Levitz’s sister as the estate’s curator indicating there was suspicion of a possible murder, as she believed family members in some way, directly or indirectly, were responsible for her death. The psychic wrote, “… if her assets became known … will lead a direct path to the murderers.”
Further, the psychic and radio personality claimed the possibility of “intersibling murder … because of the Mississippi River gambling boat industry’s debt collection practices.” A Palm Beach County judge ended the psychic’s involvement in the case, ruling she had no right to interfere in the probate process or meddle in the Levitz family’s finances. In 2001, she was declared legally dead; her star-crossed destiny remains a mystery.
Among Billionaires Row’s departed, though under circumstances not nearly as noir as Levitz’s, were: Conrad Black (Baron Black of Crossharbour), Lazaris (a non-physical entity channeled by Jason Pursel), James Igoe, Jess Kimberling, Sarah Houghland, Harold C. Paull Sr., Terry Allen Kramer, David Mahoney, Daniel Mahoney, Siegfried Otto, Maya Swarovski, Malcolm Healey, Guilford Dudley Jr., A. Alfred Taubman, Malcolm Glazer, Robert and Mary Montgomery, J Patrick Lannan, Guilford Dudley Jr., E. F. “Bud” Hansen, George Straub, Clinton Corley, Clarence Mack, Owen Cheatham, Hollis Baker, Janet Annenberg Neff Hooker, Anna Murdoch Mann, Robert Ballinger Jr., Ailsa Mellon Bruce, Peter May, Linda and Paul Saville, George Lindemann, Michael Burrows, Charles Graham Berwind Jr., Ron Perelman, Sidney Kimmel, James Clark, Bill Koch, Victor Vargas, Dwight Schar, Frank McCourt, and Sydell Miller.
The return of the mega-mansion
During the 1980s and 1990s Reaganomics launched Billionaires Row to staggering heights, as values soared, the pace of turnovers increased, and the scale of construction expanded. At the time of what some called a rebirth, Realtor Martha Gottfried observed, “I wouldn’t say the face of South Ocean Boulevard is changing as much as it is receiving a face lift.” Paulette Koch described the evolving ocean-to-lake properties as “the best of both worlds.” Local real estate agents commented the tipping point was Malcolm and Linda Glazer paying Tom Waldron $2.5 million to tear down the old Archie Edwards house at 1482 South Ocean. “It was a ghost house with only walls and windows …” said Gottfried. The Glazers reportedly spent $1.3 million to build a 14,000-square-foot contemporary design with a 17-by 32-foyer capped by a 22-foot ceiling. Renowned architect Stanley Tigerman, however, known as the godfather of Chicago architecture, remarked, “Much of the stuff in Palm Beach is just horrible.” Tigerman observed,”miscalculated disproportionate mansions were too frequently built by people who all they have is money.”
While examples can still be found confirming Stanley Tigerman’s 40-year-old aesthetic concerns, there are several contemporary design highlights on today’s Billionaires Row. Thierry W. Despont’s Sidney Kimmel House at 1236 South Ocean Boulevard is of note, as is the Peter Marino-designed house next door, now scheduled for demolition. At 1902 South Ocean Boulevard, a 21st-century 30,000 square-foot house designed by StoneFox Architects built for Amy and John Phelan is also notable, albeit lacking the setback and perspective found at the 5-acre Kimmel House. Despite having never been built, Richard Meier’s extraordinary plans for Reed Krakoff at 1255 South Ocean Boulevard would have added a significant dimension to Billionaire Row’s architectural profile.
During the prolonged frenzy of sky-high metrics, more emigrants from the Northeast and Europe staked out Billionaires Row. Among the current longtime taxpayers and new wave are Steve Wynn, Willis du Pont, Charles Johnson, Thomas Peterffy, John Scarpa, Jeffrey Lurie, Paul Marais, Hillie Mahoney, Charles Johnson, Maureen Donnell, Stephen Schwarzman, Ruby Rinker, Lamia and Bradley Jacobs, John and Margaret Thornton, Paul Tudor Jones II, Lloyd and Susan Miller, Chris Shumway, Stanley Bogen, Jeff Greene, Earle Mack, John Phelan, Steven Schonfeld, Barbara Picower, several of Canada’s richest, a few offshore and/or covert Delaware LLCs, and Kenneth C. Griffin, Chicago’s best-known high-frequency trader who has become the Palm Beach real estate market’s deus ex machina.
Above and beyond
Among the world’s most enthusiastic collectors of cigar-box real estate, Ken Griffin dominates the Billionaires Row spotlight. While Griffin’s through-the-roof headlines on Lake Michigan, NYC’s Central Park South, Miami Beach’s Collins Avenue, Southampton’s Billionaires Lane, and London’s Carlton Gardens, turbo-fuel the real estate market, his nine-year spree on Palm Beach has locked up the town’s largest sandbox – a more than 20 acre spread of adjacent ocean and lake properties. Having curated the oceanfront Blossom Estates subdivision, and made generous local charitable contributions, it really is of no consequence whether Griffin takes another 10 days or 10 years awaiting divine inspiration.
Since plans were scrapped for his football field-sized glass house, described as “an understated, family-oriented beach house in a natural setting reminiscent of an unspoiled Tahitian landscape,” some speculate whether his sandbox will be the site of POTUS 45’s Presidential Library. Or, as others think, a “Smithsonian” sized sandcastle warehousing his art collection. Others venture he covets nothing more than having his own zip code. Not surprisingly, this past month Griffin’s Providencia Partners LLC received approval to demolish the two-decade-old Peter Marino Balinese-designed house. This was a recent $99+ million purchase of the former Lindemann-Vargas-McCourt house that added another 3.7 acres and 320 feet of oceanfront to his land bank. Even some envision, perhaps Griffin awaits the final piece of his Palm Beach arena, Hilago, at 1296 South Ocean Boulevard.
The range of Billionaire Row’s enduring appeal is something Ned and Marjorie Hutton might have realized in 1927 when they built Mar-a-Lago, the showplace that today stands as the gateway to Billionaires Row.
Next: Billionaires Row- Part II
From Mar-a-Lago to Widener’s Curve
Contemporary Aerial Photography: Brian Lee @ Woolly Mammoth Photography
Historical newspaper accounts: Palm Beach Daily News archive and The Palm Beach Post archive.