With past and present presidential links garnering much of the Palm Beach limelight, it may be fitting to recount the work of the youngest son of President James Garfield, architect Abram Garfield, who designed Casa Apava. Although today it is best known for its Billionaire’s Row location, impressive measurements and astronomical price, the secluded oceanfront mansion has an equally fascinating provenance, historical narrative and picturesque architectural character.
The Chester and Frances Bolton house has prevailed, even as much of the Bingham family’s architectural contributions exist only in scrapbooks or namesake subdivision plats and while the family’s onetime Blossom Estate is currently undergoing yet another sweeping reconfiguration and transformation.
Always overshadowed by the fabled Playa Riente, Cielito Lindo or Mar-a-Lago, the sheltered beach house has endured 97 years of storms, renovations, additions, and subdivisions. Designated a local landmark in 1980, the main house’s existing composition and landscape only hint of its marvel when it was a part of Figulus, the Charles and Mary Bingham legendary botanical showcase with 2,500 feet of lake and ocean frontage that was initially planted with specimens collected by renowned botanist David G. Fairchild.
Before the Boltons obtained the first blueprints for their Palm Beach compound in December 1919, Cleveland-based Garfield had spent several weeks during the previous winter at Palm Beach sketching possible floor plans, design motifs and proposed sites for the house. Garfield was a houseguest at Figulus, the Bingham family cottage designed in 1894 by Forrest Coburn, also a Cleveland architect. The scale and richness of the Bolton’s house would surpass the family’s understated shingle-styled Figulus, considering Frances Bolton had become a principal beneficiary to her bachelor uncle Oliver Hazard Payne’s fortune.
On June 27, 1917, Standard Oil treasurer and American Tobacco financier Oliver H. Payne died leaving an estimated more than $60 million estate to 49 beneficiaries. During his lifetime, Payne shared his wealth with his sisters Flora Payne Whitney and Mary Perry Payne Bingham and their children. While Payne generously divided his portfolio among civic institutions, charities and staff, the major legatees were his nephews and nieces: Harry Payne Whitney, Payne Whitney, Harry Payne Bingham, William Bingham, Elizabeth Bingham Blossom, and Frances Bingham Bolton. While their male Whitney cousins and brothers received more than double the amounts they received, Elizabeth Blossom and Frances Bolton each inherited $3.7 million plus a share of Payne’s residual estate, according to published reports.
Frances Bolton’s windfall afforded latitude to design a house more imposing than Franchester, the Colonial Revival-style house Garfield had already designed for the Boltons in Cleveland. Casa Apava would be in keeping with the Everglades Club villas and main clubhouse completed in January 1919. With Garfield working on the Boltons’ plans at his Cleveland office, Frances’ father Charles W. Bingham proceeded to subdivide Figulus, conveying near equal 17-acre parcels to his daughters Elizabeth Blossom and Frances Bolton, allowing them to proceed with plans to build their own Palm Beach houses. Their brother Henry “Harry” Payne Bingham and his wife Harriette, a noted sculptor, also built a cottage on South Ocean Boulevard, located where later Woodbridge Road was platted in 1936, as part of the Bingham-Copp Tract by the Phipps-owned Palm Beach Company.
Shortly before Harriette Gowan Bingham divorced Bingham, she and her cousin, fellow sculptress Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, aka Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, showed their work along with Paul Manship during the 1923-1924 season on Palm Beach at Glenn Hodges’ gallery on South County Road.
1300 South Ocean Boulevard
When construction began on Casa Apava, Abram Garfield was already a well-known architect with a solo practice for nearly fifteen years. A graduate of Williams College, Garfield studied architecture at MIT before establishing Cleveland’s Meade & Garfield firm in 1898, seventeen years after the assassination of his father. In 1903, Garfield designed his father’s presidential Garfield Library. Along with other civic and institutional commissions, Garfield’s residential work included Cleveland residences for Mrs. John Hay (1910) and Elizabeth Bingham Blossom (1915). In 1925 Abram Garfield was elected first vice-president of the national American Institute of Architects.
Casa Apava was set back on a ridge more than 300 feet from the ocean. Rather than a port-cochere entrance, the south end of the house featured a driveway leading beneath the house to a barrel-vaulted vestibule. This lower level was outfitted with a men’s and ladies’ lounge and a spiral staircase running up to the formal entrance. The first floor living areas overlooked the ocean, following a one-room deep 160-foot long north-south axis constructed with reinforced concrete walls.
Entered from the foyer, the living room measured 24-feet by 30-feet. It was detailed with tiled floors, tall windows to the east and west, a painted ceiling, and doors opening north onto the terrace and west to a loggia. In contrast, the dining room was floored with a faux marble painted concrete floor as well as spacious windows to the east and west. A north end loggia overlooked the terrace and swimming pool. While the seven bedrooms on the second- and third-floors reflected a “gracious livability,” they were built with stucco over structural-tile walls and finished with varnished oak floors. Capped with a Mission-style cupola, a four-story tower with an open belvedere afforded panoramic views. At the time as the house neared completion, it was characterized as an “English manor house with Spanish details.
Casa Apava (1987-2017)
Before Kenyon Bolton’s death in 1983 and before his widow Mary Bolton and their children sold Casa Apava for $14 million in 1987 to a real estate developer, it was designated a local landmark in 1980, characterized as “Hollywood Spanish.” In a 1986 sales brochure, Sotheby’s International Realty advertised the 18-acre property for $15 million and the oceanfront main residence and adjoining six acres for $6.5 million. Described as being of “irregular shape,” the 26-room main house with nine fireplaces and six staff bedrooms was said to be “extensively modernized and updated,” with the “Master Bedroom Suite featuring a bidet and whirlpool.”
After dividing the property into several parcels and mortgaging it for more than $16 million, the new owners experienced financial hardships. The foreclosed property was sold by a Citibank derivative to Ron Perelman. In 1994 Perelman announced plans to “return Casa Apava to its former grandeur.” The extensive additions and significant restoration for “the town’s most historic jewel” were implemented by New York architect Mark Ferguson and local architect Jeff Smith. A decade later, Perelman sold the main house and lakefront parcels for a recorded $63.6 million, or $70 million depending on whom you care to believe, to homebuilder Dwight Schar. After selling off three lakeside lots for as much as $45 million, Schar sold Casa Apava with approximately 400-feet of oceanfront in 2015 for more than $70 million to hedge fund colossus Paul Tudor Jones II. During 2017, Jones received approvals from the Landmarks Commission to make the following changes:
Casa Apava at Pan’s Garden
386 Hibiscus Avenue – Palm Beach
Photography by Augustus Mayhew.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Palm Beach-A Greater Grandeur