Keeping up with the ongoing pyramidal real estate binge that has attracted every speculator and quant trader from Las Vegas to Greenwich, WSJ’s recent report that Tarpon Island is under contract to a Miami Beach developer for “nearly $90 million” (Shiny Sheet confirmed “more than $80 million”) happens to fall on the 10th anniversary of a Miami Beach Setai condo sale for a then record-breaking $21 million, sold in 2011 by Palm Beach-Wellington “Internet pioneer” Jim Clark to his imminent fellow Palm Beacher, Chicagoland’s Ken Griffin. Hey, what is $10 or $100 million within the small world of multi-billionaires?
Since then, Griffin’s highly publicized Florida cache from Figulus to Star Island has multiplied, now at $500,000,000 +/-. Clark has zigzagged from a $4.7M buy to a $7.8M sale at 25 Middle Road to an $11M buy – $90M+/- sell/swap with Leo & Kate Vecellio at Il Palmetto (first priced @ $137 million), retreating to the Vecellios’ former 120 Jungle for a recorded $25.4M before unloading last month at $30M to a Chicago-based WinTrust deferred exchange subsidiary. Then, a bounce back, snapping up the Ziff family’s 16.6-acre ocean-to-lake estate + Bird Island for a Manalapan record-breaking $94.3+/- million (first listed in 2016 for $195 million).
The numbing frenzy of rapid trade gains is a reminder that Palm Beach’s real estate gambit should never be appreciated or rationalized by any mainland marketplace variables, whether the buyer is croupier and art connoisseur Steve Wynn or media influencer Sean Hannity, whose various LLCs bought hundreds of houses and apartment buildings during the past decade’s flurry, according to published reports.
And like much of Palm Beach during the past several decades, Everglades Island has undergone a massive makeover since Bessemer Properties planned and developed it for “smaller houses” scaled as an alternative to the Estate Section.
In August 2009, I wrote Everglades Island: A Century of Change — Treasured Island for The Palm Beach Daily News, no longer available online. At the time, I was able to speak with residents who thought they were getting away from it all, a world away on a tight-knit island, only to find themselves left with memories of the past while overwhelmed by the daily assault of cement trucks, chipping hammers, and pneumatic drills as builder-houses transformed Island Drive’s harmonious ensemble of less imposing villas into an increasingly-dense concrete canyon of chiefly 8,000 to 10,000-square-foot houses.
Take a few minutes, away from today’s virtual world of algorithmic machinic culture empowered by artificial intelligence and step into the Palm Beach time machine set for August 23, 2009 to hear from some who have since departed, among them, Frances Archbold Hufty, Judy Grubman, and Kamila Remington, who called Everglades Island home. Here is a 2009 look at Everglades Island with updates.
Everglades Island: A Century of Change — Treasured Island
At Palm Beach — where the exceptional, the remarkable, and the uncompromised are commonplace — Everglades Island is one of the town’s most unique milieus.
The subdivision’s formation and development, as well as the ongoing redevelopment, are a fascinating chronicle of a residential district disparate from the main island’s enclaves.
When Bessemer Properties platted and planned Everglades Island during the mid-1930s, its appeal and aesthetic were intended as an understated alternative to the mansionization of Palm Beach, popularized during the previous era.
For more than half a century, it was this prevailing economy of design and density in a relaxed informal setting in tune with the surrounding elements and environment that attracted residents to the island.
But — for some — the size, scale and style of the current redevelopment undermine the concept and rationale that initially led to the island’s creation.
Birds and boats
Everglades Island began as one of the natural islands scattered throughout Lake Worth. First known as Lone Cabbage Island, a quagmire of scrub palms and tangle of mangroves, the site once sheltered bird migrations along with wood-frame structures that housed a boat keeper’s cottage and various launches belonging to nearby hotels.
When the 15-acre property was offered for sale in 1921 by the State of Florida, Lincoln C. Holmes, whose boat building company had occupied the island since 1902, claimed he was the rightful owner, restraining the state’s sale for $21,000 to G. W. Bingham. When Bingham won a clear title the following year, he resold the island in May 1922 to a Phipps family company, Island Developers Inc.
In September 1923, Island Developers acquired additional surrounding submerged land, including Clement Island. Within months, a cloud developed on the title when the federal government claimed it was the rightful owner of the islands and not the State of Florida, leading to eight years of litigation. Before my eyes blurred from reading the endless court proceedings, the state claimed the island only became an island after the two inlets to the ocean were cut and deepened, lowering water levels that revealed land already a part of Palm Beach; the feds argued it was already a detached island domain and thus under their rule.
In May 1931, the federal government issued a deed to Island Developers. But there was still the question of a right-of-way across the 19-acres the Everglades Golf Course utilized when it expanded from a 9-hole to an 18-hole course.
A new boundary line was negotiated with the Everglades Club and in June 1937 Island Road Developers, a subsidiary of Bessemer Properties Inc., began building Island Road while on the south side of the road, engineering landfills for 11 building lots fronting the basin. The road curved south as Tarpon Way, first known as Clement Way, leading onto what became a private island. The road continued farther west over a small bridge onto Everglades Island, where the road split into Island Drive that traversed the island from south to north.
A 24-hour dredging and filling operation transformed the island sanctuary into a manmade, 3,500-foot residential island. Nearby residents were alarmed by the constant noise from the boats and machinery. But Bessemer’s managing director and Town councilman, James F. Riley, who supervised the Island Road development, was able to address the residents’ concerns and work continued on what was considered the town’s largest residential project since the 1920s. The work was completed in two stages, with Island Road, Tarpon Way, and the south 1,0000-feet of Everglades Island completed first.
After Island Road was built and waterfront building lots were platted on the road’s south side, work on Clement Island began. In December 1938, Tarpon Island was filled, bulkheaded and a bridge was built to access the approximate 400-foot by 250-foot island, first intended for two houses.
The following month, Clement Island was sold to Southampton resident Edmond Steuart Davis and his second wife Stella Wooten Bailey Davis. In July, the Davises filed a $36,000 building permit for a house to be designed by Howard Major and built on the east side of their island. After a round of housewarming parties and dinners, the Davises, for the most part, leased their Tarpon Island house during the season, staying at the Brazilian Court or a Worth Avenue apartment for the season before retreating to Southampton for the summer.
In 1946 the Davises sold Tarpon Island for $150,000 to longtime resident John Randolph Hopkins who soon became engaged in a contentious publicized divorce with his second wife Jeanne Husson Hopkins, a descendant of John Quincy Adams. Hopkins was heir to two fortunes. His grandfather Dr. John Hopkins owned a shelf of patent medicines and the largest selling hair-straightening product used by Blacks. His father, Russell Fox Hopkins married Vera Lawrence Siegrist, heir to the Listerine fortune.
Hopkins grew up at Arcadia, Russell and Vera Hopkins’ ocean-to-lake estate north of the Palm Beach Country Club, and Veruselle, the family’s Tarrytown estate that housed the nation’s largest private zoo that included, polar bears and a hippopotamus. His father was reported to have driven a carriage down Park Avenue drawn by zebras. Hopkins was also considered somewhat eccentric, even by Palm Beach standards. His first wife Virginia Burke divorced him in 1936, having accused him of “reckless extravagance and fraud.” On Tarpon Island, Hopkins kept Tillie, his pet Bengal tiger.
After Tillie was found in an “area west of St. Mary’s Hospital,” it was resecured in a habitat in West Palm Beach. Hopkins was still contending with his divorce when Tarpon Island’s first owner E. Steuart Davis filed a foreclosure suit against Hopkins. It seems Hopkins had made only one payment to Davis on a $60,000 mortgage. Davis won the foreclosure lawsuit. In 1948, Davis sold Tarpon Island to banker Wiley Reynolds Jr. for $115,000. And Hopkins? He fled Palm Beach during the 1950s, owing the IRS and his ex-wife. He was found in 1954, “A Fugitive from Alimony,” near Las Cruces, New Mexico, living in a pig farm.
Wiley and Janet Reynolds lived on Tarpon Island until 1979 when after three decades they sold it for $2.3 million to a Miami-based trust representing Mid-West commodities broker Ray E. Friedman, co-founder of the Ray E. Friedman Company (REFCO) in 1969 with his stepson Thomas Dittmer. A native of Sioux-City Iowa, Friedman served two years of a five-year federal prison sentence during the 1950s, convicted of “falsifying time stamps and selling substandard chickens to the US Army during the Korean War.” In 1966, Friedman received a presidential pardon from President Lyndon Johnson, allowing him to become a commodities broker, dealing primarily in livestock futures.
REFCO made further news when one of its clients Hillary Clinton was investigated for her extraordinary “overnight gains” in commodity trading. For Friedman, Tarpon Island was perfect for “entertaining on a grand scale,” hosting private gourmet dinners and fund-raising events. On and off the market for several years with an asking price as high as $16 million, Friedman, who was “raised on the back of an egg truck,” sold Tarpon Island to William and Eileen Toll for $7.6 million in 1998.
At the onset of WWII, only a few houses were built on Everglades Island— when all construction in the area was halted. The south end was not completed until 1946; two years later, the north end was cleared, filled, and secured with a sea wall. Once utilities were installed, Island Drive was paved with turnabouts at either end, landscaped with melaleuca and coconut palm trees.
Bessemer sold lots for $17,500 each. Lagoon front lots sold for $165 per front foot; Intracoastal Waterway lots were $190 per front foot. The developer offered lots with the following conditions: No discount for cash, one-third cash balance payable in one to five years at six percent interest, payable semi-annually.
Houses were to cost no less than $20,000 and contain no less than 30,000 cubic feet. A 30-foot front setback was required, and no garages were allowed that opened facing the street. All clients were subject to owner’s approval. Property was not available for speculative building.
By the mid-1950s, Everglades Island lots were dotted with low-key island-style houses, patterned after Bermuda, Lyford Cay and Caribbean styles. These less conspicuous seasonal retreats featured more informal interiors, Florida rooms, air-conditioning, and modern appliances.
Through the years, the owners of 608 Island Drive, the first house to the south as you cross the bridge, have added on to the existing house rather than demolish it and begin anew. Designed by Byron Simonson for Sea Island resident Monie A. Ferst in 1955, the house was built as a classical-style villa. Previous owners added a temple-front façade that functions as a screen, turning the front motor courtyard into a private courtyard. The owner, Judith Murat Grubman, utilizes the entrance as a sculpture garden, while maintaining the house, as well as the island’s original aesthetic balance.
During the 1950s, the stucco white elephants of the 1920s became passé as Palm Beach embraced Modernism. Everglades Island’s downsized secluded environment played a part in the resort’s movement toward living in a more resourceful resort with villas, small apartments and co-ops.
When Joseph Mass planned to build a house on Everglades Island that would rival the contemporary modernism of his Palm Beach Towers, he and his wife, Henrietta, “Hank,” retained Alfred Browning Parker, the legendary architect known for his Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired organic designs.
“Al Parker said he would buy the house if my parents didn’t like it,” recalled the Mass’s son, Leonard Mass. “It was sensational, they loved it,” he added.
The result was one of Palm Beach’s state-of-the-art houses; its Tropical Modernism featured slanted roof planes, limestone walls, cedar ceilings and enhanced with built-in custom furnishings designed by the architect. Dubbed the “30-60-90 House” for all of its triangulations, the house’s multi-level floor plan was shaped by structural and climactic considerations, thus becoming one of Palm Beach’s first eco-friendly “green” houses.
The house was set on the southeast point of Island Drive atop a raised foundation. It was configured for large-scale entertaining with extended terraces and balconies. Protected from the rain by wide roof overhangs, a wall of Persiana louvered doors opened to the prevailing breeze and morning light. Toward the street, horizontal bands of high windows captured the afternoon sun.
Residents recall the island’s calm tranquility as if it were on some far distant shore rather than five minutes from Worth Avenue.
Frances Archbold Hufty lived on the island since the development’s earliest days, with golf course views front her front windows and the waterway as her backyard. Granddaughter of John Dustin Archbold, Standard Oil Company of New Jersey director, vice-president, and president, Hufty headed several philanthropic concerns including the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, founded by her brother, explorer Richard Archbold.
“It is one of the only waterfront houses with a southerly exposure providing sunshine all day,” Mrs. Hufty said, as she prepared for a morning swim at age 96. “My husband and I bought lots on Island Road in 1939 and rented a house at the end of El Bravo until our house was ready,” she recalled. Her husband Page Hufty was a Washington, DC, insurance executive and champion golfer.
“Living here is marvelous. And to think, we watched it all being built,” she said.
“Everglades Island was where my parents bought their first house when they moved to Palm Beach more than forty years ago,” said Clare O’Keeffe. “It was a simpler, more relaxing time. The lovely sunsets across the Intracoastal veranda were an event, very peaceful and private. Living on an island off an island was safe, secluded and serene,” she added.
It took another resident only a few minutes to decide that a house with lake views to the south and golf course fairways to the north would be her home for the next 45 years. Jane Will Smithlives on one of Island Road’s oldest houses. Designed in 1942 by Treanor & Fatio, the house was built in the avant-garde Streamline Moderne style for Detroit industrialist Theodore Buhland his wife, Anastasia Ziegfeld Buhl. Mrs. Buhl was showman Flo Ziegfeld’s sister.
“I’d heard Mrs. Wilkinson wanted to sell. My agent, Alex Obolensky, told me I was not going to like it. He sat in the car and smoked. I walked in; I walked back out and told him to get me this house right now. He could not believe it. I have been here ever since. I knew then it was my house,” said Mrs. Smith.
Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Jayne Teagle Keith, grew up at the Island Road house; later, buying a house for her family near on the south end of Everglades Island just over the bridge from her mother’s house.
“We would fish in the ponds on the golf course, catch frogs and tadpoles; later, my sister caught barracuda in them. I suppose everything has gotten bigger in Palm Beach,” recalled Mrs. Keith. “Everglades Island has always been really special; the foxes help keep the island touch.” she said.
And yet, however golden its days past, the island has undergone noticeable changes during the recent building binge that some residents believe clouds the island’s future.
On a recent Friday afternoon nearly 50 construction service trucks were parked in the north end of Island Drive, either off-street within several construction sites or along the street. Workmen lounged on the curbs on bother sides of the streets. On another day, there were less than ten commercial vehicles at the same sites and none of them were parked on the street. Thus, as much as residents are perturbed about the volume of construction, it may also be the unpredictability of the street’s navigability that they say seriously affects the quality of life.
One resident, who passes through the north end of Island Drive every day, expresses concern about the intensity of development.
“My late husband, George Charles Thomas Remington, built our house in 1956 and I have lived here for more than thirty years,” said Kamila Remington, who now describes her once private and quiet location as, “a madhouse with all the building going on.”
“The Town Council has established guidelines as to construction sites on a residential street and the parking of trucks,” remarked John Page, the Town’s director of planning, zoning and building department.
According to the Town’s ordinances, each construction site may apply to public works for up to three allotted on-street parking permits for commercial vehicles. These windshield permits apply only to the use of existing legal parking spaces. There are no limits to the number of vehicles that can be parked within a residential construction site.
Since 1990 more than 40 per cent of Everglades Island’s houses have been demolished, according to the Town’s building department. Most were single-story, less than 5,000-square-feet houses, replaced predominately with two-story houses built about 40- to 60-percent larger, often with walls and gates.
While some residents moved to the island to downsize, they now find themselves hedged in among more massive houses, ones they thought they had eluded when moving to Everglades Island. “As much as I love the island, it isn’t what I expected,” said one resident. The ongoing construction may be going on for another several years. We should have a reasonable expectation of peace and quiet.”
Yet another islander voiced similar distress.
“I object to the island, my home, becoming a job site. There must be more Carrera marble here than in Carrera,” observed one resident. “These formulaic houses take away from the island’s charm. Why is it the first thing people think they have to do when they move to Palm Beach is demolish a house and built a living mausoleum to themselves? And, we have quite a few now on the island.”
At an April 2009 ARCOM meeting, commissioners approved another Venetian-style house on Island Drive, even though, according to the recorded minutes, they commented that the style may not be appropriate for Everglades Island and that building lots are maxed out. One ARCOM commissioner suggested planting a tree to mitigate the “McMansion feel of the house.”
But these distractions, may not be enough to outweigh the island’s market appeal. Between 2005 and 2009, Island Drive properties, teardowns and new-builds, have sold from $6 million to $15 million. Current listings are priced from $11 million to $17 million.
“Everglades Island will always be desirable because it is a choice location for those who want manageable, waterfront properties,” said Paulette Koch, a sales associate with The Corcoran Group.
Whether on Worth Avenue, at Town Hall or along Royal Poinciana Way, change is the essence of today’s Palm Beach. The island’s once smaller mid-century footprint has all but washed away, leaving some residents adrift with a sense of dislocation rather than appreciating the developing enormity.
Although Everglades Island was never formatted as a context for a stucco-and-barrel tile skyline with ornamental showplaces framed by tall thick ficus hedges and gates, it still retains many of its irresistible charms — Island Road’s stately row of royal palms frame picturesque views of the fairways, ponds and greens, the island’s tropical vegetation, the southeast ocean breezes, and the waterway and lagoon that encircle it are relatively unchanged. More than seventy years later, Everglades Island remains a treasured island, maybe just not for the same reasons earlier residents valued.
Tarpon Island — tomorrow, will it be $125,000,000 to live in this Palm Beach bubble?