Realtor’s Domain: Greenwich at Palm Beach, 1917-1925

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When Greenwich was proclaimed the “country’s richest town” during the summer of 1918, Ladd & Nichols, one of the town’s leading real estate agencies, was already capitalizing on the firm’s market savvy and moneyed connections by setting-up another office at Palm Beach. Image Library of Congress archive.

The seasonal Greenwich-to-Palm Beach migration took a major departure when Connecticut tax laws turned Shore Road snowbirds into permanent Ocean Boulevard cliff dwellers. Even so, during the current pandemic their discarded Greenwich home gyms and wine cellars have been snapped up by incoming New Yorkers in search of the Back Country’s social distance. These days, Palm Beach, “the hottest real estate market on Earth” is often marketed as the New Greenwich with the ongoing influx of as many as 100 hedge funds and private equity firms headquartered along Royal Palm Way and Flagler Drive where they can make the most of Florida’s lax parameters.

Actually, Greater Greenwich’s influx may have begun more than a century ago when Ladd & Nichols partner Morton “Tim” Colton Nichols, among others, registered at the Royal Poinciana Hotel with his checkbook ready to buy whatever the price as the Great War occupied once favored European resorts. Nichols and his wife Ethel Dietz Nichols would play a noticeable role in fueling Palm Beach’s transition from a hotel-centered resort to a permanent residential development.

As well, Tim and his partner Niel Morrow Ladd opened Ladd & Webb, with Palm Beach associates Blaine Webb and Lamar Webb, before incorporating as Ladd & Nichols in Florida, and later, Ladd & Nichols Miami. The firm was a patron of Wyeth & King associate architect Marion Sims Wyeth. Within a few short years, Ladd & Nichols represented various Phipps familyprojects, Paris Singer and E. F. “Ned” Hutton’s Golf View Road development, along with Singer Place and Singer’s failed North End project called Palm Beach Ocean, now Singer Island. Ethel Dietz’s family, Frank & Anna Clement, developed El Bravo Park, adjacent to the Everglades Club golf course, initiating the Estate Section enclave with Wyeth and Mizner spec mansions, an alternative from Midtown’s smaller-scaled subdivisions.

1917. Greenwich’s Ladd & Nichols was among the first Northern realtors to gain a foothold on Palm Beach, establishing a year-round office in West Palm Beach before opening bureaus on Palm Beach and Miami Beach.

Today Greater Greenwich has more than 1,300 real estate agents with Palm Beach’s buy-and-sell ranks numbering as many as 1,000. While the work of architects and interior designers dominate book shelves and coffee tables, property agents vigilantly safeguard the real estate market’s pyramidal house of cards. Here is a look back at the now forgotten time when there were more dressmakers and cigar stores than real estate offices. 

The Gilded Age: Greenwich & Palm Beach

 Although Ocean Boulevard’s recent nine-figure real estate sales overshadow Indian Road or John Street asking prices, in 1903 it was Greenwich’s “salubrious ground where champagne flowed …” having reimagined itself to be somewhere in the Cotswold Hills. With the weekly Greenwich Graphic boasting “more millionaire subscribers than anywhere in the United States,” the building of quintessential country estates in picturesque settings with boxwood gardens took hold, turning farms into aristocratic enclaves “guarded from every nuisance.” The transformation of the old Bush Farm into Belle Haven was regarded “the opening wedge,” the genesis of Greenwich’s real estate operations that led to a population of 15,000 genteel summer suburbanites. Other residential centers also flourished, “unmarred by factory or shanty,” like Byram Shore, Sound Beach Park, and Riverside, according to the New York Daily Tribune.

Elaborate country estates became the mainstay of the Greenwich landscape, supplanting working farms and orchards. Among the earliest, the Edmund Cogswell Converse house, courtyard pictured above, set on the more than 1,400-acre Conyers Farm. Library of Congress.
“Handsome Greenwich … rustic simplicity.” New York Daily Tribune, April 5, 1903.
Robert Wellstood & Sons, 431 Greenwich Avenue. “Their renting lists are the most desirable …” decreed the NY Daily Tribune in 1903.
“No mosquitoes, consequently, no malaria.” The Thomas N. Cooke agency and Laurence Timmons were among the prominent early Greenwich firms, along with Cleveland, Duble and Arnold, that later merged with Ladd and Nichols. New York Sun, 1906.

At the same time, the Greenwich summer set was selecting curtains, fabrics, paintings, and shade trees for their manor houses, Palm Beach’s winter colony, with few cottages available for seasonal leases, were housed in Henry Flagler’s hotels. Except, of course, Flagler and his third wife Mary Lilly Kenan Flagler who were ensconced at Whitehall, praised as the most gilded 75-room mansion south of Washington. In June 1903, The Breakers was destroyed by fire. Rebuilt as a far more commodious hotel, it reopened the following season with 425 rooms. It would still be more than a decade before Henry Phipps’ children built their oceanfront houses, aspiring to the same architectural standards as Greenwich’s architectural extravagances.

Whitehall’s Louis-Louis interior was installed by Pottier & Stymus, while available cottages were accessorized with what was then described as “Northern attic furniture.”
Palm Beach, 1903. Rather than Greenwich’s tamed landscapes sprinkled with refined summer houses, a Palm Beach lakeside or jungle getaway promised sun, sand, and unrestrained pleasures, rather than architectural provenance.
In 1903, as Henry Flagler’s second wife Ida Alice Shourds Flagler sat locked up for life in a New York sanitarium for her pursuit of spiritualism, guests at Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel were enjoying an evening of palmistry, Ouija, and seance with Mr. Old, the famed “palmist and occult teacher.” Tropical Sun newspaper, University of Florida Collection.
“They dine, they dance, they entertain, and they gamble …” From the first train’s arrival, New York’s 400 led the stampede to Palm Beach, initially for brief sojourns before a more developed Cottage Colony generated reason to stay longer than a few weeks. Image Baltimore Sun, 1903.

Before building their own cottages, New York’s 400 reserved a suite at The Breakers for one of their bespoke oceanfront cottages, pictured above, as they once existed. Seven of the eight north cottages were demolished: Sand Drift, Atlantic, Ocean View, Surf, Wave Crest, Reef, and Nautilus, making room for multi-story apartment buildings. Sea Gull Cottage was moved to grounds adjacent to the Poinciana Chapel. Never landmarked, the south three cottages, Oceanic, Sea Side, and Spray, are believed to still exist, considered among Palm Beach’s most historic and most architecturally significant buildings. Drawings by Sanborn Insurance and H. C. Fugate, c. 1900, Henry Flagler’s engineer. Courtesy University of Florida Collections.

Ladd & Nichols

The Ladd & Nichols real estate company was established in June 1916 with an office located in Greenwich Avenue’s Smith Building, becoming one of the town’s 50 real estate offices. Brooklyn bookstore owner and renowned bird enthusiast Niel M. Ladd together with Staten Island stockbroker and landscape extraordinaire Tim Nichols incorporated their firm the following year. However disparate Ladd and Nichols’ backgrounds may have appeared — Niel was Brooklyn public schools and Tim was Old Boston, think Tea Party and Harvard ’93 — their partnership was initially successful. They did have one thing in common; they both married wealthy wives.

Ladd ran the Greenwich, Rye, and Long Island branches, while Nichols watched over the Manhattan, Palm Beach, and Miami bureaus. Although Tim and Niel’s partnership was short-lived, ending in 1922, the Ladd & Nichols brand prevailed until the late 1980s when it merged with the venerable Cleveland Duble & Arnold firm. And then more recently, integrating with Sotheby’s International Realty, according to Realtor Tom Gorin, former CDA president.

Smith Building, 289-295 Greenwich Avenue. The first Ladd & Nichols office was in the Smith Building, a contributing building within the Greenwich Avenue Historic District. Courtesy Greenwich Public Library.
Ladd & Nichols represented “high-class” properties in Greenwich, filled with “old-fashioned people and things.” Image Country Life magazine.

Niel Morrow Ladd (1878-1940)
From books to bird houses to mansions

 Niel and Agnes Ladd had been settled in Belle Haven for more than five years by the time Tim and Ethel Nichols moved into their new Greenwich house in 1915. Both Niel and Agnes were from Brooklyn Blue Book families. In 1897, with the backing of family and private investors, Niel established a book store (“The Biggest”) at 646 Fulton Street, only a few blocks from where his future wife’s family clothing store, the A. J. Nutting & Company, was located at 386 Fulton Street, founded and operated by his father-in-law Andrew Jackson Nutting, Brooklyn’s merchant prince.  Apparently, Mr. Nutting was as well-known at the Beach Club’s dice tables as he was in Saratoga’s gambling rooms.

Before turning to real estate in Greenwich, Ladd and his brother Frederick H. Ladd, operated Brooklyn’s “Biggest Book Store.”

The Ladds’ engagement was announced in March 1910 with plans for a summer wedding in Greenwich where AJ had built a new home, he called Casa Mia. On June 15, more than 150 guests gathered at Casa Mia for an afternoon garden wedding followed by a sit-down French dinner catered by Louis Sherry. When it was time to toast the bride and groom, AJ surprised the newlyweds, announcing he was giving them a new Packard touring car and Casa Mia, the Belle Haven house where the wedding was held. Following a Berkshires honeymoon, the Ladds settled into Greenwich life where Niel cultivated interest in Greenwich’s bird habitats and photographing birds, a founder of the Greenwich Protective Bird Society. Ladd could be found in Greenwich strapped for hours to a tree branch waiting for the precise time to snap one of the town’s prized nesting birds.

How to Make Friends with Birds, 1916, a book by Niel Morrow Ladd, who also wrote How to Attract Wild Birds About the Home. Ladd served as president of the Greenwich Protective Bird Society.
Edmund Converse’s Conyers Farm, pictured above, was first to enroll in the Greenwich Bird Protective Society’s guidelines, followed by Elias Cornelius Benedict’s estate. Courtesy Library of Congress. Frances Benjamin Johnston Photography Collection.
“Bird Life as Seen through Niel Morrow Ladd’s Camera,” 1915. A captivating article detailing Ladd’s passion for birding and the role Greenwich habitats played in his development. Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
At its 1915 Bird Masque fundraiser, the Bird Ballet committee chair was none other than Marjorie Post Close, a Greenwich resident since 1905. Two decades later, then Mrs. E. F. Hutton, she and husband Ned built Palm Beach’s celebrated Mar-a-Lago.

Morton Colton “Tim” Nichols (1870-1932)
From Staten Island to Belle Haven

During the 1840s, Tim Nichols’ father William Snowden Nichols moved from Boston to New York, eventually settling on Staten Island’s Grymes Hill. An early member of the New York Stock Exchange (1854), the elder Nichols established Wall Street’s Stone & Nichols brokerage office. A founder of New York’s Union Club, William Nichols was the “largest handler of gold during the Civil War,” according to his New York Sun obituary. In 1904, the year before he died, his son Tim attained a NYSE seat.

Vale Snowden, Nichols Estate, Staten Island. “History and Legend of Howard Avenue and Serpentine Road, Grymes Hill.” 1914. Today, a nearby college’s baseball diamond is planted where the Nichols pile once stood.
Grymes Hill, Staten Island, the auction sale of Vale Snowden, the Nichols family estate. The 18-acre estate sold for $22,000.
Morton Nichols’ brother Erickson Norman Nichols, Master of the Hounds at the Richmond County Hunt Club, and fiancé Edith Haines, pictured above, photographed at the Hunt Club, Staten Island. In 1895, the Nichols brothers organized the Staten Island polo club. Courtesy Staten Island Historical Society. Alice Austen photographer.
Tim’s other brother was William Gilman Nichols, president of Herter Brothers from 1891 until its dissolution in 1906, the Gilded Age’s most prestigious interior design & decoration firm. Pictured above, Portrait, William Gilman Nichols, by the renowned Harry Watrous, who was married to Tim’s sister Elizabeth “Bessie” Nichols Watrous. Private Collection.

Before Nichols moved to Greenwich in 1915 with Ethel, his second wife, where he could “qualify as a landscape architect” according to the Greenwich News & Graphic, he was a stock broker and former vice-president of Colonial Trust Company in Manhattan. He made headlines in 1900 when his engagement was announced to Vivian Sartoris, President/General Ulysses S. Grant’s granddaughter.

A few months later, the Sartoris-Nichols match dissolved. Within weeks, Sartoris was reported affianced, again. The Sartoris-Balfour nuptials were also scratched. For Sartoris, the 3rd engagement took, marrying Roosevelt Scovel, a distant Roosevelt cousin. Social anthropologists may recall Scovel was one of Paris Singer’s first social arbiters in selecting the Everglades Club’s first 125 members, including Morton C. Nichols. Image Brooklyn Citizen, December 17, 1900.

On December 27, 1904, Tim Nichols married a believed-to-be wealthy widow Allene Tew Hostetter, her 2nd of five marriages. His marriage was so brief, it was almost over by the time the wedding cake was cut. Newspaper reports indicated Nichols’ father pleaded for the couple to marry, and as soon as possible, because he was dying. With only family and a few friends, the couple wed, followed by a Canadian honeymoon. At the time, Tim was at JP Morgan and living on the UES and Great Neck where he kept a house for many years. Tim’s father died in July 1905; his marriage to Allene, was over soon after. It might have been Allene’s first husband’s more than $1 million in gambling debts that did not die with him, as the couple were accosted by demanding surly creditors, according to contemporaneous reports.

The Hostetter-Nichols marriage was over in less than a year. The ex-Mrs. Nichols kept her married name until Tim remarried in 1911. “There shouldn’t be two Mrs. Morton Nichols,” she told reporters. Image: The New York Times. Aimee du Pont, photographer.
Morton and Ethel Nichols, pictured above, photographed shortly after their wedding. In 1911 Nichols married Ethel Dietz, daughter of John Dietz (Dietz Lanterns-the world’s largest lantern manufacturer) at a small church wedding in Nyack. The newlyweds moved to a house in Rye called Braeburn. After Ethel inherited a $500,000 windfall from her grandfather’s estate, the couple began building a new house in Greenwich. Courtesy George Eastman Photography Museum, Rochester.
Dietz Lanterns “light the world.”
Imagine … construction leading to litigation? Tim and Ethel had to overcome a few obstacles before moving into their “beautiful country home on East Putnam Avenue.”

Greenwich at Palm Beach: 1917

As European resorts were overrun with tanks and mustard, Palm Beach thrived. On March 1, 1917, Edward Stotesbury paid $85,000 for an ocean-to-lake tract that became El Mirasol. Palm Beach Post archive.

Ladd & Webb first opened on Narcissus Avenue in West Palm Beach before moving the office as Ladd & Nichols to Palm Beach.
1917-1918. Ladd & Webb became Ladd & Nichols of Florida.
Help the war effort – save coal, move to Palm Beach, bugled Ladd & Nichols’ patriotic advertisements. Nichols garnered national headlines when he arranged Greenwich’s Rosemary Hall boarding school to relocate to Miami during the winter to save valuable national resources.
February 1917 – April 1918. In late February 1917, Ethel Nichols bought a 19.5- acre ocean-to-lake tract located on South Ocean Boulevard from Hiram Hammon, according to court records. In May 1917, Nichols bought Floral Park lots and a lot in Royal Park on Australian Avenue one-off the ocean. When Tim and Ethel moved-in their South Ocean Italian villa, they filed a $10,000 mortgage on the property.

According to the late architectural historian Donald W. Curl, Tim and Ethel Nichols retained New York architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design their Italian villa on the south 300-feet of their property, built at a cost of $135,000. In December 1918, the Bridgeport Telegram reported Morton Nichols had “a large house under construction at Palm Beach” and it was being readied for them by March 1919.  Along the same swath of oceanfront, E. Clarence Jonesbought Vita Serena, Henry Phipps bought the Via Bellaria tract, and Otto Kahn gambled on the parcel adjacent to the north side of the Nichols property, before selling it to Fredrick Glidden.

April 1917. The Feast of the Lanterns in the Garden of the Gods,” was staged at the Royal Poinciana Hotel’s ballroom and was the season’s everyone-who-was-anyone event. Palm Beach Post archive.
January 1918. “Morton Nichols arrives …”

February 1918. Ladd & Nichols became associated with Douglas L. Elliman & Co., heading up their “country house department.”
After the New York Sun declared Greenwich the “country’s richest town,” the Ladd & Nichols real estate agency publicized Greenwich as “the richest countryside in America” sparking a kerfuffle among the “many good citizens” who believed such boasts bring “real harm to the present and future of the community.” The ever-diplomatic Nichols responded, “Our countryside is rich in the connotative sense … the land not the people … a wealth of forests, valleys, brooks, distant hills …”
March 1918. The Nichols move to their Italian villa … though not for long.

November 1918 & January 1919. Harry Payne Bingham, having recently been the primary heir of his uncle Oliver Hazard Payne’s $60 million fortune, and his wife sculptor Harriette Gowan Bingham, leased the Nichols estate. They liked the $135,000 Italian villa so much, they bought it. Newspaper articles in New York and Palm Beach associated the house’s design with Marion Sims Wyeth.
January 1919. Tim and Ethel Nichols Paris Singer’s Chinese Villa on Peruvian for the 1919 season.
March 1919. The Binghams exercised the option to buy the villa for an undisclosed amount. New York Sun.
March 1919. Marion Sims Wyeth selected as the architect for Good Samaritan Hospital.
Nichols-Bingham House, c. 1918-1919. South Ocean Boulevard. Attributed as one of the first houses, if not the first, designed by Marion Sims Wyeth at Palm Beach. If so, most probably Morton Nichols and Wyeth’s schoolmate and longtime partner William Rhinelander King knew each other from Newport, where Nichols would houseguest at Reg Vanderbilt’s Sandy Point Farm. This 1932 aerial, the only currently known image of the house, shows the roof line and partial west elevation. Bingham sold the house to C. Wesley Copp; his daughter Emily married Lamar Webb, of Ladd & Nichols-Palm Beach. Later, the Phipps interest developed it as the Bingham-Copp subdivision, where Marion Wyeth would build his own house on Woodbridge Road with a garden gate that opened onto Mar-a-Lago, the neighboring property to the south. Courtesy Robert Yarnall Richie Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU.
125 Brazilian Avenue. In March 1919 Morton Nichols bought a lot in the Royal Park subdivision’s ocean block from former Freeport, Long Island builder turned Palm Beach real estate broker Edward Updike Roddy Sr. Nichols again retained Marion Sims Wyeth, who designed a house with early Spanish and Mission influences, pictured above. Surprisingly, except for some inappropriate modifications, the house’s footprint is much like the one in the December 1919 Sanborn Insurance map. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

After WW I ended, numerous New York brokers opened offices at Palm Beach during a time when there were 50 members of the Palm Beach County Real Estate Board. Douglas Gibbons was Ned and Marjorie Hutton’s real estate agent, a perennial houseguest at Hogarcito, Mar-a-Lago, and their yacht Hussar (IV & V). Gibbons also represented Flo Ziegfeld.
By 1920 Maximilian “Max” Morgenthau Jr., nephew of Henry Morgenthau Sr., was among the New York crowd settled on County Road.
October 1920. Nichols sold the 125 Brazilian Avenue house to Charles E. Merrill (Merrill Lynch & Company) and his first wife Elizabeth Church Merrill. Following the Merrills’ divorce in 1925, Merrill remarried, keeping Mille Fleurs, the Palm Beach house, until the mid-1930s. The Merrills bought Bywater Lodge-Al Poniente, the former Cluett-Ritter house, and rebuilt it as Merrill’s Landing on North Lake Trail.
In 1920 Ethel Dietz’s aunt and uncle, Anna and Frank Clement, acquired the tract adjacent to the Everglades Club, developing it as El Bravo Park.
Ladd & Nichols became the authorized agent for El Bravo Park. For more on El Bravo Park @ NYSD, Timeless Palm Beach: Spanish Revival at El Bravo Park.
In June 1921 Morton and Ethel Nichols sold the vacant 12-acre tract for $100,000, located to the north of the Nichols-Bingham estate, to Cleveland industrialist Edmond E. Allyne. Eventually, Allyne would build in Manalapan, selling his tract to Jessie and James Donahue who commissioned Wyeth to design Cielito Lindo.
Following the May 1921 incorporation of Ladd, Nichols & Eaton in Miami, Tim and Ethel Nichols spent the 1922 and 1923 season on Miami Beach, first as houseguests of Carl Fisher before moving to a house on James Street. As the Miami Garden Club was being formed in 1922, Nichols and David Fairchild spoke at the club’s early meetings to assist and promote their efforts. In an interview for The Miami News, Nichols shared the four episodes of the daily life for a man of pleasure, “… a morning swim, a luncheon dance, a tea dansant, and a dinner dance.” On his return to Greenwich at the end of that season, he might have wanted to add that to be a “man of pleasure,” he wanted to be paid his commissions.
June 1922. “Show me the $$$$$,” demanded Tim Nichols, to his partner Niel Ladd. After six years and extraordinary success, Ladd and Nichols evidently reached a publicized acrimonious end to their partnership.
November 1922. Later, Nichols would also sell his interest in the firm.
December 1922. A short time later, Niel and Agnes Ladd moved to Great Neck.
Even with the founding partner’s break-up resulting in Niel Ladd’s departure and the opening of his own company in Great Neck, the Ladd & Nichols brand endured.
During the 1920s, Blaine and Lamar Webb continued to operate as Ladd & Nichols of Florida Inc. at Palm Beach.
January 1925. Ladd & Nichols at the peak of the 1920s real estate Boom.
October 1925, as the real estate market suffered a tailspin, Blaine and Lamar Webb tried to sell-off Singer’s Palm Beach Ocean development before creditors took over all of Singer’s properties. By 1929, Ladd & Nichols of Florida was renamed Webb Brothers Real Estate with offices at Phipps Plaza.

The Aftermath

August 1932. Morton Nichols was found at The Pierre, having taken his own life because of “sinus pain,” according to the New York Times. Apparently, Nichols chose to inhale chloroform and ingest poison before hanging himself. Ethel Nichols returned to Palm Beach each season, staying with her mother Olga Dietz at Casa del Greco in El Bravo Park during every season until Olga’s death in 1939. When she returned in February 1933, Everglades Club president Cecil Singer invited her to lunch, as he had lost his father, Paris Singer, during the previous summer.
Nine months later, court records indicate Nichols was involved in a family financial squabble. Following his death, a niece sued his estate claiming Nichols, administrator of a family trust, invaded the trust using the funds as collateral for a personal loan secured with stocks. When stock values declined, the bank sold to repay the loan.
Niel Ladd died in 1940. Brooklyn Eagle.

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