Palm Beach Social Diary The Asphalt Jungle: Building History at Palm Beach

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After Henry Flagler announced plans on bringing the railroad to South Florida and building a resort hotel at Palm Beach, Lake Worth's pioneer colony knew their world of sailboats and steamers would be lost forever, as their once remote tropical refuge was transformed into a seasonal destination for high society. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Palm Beach’s patchwork network of roadways and eclectic ensembles of architectural styles were determined as much by episodic residential developments dividing estates into subdivisions as formulated by periodic trends, storms, lawsuits and politics. Beginning with Henry Flagler‘s “Pay-no-matter-the-price!” acquisition of a lakefront hotel site that triggered Palm Beach’s first land boom, until more than a century later, when Charles Bingham‘s descendants sold the last vestige of their pioneer-era Figulus estate as part of a $130 million transaction, real estate development has been the island’s enduring attraction.

At one time, Palm Beach’s allure was its secluded tropical setting interconnected by quays, footpaths and wheelchair trails. The resort’s centerpiece became its golf course, framed with railroad tracks and flanked by oceanfront and lakeside hotels. Having since reinvented itself as a residential enclave, Palm Beach swapped its exotic ambiance and existing landscape for subdivisions and roadways to accommodate a marketplace for picture-book cottages and mansions with imposing facades aligned on paved cul de sacs and thoroughfares.

Before roadways for automobiles were built, residents and visitors could take ferry from the West Side, as West Palm Beach was called, to the East Side, how residents referred to Palm Beach. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

Palm Beach’s residential industry is the town’s most commercial enterprise however much Worth Avenue’s runway of shops, County Road’s boutiques, and Royal Palm Way’s phalanx of office buildings garner the spotlight. Unlike Newport’s ensembles of period buildings reflecting a collective history, Palm Beach streetscapes have been fragmented and unsettled for the better part of the past century.

Today, streets appear to be as engaged by speculative construction sites, staged listings, and properties owned as much by anonymous limited liability companies as they are occupied by actual residents. Whether replacing Midtown bungalows with parking lots, townhouse rows and multi-story condominiums, or refitting sizable Estate Section mansion styles onto smaller sites on Everglades Island and the North End, early on Palm Beach established a repetitive cycle where succeeding generations did away with the previous era’s havens and hideaways deemed passé and obsolete. The town’s perpetual cycle of construction and reconstruction has resulted in making it an ultimate destination for architects, builders, construction companies, designers, and real estate agents.

When pioneer life centered on Lake Worth before the railroad, residents and visitors relied on skiffs and sloops to not only reach Palm Beach but also to navigate around the island. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
Palm Beach trails became tourist attractions. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
Palm Beach’s allure was its isolated habitats and jungle trails before the remote barrier island was transformed into an international destination. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
After being photographed in front of the Rubber Tree, visitors stopped in at the Ostrich Farm. Weekly Lake Worth News, c.1900.
When pioneer life centered on Lake Worth before the railroad, residents and visitors relied on skiffs and sloops to not only reach Palm Beach but also to navigate around the island. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

From Shangri-La to Showplaces

At the outset, Palm Beach’s terrain was a morass of coconut groves, pineapple fields, and backyard gardens. Trails and footpaths made from packed-down tall grass and saw palmetto fronds led to bluffs overlooking the ocean. Afar, the distant Gulf Stream current; below, a broad stretch of beach blanketed with shells. Properties were advertised for sale either “by Lake Trail or Jungle Trail.” In January 1891, The New York Times described Palm Beach as “the garden spot of Florida,” stating “There are no roads because none are needed.”

By 1900, “Everybody goes to Palm Beach.” Weekly Lake Worth News archive.

With the introduction of resort hotels and the tourist industry, the primary means for arriving and navigating the island were railway cars, a mule-drawn trolley and wheelchairs. Years after the opening of the Flagler-built 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.

By January 1906, Henry Flagler had completed a 66-mile road from West Palm Beach to Miami that for a distance consisted only of “a trail through the woods and canebrakes.” Yet, there was still no navigable road south of New Smyrna, 185 miles north of Palm Beach. During the winter season, after auto enthusiasts converged for speed racing on the Ormond-Daytona oceanfront, they had no alternative except to board trains to reach Palm Beach for the Motorboat Carnival and Regatta held on Lake Worth.

Two years later, an expedition left Jacksonville to measure the 371 mile extent of passable roadway to Miami. Accompanied by a surveyor and a reporter, these explorers made the trip driving a 40-horsepower Cleveland Pathfinder. They survived the five-day excursion carrying a pickaxe, spade, block and tackle, pine planks, and a camping tent for a journey where they encountered snakes, skunks, vultures, and turkey buzzards. In January 1908, their journey took them on trails “with grass as high as the radiator” and “swamp water a foot deep,” while placing mileage and directional information on signboards nailed to trees.

That same year, four of Palm Beach’s most prominent citizens — Harvey Geer, George Jonas, Elisha “Cap” Dimick, and Otto Kubin — formed the Royal Park Improvement Company, acquiring a 160-acre ocean-to-lake parcel located south of the Royal Poinciana Hotel. This planned residential development was a groundbreaking milestone that began Palm Beach’s remaking from an exclusive resort for the few to an accessible vacation home getaway for the many.

The roar of a train crossing into Palm Beach meant hundreds of new tourists visiting the island. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
With the hotels came thousands of visitors keen on enjoying the escapist pleasures Palm Beach offered. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
A railway car pulled by a mule took residents from their oceanfront and lakeside hotels around the golf course, stopping on Main Street and the Cocoanut Grove. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

Welcome to Royal Park

The Royal Park Improvement Company dredged the lake to fill-in the marshes and bogs before platting the parcel with building lots suitable for cottages and bungalows. The streets were named Cocoanut and Hibiscus, for the plantings that lined them, as well as exotic locations, Australian, Brazilian, and Chilean. The subdivision’s impressive entranceway was named Royal Palm Way, patterned after Chicago’s Drexel Boulevard. Its southern boundary was a street named Worth Avenue, named for Second Seminole War Brigadier-General William Jenkins Worth.

By 1911, a wooden toll bridge was built connecting Royal Palm Way with West Palm Beach. While the north bridge was still only a railroad-pedestrian corridor, the Royal Park bridge was wide enough for two vehicles to pass, allowing automobiles onto the island.

L. to r.: Royal Park entrance lions. Stereoscopic photograph, c.1913. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.; Royal Park. Newspaper ad, 1913. Palm Beach Daily News archive.
Before full-sized automobiles were allowed on the island, residents and visitors drive these go-cart type vehicles called Red Bugs along the Ocean Boulevard and the Lake Trail. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

During the years Royal Park was being built, other developers were inspired to survey and plat their own subdivisions. In January 1912, as George Jonas was moving into his new Royal Park home, E. R. Bradley and his brother John platted Sunrise Avenue in the new Floral Park subdivision on the north side of Main Street. Prompted by the editorial enthusiasm of The Tropical Sun newspaper and the Flagler-owned Palm Beach Daily News, tourists were encouraged to buy property. Directly north of Royal Park and south of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, Indiana developer Oscar Jose‘s City Builders’ Realty Company platted the Poinciana Park subdivision from the Frederick Robert and James Stillman estates. Promising “no cheap structures,” lot auctions lured participants, promising them “One dozen solid gold watches will be given away whether you buy or not.”

Thus, according to The Tropical Sun, “Palm Beach would no longer be owned by people who owned large chunks who did not care to sell which created an exclusiveness that limited the island to big hotel properties and the palatial homes of the comparatively few winter residents.”

Royal Palm Way. The two-lane Royal Park Bridge opened the way for automobiles to drive onto the island. Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

The asphalt jungle

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. A retired textile manufacturer and the owner of a North End ocean-to-lake estate, Goodman was a former president of the Chestnut Hill Improvement Association, where he directed the paving of that community’s fifteen miles of roadway. Petitions were signed supporting the 50-foot wide thoroughfare running along the ocean bluff. When completed the ocean boulevard would be not only “the most picturesque road in Florida” but also its 23-mile length from Palm Beach to Delray would make it “the longest ocean boulevard in the world,” declared local newspapers. The Tropical Sun proclaimed, “The spirit of progress and development was about to take hold, making the island accessible by automobile, allowing machines to go up and down the scenic boulevard.”

A rare look at the original configuration of Ocean Boulevard before the Hurricane of 1928. Above, a view of the road passing from the south end of Palm Beach, past the Lake Worth Casino into South Palm Beach, leading into Manalapan. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

With the construction of a boulevard along the ocean and the introduction of subdivisions, many of Palm Beach’s natural habitats were eliminated. Midtown became a crisscross of streets dotted with vernacular bungalows and cottages as the oceanfront setting was readied as a stage for impressive houses, though within a short time, When hotel guests returned at the beginning of the 1913 season, they found fewer trails and footpaths. Instead, they beheld three subdivisions with streets planned for as many as 200 houses, two banks, three newspapers, commercial lots selling at $200 a front foot, a new toll bridge, and a completed 50-foot wide ocean road extending north five miles from Worth Avenue to the inlet.

“The automobile will figure in Palm Beach life this season for the first time,” The New York Times predicted in January 1913. The resort would now be “… accessible to those other than have great wealth,” declared the article.

On January 10, 1913, Clarke Boynton drove across the Royal Park Bridge, nearly 60 days after left Boston by car. Having experienced numerous blowouts while being pulled by mules from mud holes in nearly every southern state, the trailblazer crossed rivers aboard ferries and rafts. Once on Palm Beach, he was able to house his automobile at the foot of the railroad bridge on Main Street across from Bradley’s Beach Club. Originally built in 1906 to house wheel chairs and a few horseless carriages, the Flagler-owned garage had begun making room for as many as 100 automobiles.

Four years after work began, the epic ocean road from Palm Beach to Delray was finally completed. A three-mile parade of 150 cars inaugurated “the state’s finest highway,” viewed along the route by more than 1,000 spectators. Making for the greatest gathering of automobiles in Palm Beach County’s history, the motorcade assembled at Royal Palm Way and proceeded south. For the length of the Bingham’s Figulus estate, which allowed only a lakeside right-of-way, the road abruptly curved west toward the lake before it arched back along the ocean at the beginning of the Croker estate.

Figulus, oceanfront. According to contemporaneous published reports, the planning for an ocean boulevard began as early as 1908. Because several property owners refused to allow a right-of-way, the road was delayed. The Bingham family, the owners of Figulus, pictured above, would not permit the road to cross their property along the oceanfront. Thus, the road curves along the lakefront at the Bath & Tennis property before it resumes along the ocean between what was then the Bingham and Croker properties. After the road was completed, the Binghams in-filled the swamp areas west of the new road, making for additional development parcels along the lakefront. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

Having triggered awareness for motoring as a recreation, hundreds of visitors ordered their cars brought down to Palm Beach. Florida was proclaimed a mecca for automobilists. Within a short time, taking a ride down to Delray became a bumper-to-bumper distraction. Soon, residents would complain the ocean road was a hindrance, filled with “rubberneckers.”

Considering Henry Phipps was among the first buyers along Palm Beach’s new scenic ocean road, The New York Times headline, “New Yorker will build three villas there for his family,” precipitated a boom for oceanfront parcels where previously the lakeside was the preferred location. For a reported purchase price of $90,000, Phipps acquired 1,000 feet of ocean to lake property in the town’s North End, south of what was then the Florida Gun Club that a few years later became the Palm Beach Country Club. The Pittsburgh steel magnate announced plans for three houses to be built for his children, Henry C. Phipps, Amy Phipps Guest, and John S. Phipps.

“Lined up at the gate of Gulfstream Boulevard.” Palm Beach Post, 22 January 1916. This photograph was taken in front of the Croker property on what became known as South Ocean Boulevard.

The big wave

By 1923, Rolls Royce had a showroom salon on Worth Avenue and a mechanic stationed on Royal Palm Way. Palm Beach Daily News Archive, 1923

The building craze that took hold on Palm Beach before the Great War was resumed with a fervor after the Armistice was signed in 1918. An even more enormous economic boom resulted, accommodating mansion building unfettered by rationale or constraints. For more than a decade, Palm Beach’s annual building permits rivaled those of the state’s larger cities.

By 1921, once dusty sand trails and shell-rocked paths were now made of brick, asphalt, and concrete. Road building struggled to keep up with the state’s now 74,000 motor cars. On Palm Beach, the Everglades Club added a parking garage to its amenities.

Worth Avenue featured Rolls Royce, Cadillac and Packard showrooms next to fashionable dress salons and jewelers. With Golf View Road reported to have more Rolls Royce owners than anywhere else in the world, the English auto manufacturer added a garage with a full-time mechanic on Royal Palm Way.

“Jungle Trail is to be destroyed, succumbing to home hunters,” read a February 1923 headline, indicating the continued loss of what two decades earlier was Palm Beach’s main attraction. With the platting and development of El Bravo Park south of the Everglades Club golf links, the town’s oldest and largest remaining collection of gumbo limbo, live oaks, mangroves, and cabbage palms was destroyed.

El Bravo Park advertisement. Palm Beach Daily News archive, 1923. The first subdivision south of Paris Singer’s property and the Everglades Club.

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. As much as the 1930s economic U-turn and the1940s war restrictions and embargos influenced the resort’s architectural style and scale, a series of storms during the late 1920s made drastic changes to Palm Beach’s landscape.

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.

“Buy Today, Profit Tomorrow – Palm Beach.” Palm Beach Post, 1925. The peak of the building boom.

North vs. South

In the years following the Hurricane of 1928, oceanfront property owners in the North End from Wells Road to the inlet were successful in having the heavily damaged ocean road permanently closed in front of their homes. The influential group, headed by E. T. Stotesbury, president of the Palm Beach Taxpayer’s Alliance, counted Charles Munn, Gurnee Munn, John S. Phipps, and Henry Phipps, among their membership. They argued the repair of the ocean road was a tax burden. After a contentious debate lasting several years, the group’s offer to pay for the widening and beautification of Palm Beach Avenue, also known as the County Road, was accepted. By the early 1930s, these residents had converted North County Road service entrances into their estate’s primary ingress.

Also, after the 1928 storm, the Garden Club of Palm Beach introduced its Town Plan for Palm Beach that led to the creation of a Planning and Zoning Board. While several key parts of the plan were instituted, several components were abandoned and never implemented, including the plan for keeping an oceanfront pathway open between Wells Road and the Palm Beach Country Club for pedestrians and wheelchairs. For the Stotesbury’s at El Mirasol, Treanor and Fatio designed an imposing new entrance portal during the early 1930s, adding a notable architectural presence along the town’s re-engineered County Road gateway to the North End.

El Mirasol and North Ocean Boulevard, c. 1925. After the ocean road was closed in front of their estate during the early 1930s, the Stotesburys had Treanor & Fatio design a new entrance portal along the County Road. Mistakenly, the Landmarks Commission designated it during the 1980s as designed by Addison Mizner when actually Mizner’s portal, pictured above, washed away during the Hurricane of 1928. Despite repeated requests by Fatio’s daughter Alex Fatio Taylor, Landmarks has never credited her father’s firm for the iconic landmark on North County Road that could have never possibly been the work of Addison Mizner. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

South End property owners, however, from Vita Serena to what is now known as Gulfstream Drive were not offered the same deal that transformed their North End counterparts’ estates into private oceanfront enclaves. Led by Harold S. Vanderbilt, these property owners were at first assured they would receive similar treatment. Although a bond issue had already passed to rebuild the ocean road in front of their homes, property owners were reportedly misled, believing the town would intervene and insist traffic be rerouted along the County Road.

Vanderbilt declared his “gentleman’s agreement” with Mayor Barclay Warburton should supersede the interests of the county and state road departments. The resulting rancor and political backpedaling caused Vanderbilt to sell El Solano, his Mizner-designed mansion on South Ocean Boulevard, and move to Manalapan, where later he became mayor.

As much as the construction of Ocean Boulevard was favorably anticipated, once it was completed Palm Beach residences were aghast at the “rubberneckers” who paraded up and down the seaside corniche gawking at their mansions. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.

The 1928 storm also washed out the three-mile stretch of ocean road south of Sloan’s Curve. It was repaired and kept in its original scenic location. After being patched-up, the road was lost again to a smaller storm and closed for two years. Repaved again, it would be considered a complete loss following the 1947 storm. At that time, the entire stretch of Ocean Boulevard from Sloan’s Curve to Manalapan’s Chillingworth’s Curve was permanently shut down and rerouted along the lakefront. During the succeeding decade, the road’s replat made room for rows of apartment buildings and their successors, multi-story condominiums.

Today’s Ocean Boulevard was first engineered more than 100 feet east of its present location. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

Twists and Turns

Just as Ocean Boulevard was restyled into something unrecognizable from its picturesque origins, the town’s Main Street was supersized into a thoroughfare. With the dismantling of the railroad tracks and the demolition of the train station, the new four-lane Flagler Memorial Bridge motorway opened in July 1938. A royal palm lined parkway named Royal Poinciana Way featured two fifty-foot lanes divided by a 69-foot center park dotted with yellow buttercups and bordered by seven-and-one-half foot wide sidewalks.

Main Street, aerial photograph, c. 1930. A view south along the Lake Trail and east to County Road, before it was remodeled into a parkway thoroughfare called Royal Poinciana Way. Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

The ad hoc development of North Lake Way and the Lake Trail grew with as many twists and turns as curves along Ocean Boulevard. The roadway’s path was frequently rerouted as much of the lakeside was prone to seasonal flooding as developers gained approvals for housing sites by filling in low-lying marshes and swamps.

In 1923, residents were warned that fire trucks would be allowed on the pedestrian path as there was no other access to several lakefront properties. The pedestrian walkway and the motorway were also subject to decades of conflicts over right-of-ways. Some lakefront residents blockaded the pedestrian trail, leading them into lengthy court fights with the town. It wasn’t until the early 1940s when agreements were reached with the Palm Beach Country Club and Anna Dodge Dillman, owner of Playa Riente, permitting a continuation of Lake Way into the far North End.

The town’s Main Street became Royal Poinciana Way during the late 1930s. Courtesy State of Florida Archives.
The widening of Royal Palm Way to 150 feet from the lake to Palm Beach Avenue (County Road) was implemented as part of the Garden Club of Palm Beach’s plan. State of Florida Archives.

Design detour

In his article “Revolt at Palm Beach,” published in the September 1935 issue of House Beautiful magazine, local historian Louis Capron declared there had been a seismic shift in architectural style. Capron wrote that during the winter of 1933-1934 island architects began adapting the Tropical Colonial style, first introduced the previous decade by Howard Major on Peruvian Avenue at Major Alley, the architect’s attached cluster of mixed residential types.

Capron pointed out Bermuda influences could be found in the emerging Georgian, Southern Colonial, Monterey, and British West Indies style houses, specifically Major’s West Indian neoclassical design for George Jessel and the 18th century French-inspired mansion for Bernard Kroger by Volk and Maass. These less theatrical treatments, designed more to be lived in than to impress passers-by or party-goers, shared structural similarities in their use of balconies, verandahs, window types, and shutters.

Construction –” the best barometer of the community’s progress.” Palm Beach Post archive, 1937.

In 1937, when Town Hall issued permits for 66 houses totaling more than $2.4 million, the most popular locations for new construction were the North End’s Inlet subdivision, Pendleton Avenue, Cocoanut Grove, and North Lake Trail. The year’s most expensive permit for $165,000 was issued to E. F. Hutton for the construction of Four Winds, then known as the town’s largest frame house.

Even as the threat of World War II grew, new construction continued on the island. During the fall of 1940, Mary Benjamin Rogers was having an investment house built on Chilean Avenue’s lake block, designed by architect Belford Shoumate. The following year, 40 houses were built, though not “large country club houses.”

After acquiring a right of way for an access road (Island Road) from the Everglades Club, the Phipps-owned concern Bessemer Properties began development of Everglades Island during the 1930s, first dredging and in-filling the south end. After World War II, Bessemer resumed its improvements, restricting house sizes and ownership to owners only, not speculators. Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Where building never ends

In May 1945, E. R. Bradley, proprietor of “the sky’s-the-limit” casino at the Beach Club, announced his landmark destination would be torn down and become a park. Following the end of World War II, gambling on Palm Beach took on a different meaning with the escalation of the resort’s flourishing building industry. The lifting of wartime restrictions and an increasing supply of materials turned 1947 and 1948 into banner years for construction. On Sunrise Avenue east of the Paramount Theatre, the 60-room Carlton Hotel was built for $500,000. The lakefront Beaux Arts shopping center, designed by August Geiger in 1917, was converted into a 24-unit apartment house. The Colony movie theater opened on Sunrise Avenue west of County Road. Even the pier, newly renamed the Palm Beach Pier, was augmented with a cocktail lounge, widened promenade deck, and a “smart restaurant.”

The Phipps family’s commercial development interests, Bessemer Properties and the Palm Beach Company, continued to subdivide and develop its extensive holdings. In Midtown, Bessemer resumed the development of Everglades Island, interrupted by the war. In the North End near the inlet, Phipps interests subdivided estates with residential building lots. South of Widener’s Curve, a Phipps-related company acquired the vast oceanfront parcel that once made up the Croker estate and various ocean-to-lake parcels as far as the Lake Worth Bridge.

In 1950, Bessemer acquired the Royal Poinciana Hotel property from the Florida East Coast Hotel company for a commercial development. The following year, the company sold an outparcel along Cocoanut Row for bank site and installed a 1,282-foot seawall from Whitehall to the Flagler Memorial Bridge. Shortly thereafter, Bessemer sold the former landmark hotel property to the developers of the $5.5 million Palm Beach Towers hotel-apartment complex, acknowledged as the largest hotel-apartment complex in Florida. To the south of Sloan’s Curve, where the ocean road was re-routed along the lakefront, Bessemer’s development potential doubled, making for sites on both sides of the new road. Across from what became Phipps Park, Bessemer filled in an island and platted Ibis Isle in 1953.

The post-World War II era also introduced another stylistic about face. Unlike the 1930s, when modernist houses stood alongside the borrowed motifs from the Spanish and Italian Renaissance, several of the island’s great mansions were demolished, supplanted by rows of subdivision houses with modern conveniences. In 1955, 64 new residential building permits were issued. Samuel Peck’s new $208,000 home on Jungle Road was the year’s largest permit. By 1956, building permits were issued for more than $10 million; Palm Beach was again posting construction records.

“Anyone who doesn’t think Palm Beach is growing, should examine our records,” said Edward Ehringer Jr., the town’s chief building inspector. “From 1945 to 1955, the annual totals for building permits has increased from $1 million to $6 million,” Ehringer added.

Six years later, building permits outrivaled those in 1925, considered the resort’s greatest construction period when The Breakers and The Alba-Biltmore were built. In 1962, $20 million in concrete, steel and wood was poured onto the island, highlighted by the 96-unit The President in the South End, the six-story Florida Capital Building at Royal Palm Way, the 64-unit 400 Building in Midtown, and the 60-unit Lake Towers apartments built for $1.6 million on North Lake Way. Under the headline “Luxury Building Boom” at year’s end the Palm Beach Daily News reported, “Palm Beach has never grown so fast and so high as in 1962.”

It wasn’t until 1969 that residents grew wary of the town’s building upsurge. “Building Boom Perturbs Palm Beach Civic Group,” read a Shiny Sheet headline, as the need for a building moratorium gained support. Despite new limitations, the Town Council granted exceptions allowed building permits to reach record highs. By the beginning of the next decade, more than 25,000 cars daily crossed the Flagler Memorial Bridge between Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. A 1973 zoning change converted Royal Palm Way from predominately residential to commercial, paving the way for multi-story office buildings. “What was at one time one of the most beautiful streets in Palm Beach has been quartered and skewered,” wrote resident Whitney Cushing, who described the zoning change as “the last nail in the coffin.”

Hard hats, Black ties and Ball gowns

Just as Gilded Age mansion builders and real estate speculators ushered in the 20th century, the echo of Flagler’s “Pay-no-matter-the-price!” remains Palm Beach’s mantra for its ongoing 21st century real estate boom where some houses have been bought and sold so often that neighbors claim garages stow moving vans and house entrances are equipped with revolving doors. Ironically, the same development interests that once claimed smaller, more modern houses were most suitable for Palm Beach, several decades later, would demolish those houses and replace them with variations of the much the same larger houses they once destroyed.

Whatever the forgotten aspects that may have first brought the fortunate few to Palm Beach’s now vanished jungle, the tireless yen for the bigger-the-better has displaced the sentiment for the familiarity and acceptance of the status quo. For as long as the business of Palm Beach is building, and residents opt to remember the past rather than live with it, the island’s appeal remains its ever-changing unsettled landscape.

The Midtown roundabout at Town Hall was a result of the addition of the Mizner Memorial Fountain. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland – Reflections on Palm Beach.

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