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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Greenwich at Palm Beach: 1917
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.