The Greening of Palm Beach: Palm Beach Country Club

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Palm Beach, 1925. Halcyon days when decked-out gentlemen gathered for gung-ho golf rounds, handicap tournaments, and spirited award banquets at the North End’s Palm Beach Country Club or Midtown’s Poinciana-Breakers course. Among them, members of the Old Guard Society organization, still active today with 90 members, founded in 1918 with three-time U.S. Amateur Open champion Walter J. Travis as its first president. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

In May 1912, when Henry Phipps paid $90,000 for a North End ocean-to-lake parcel with plans to build villas for himself and his children, extensive construction was already underway in the Royal Park, Poinciana Park, and Floral Park subdivisions. During that summer, a contract was awarded for a new ocean road, Gulf Stream Boulevard, extending from The Breakers north to the inlet, passing by the planned Phipps houses located on more than 1,000-feet of ocean frontage. The following spring, the Flagler-owned Florida East Coast Hotel Company secured nearly 100 acres for an 18-hole golf course set on what is regarded as the town’s highest ground, acquiring Harlan P. Dye’s Lake Worth Dairy and John R. Bradley’s Florida Gun Club site, according to available property records.

The North End’s development captured much the same momentum that Henry Flagler initiated when he transformed Palm Beach from a remote lakeside hunting and fishing refuge into an international resort. The Palm Beach Country Club’s development not only sparked the North End’s development but also further enhanced the island’s standing as the ultimate resort destination. The PBCC’s social and architectural history covers 150 years, recounting the transformation of an idyllic pastoral setting, along with that of the adjacent gun club site, into a golf course for hotel guests, before its present incarnation as a private Jewish country club.

January 1915. As construction of the Palm Beach Country Club golf course and clubhouse were underway, a Flagler rival, developer Morton Plant had already opened his Donald Ross-designed course on South Florida’s West Coast at the Belleview Country Club on Bellair Beach. At Fort Myers, another signature Donald Ross 18-hole course was launched in December 1917, as the PBCC opened as an abbreviated nine-hole course.

Homesteads & Habitats

Pam Beach’s late 19th-century lakeside cottage colony had mostly congregated where today’s Midtown is located, as other settlers preferred to maintain a considerable social distance. Among them, Harlan Page Dye, an upstate New York native who settled two miles north from where the Flagler hotels would be built, homesteading in 1874 the lake-to-ocean property where the Palm Beach Country Club would be built.

Dye operated a store on the site before opening his first hotel in 1882. Six years later, Dye built a larger 63-room hotel. The Hotel Lake Worth was regarded as the island’s first actual hotel building, considering Cap Dimick’s Cocoanut Grove Hotel was an expansion of the Dimick residence. “Located on the highest ground and nearer the sea beach than any other …,” Dye’s hotel offered guests “the best table, filtered pure rain water, and evening whistling concerts.”

Harlan Page Dye (1851-1930) was one of the island’s enterprising pioneers.
Dye’s hunting and fishing catches often tendered guests with their dinner’s main course. Dye’s garden and surrounds delivered fresh fruit and vegetables. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Hotel Lake Worth, sketch. George W Potter, artist. The hotel’s dock became a steamer passenger stop for the island’s North End. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

After the Hotel Lake Worth burned in 1897, Dye did not rebuild. Instead, he established the Lake Worth Dairy, the island’s first commercial dairy farm. Between 1899 and 1903 Dye reportedly exported 100 cows to Cuba where he provided dairy products to American forces during the Spanish-American conflict, according to the Lake Worth Pioneers Association. The dairy operated for more than 15 years before it was sold in 1913 to the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, along with the adjacent Florida Gun Club, for the development of a second 18-hole golf course on Palm Beach.

A 1910 plat map (Revised from the Dade County 1895 plat) shows the oceanfront Lot 1 (Florida Gun Club) and the lakeside Lot 2 (Lake Worth Dairy) with the green-shaded area depicting approximately where the Palm Beach Country Club would be built. Pioneer U. Dunning Hendrickson’s homestead was adjacent to the north (Sub Div. C-D) with Charles and Frances Cragin’s famed Garden of Eden botanical garden (Sub. Div. A-B) to the north of the Hendrickson place. Melville E. Spencer’s tract (Sub Div. G) was directly to the south. Spencer and Dye engaged in boundary line lawsuits for several years with Dye eventually prevailing.

From trap shoots to sand traps

The Florida Gun Club, also known as the Palm Beach Gun Club during the mid-1890s, was located at the southeast corner of what became the PBCC site. Founded by members of New York sporting clubs, the club held several matches weekly between January and March. In March 1897, The National Magazine reported in an article titled “In the Florida Resortland” written by Arthur Winslow Tarbell, that at Palm Beach “Another entertainment of note, one recently formed, is the Gun Club’s clay shoots.”

Beginning in the 1890s, Forest & Stream magazine reported on the Palm Beach results of the shooting matches, both clay pigeon and live-bird shoots; silver cups were awarded the winners. As well, Forest & Stream online editions provide an insightful look at Florida expeditions during the 1870s and 1880s.
“Trap at Palm Beach,” Forest & Stream.
March 30, 1902. This photograph taken at the Florida Gun Club at Palm Beach appeared in the New York Daily Tribune. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In March 1911, The Miami Daily Metropolis editorialized, “The Audubon Society is overlooking a bet on Palm Beach. What has the Society to say about the live-bird contests that the Cholly Boys of the gun club there indulge in?”

On October 4, 1913, John R. Bradley, who along with his brother Edward R. Bradley, owned The Beach Club, sold the area on the north side of the Spencer property around the Gun Club for an undisclosed amount to the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, as plans for the new golf club were publicized.

April 1913. The earliest accessible news report details plan by the Florida East Coast Hotel Company, the company that operated the Flagler-owned hotels. To accommodate golf’s growing popularity, the Royal Poinciana and The Breakers needed a second course. Months later, Donald J. Ross was named designer for the new course. The Donald Ross ad, pictured above, appeared in the same April 1913 issue as the announcement for the Palm Beach Country Club.

Florida Golf Club and clubhouse, c. 1900, at the Royal Poinciana and The Breakers, pictured above, as the course was designed in 1897 by the famous Scottish golf architect Alister MacKenzie. Following the demolition of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, Ross redesigned and lengthened the course from 1938 to 1939 into a more challenging course. Images courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach Country Club. New York Sun, 21 December 1913.

Palm Beach Country Club:

It was not until late March 1915 when the Florida East Coast Hotel Company announced specific plans for the North End 18-hole golf course and clubhouse for the exclusive use of its hotel guests, estimated to cost $300,000-$400,000. Located several miles north of the resort hotels, the 100-acre ocean-to-lake property with 1,760-feet of ocean frontage would feature a large lake suitable for yachts in the property’s center with a canal leading to Lake Worth. A bus line, as well as wheelchairs and a lakeside dock, would transport guests between the hotels and the country club.

Tropical Sun newspaper, headline. March 20, 1915.

Making the Cut & Draining the Swamp …

Although vague as to exactly when the developer realized that cutting a canal leading to a navigable artificial lake into the town’s highest coral ridge would prove as challenging as digging the Panama Canal, initial reports were promising. Captain W. S. Holloway headed the excavation, dredging, and dynamiting, arriving with “an army of men” who set up a tent camp at the site. While the ten-ton Sullivan channeling machine was apparently successful in cutting the initial coral cut that would drain the swamp to the south, allowing wheelchair traffic to transport guests from the Lake Trail to the clubhouse, plans for the yacht basin were apparently tabled.

Despite the problems, the Miami Daily Metropolis proclaimed, “the birth of a spot of beauty that will be a fit companion to the big hotels and whose fame will travel around the Earth in company of theirs.”
Palm Beach Country Club. September 1915. While “the level swamp” between the oceanside dune ridge and the lakeside coral ridge was filled, the “deep canal to connect Lake Worth with an artificial lake” never appeared to have been built because of the thickness of the coral ridge. Image Miami Daily Metropolis.
“The Coral Cut,” c. 1915. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The Coral Cut, c. 1915-1920. The engineering feat led from the Lake Trail along the south side of the golf course on what became Country Club Road. Image courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

“The Cut” article courtesy Chronicling America, Library of Congress.

As plans progressed for the site, Donald J. Ross, arrived in January 1916, stating, “We will have all rolling land as in a mountain course with grass greens. One of the good features is that the two series of nine holes will lie in loops each beginning and ending at the clubhouse.” The length of the course would be about 5,800 yards with Ross commenting, “A longer course was considered but we did not want a 6,000-yard course in this climate. The course will be well-bunkered and will not be an easy one. The game is all in the approach shots.”

Palm Beach Country Club, January 1916, page one headline. Palm Beach Post Archive.
Donald J. Ross, “Bunker shot” and “Mashie.” Courtesy Library of Congress.

When Donald Ross (1872-1948) agreed to design the new Palm Beach course, the Scotland-born golfer and greenskeeper had already been involved in designing and reconstructing more than 70 courses. Having apprenticed with Thomas Mitchell “Old Tom” Morris at St Andrews Links, “The Home of Golf,” Ross immigrated to the United States in 1899, where he was pro at Massachusetts’ Oakley Country Club before moving to Pinehurst, North Carolina, where he was instrumental in establishing it as major golf destination.

Both Donald Ross and his brother Alexander Ross became nationally-known golfers. The first president of American Society of Golf Course Architects (1946), Ross is credited with designing or remodeling more than 40 Florida courses with seven of them in the Palm Beach area: Palm Beach Country Club (1917), Gulf Stream Golf Club (1923), Boca Raton Resort & Club (1925), Delray Beach Municipal Golf Club (1925), Seminole Golf Club (1929), E. F. Hutton’s Mar-a-Lago mini 9-hole course (1929 – since destroyed), and the “radical” remodel of the Palm Beach Golf Club (1938-1939), now known as The Breakers Golf Course.

Palm Beach Country Club, January 1916. Miami Daily Metropolis archive.

As work on the golf course and clubhouse continued, prominent New York lawyer and ADL board member Samuel Untermyer paid $75,000 for the Mel Spencer ocean-to-lake tract adjacent to the south side of the country club, announcing plans for Miami architect H. Hastings Mundy to build “a palatial home.”

By April 1916, the Phipps family’s construction had started on Henry Carnegie Phipps’ Heamaw and Michael Grace’s Las Incas along Gulf Stream Boulevard, just south of the Untermyer tract. In addition, Amy Phipps Guest, vice-president, along with her mother, of the Palm Beach Suffrage League, was supervising construction of Villa Artemis, designed by Vizcaya architect F. Burrall Hoffman Jr., built at a cost of $35,000 by H. B. and H. R. Corwin. The following month, John S. Phipps paid $90,000 for an additional 465-feet of ocean-to-lake property with plans for a residential subdivision between Root Trail and Seminole Avenue. During the summer of 1917, John S. Phipps added the ocean-to-lake Adams Estate to his holdings, making for another residential two-street subdivision made up of Dunbar Road and Wells Road. During the intervening years, the Untermyers never built, opting instead to live aboard their yacht during the Palm Beach season. After his wife Minnie died, Untermyer sold the parcel in 1925 to Mark Rafalsky for $750,000. Rafalsky subdivided and platted the subdivision adjacent to the south side of the golf course.

Palm Beach Country Club I

Since the golf course’s engineering and construction delayed the club’s opening date, it was not ready until late 1916, opening as a nine-hole course for the 1917 season. The completed 18-hole course would open January 1918, inaugurated with play by the Poinciana-Breakers course’s resident pro Arthur Fenn and three-time National Amateur Golf champion Walter J. Travis. The club’s picturesque arduous course attracted the nation’s top golfers and social notables.

Palm Beach Country Club, clubhouse view. John W. Ingle, AIA, architect. A noted NYC Beaux-Art architect, Ingle was supervising architect for Carrere & Hastings at St. Augustine’s Ponce DeLeon Hotel and Alcazar Hotel (1885-1889), considered among Florida’s most enduring architectural treasures. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach Country Club. August-September 1916. Palm Beach Post archive.
Palm Beach Country Club. March 1917. Donald Ross arrived at the end of the first season to supervise the additional nine-hole layout.
“Half Million Dollar Golf Course Opens …” Palm Beach Country Club, January 1918. Par 70, 5,900 yards. “Classy and difficult.” Image Library of Congress.
January 1918, first ad. New York Sun.
Palm Beach Country Club clubhouse, view from the grounds. Donald Ross’ loop design lessened wait times, as golfers teed off on the 1st or 10th hole located nearest to the clubhouse. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
From its inception, the clubhouse became one of the resort’s most popular social and sporting venues for luncheons, private dinners, supper dances, and charitable benefits. The Poinciana Sextette entertained every afternoon for terrace dancing from 3 until 6. Francois, the club’s Maître d’Hôtel came from New York’s Plaza Hotel.
“Country Club Converted Into Jungle for Cocoanuts.” From 1920 until 1929, the Cocoanuts held their legendary all-night end-of-season affair numerous times at the Palm Beach Country Club. For all the weighty details, peruse The Coconuts! A Palm Beach Party History at The New York Social Diary.
Higher ground at the Palm Beach Country Club. During the 1920s the tees and fairways featured large dense patches of Korean grass, regarded as extremely tough grass with root stalks more than one-inch below the surface, according to the “Bulletin of the Greens Section of the US Golf Association.” Image State Archives of Florida.
The Palm Beach Country Club’s setting was a veritable oasis in the wilderness until residential subdivision development commenced north and south of the club. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
March 1923. Palm Beach Country Club, aerial. President Warren Harding and his wife Florence arrived March 14 aboard their yacht around 3:00 p.m. at the Poinciana docks. AP photo
March 14, 1923. Having abandoned his golf tweeds, President Harding, a member of the Old Guard Society, was attired for a round at the Palm Beach Country Club wearing white shoes, flannel trousers, white shirt, Norfolk coat, and a Panama hat. Palm Beach Post archive.
New York Artists and Writers Golf Association at Palm Beach. During the 1920s and 1930s, the PBCC hosted the annual New York Artist and Writer Club’s golf tournament.
Because of the golf course’s challenging fairways and greens, it became the setting for the state’s most notable men’s and women’s golf tournaments. In June 1929, the course was slightly lengthened and greens were reconstructed. The Everglades Club golf course, designed by Seth Raynor, remained a nine-hole course until 1929, the same year the Seminole Club opened in North Palm Beach. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
During the 1930s, Mary Sanford was a familiar presence at the Palm Beach Country Club, often winning tournaments. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

In April 1937, the East Coast Hotel Company sold the Palm Beach Country Club for $393,000 to financier and utilities magnate Henry Latham Doherty who previously bought the Alba/Biltmore Hotel/Sun & Surf Club in 1933 and the Whitehall Hotel in 1937. Doherty also owned the Miami Biltmore Hotel and the British Colonial Hotel in Nassau. Doherty, president of the Florida Year-Round Club, planned to keep his venues open for a longer season. The Country Club’s course and clubhouse became accessible to Biltmore and Whitehall guests rather than The Breakers. Private memberships were made available to residents.

Palm Beach Biltmore and Whitehall guests would play as part of their privileges at the Palm Beach Country Club.

In September 1938, George MacDonald, “prominent Catholic layman and New York capitalist,” acquired controlling interest in Doherty’s Florida properties, including the Palm Beach Country Club. The papal marquis who used the title “Sir” at Palm Beach was reported to have made a $4-$5 million investment.

September 1938. By October, MacDonald was said to have paid $10 million for interest in Doherty’s Florida hotels. Palm Beach Post archive.
Palm Beach Country Club, November 1939. Bobby Jones played the course with author Grantland Rice, winner of several New York Artist & Writer golf tournaments at the PBCC.
During the World War II years, seasonal residents joined what many considered the town’s best golf course. During the 1942-1943 season, Charles Munn, “Mr. Palm Beach,” was president of the social club.

In March 1944, the Doherty-MacDonald controlled General Services Company sold their Palm Beach hotels and the Palm Beach Country Club.

In 1944 Abraham M. “Sonny” Sonnabend, Sonnabend & Associates, paid $2.4 million for the properties from the Doherty-MacDonald General Properties Co. Sonnabend now owned the 500-room Biltmore Hotel (selling it in 1946 to Hilton Hotels for $1.75 million), the 300-room Whitehall Hotel with the Sun & Surf Club, and the Palm Beach Country Club. The Sonesta hotel chain and the Hotel Corporation of America were outgrowths of Sonnabend’s hotel company.
During the 1940s and 1950s, there were periods when the Palm Beach Country Club golf course and clubhouse restaurant were opened to the public.

Palm Beach Country Club II:

“Beautifully conservative exterior – arrestingly contemporary interior.”

Before a private investment group closed on their purchase of the Palm Beach Country Club in 1953 from the Sonnabend interest, they sought approvals from the Town of Palm Beach for “Hawaiian-motif” additions and changes. Because the golf club was a non-conforming use, total demolition of the original clubhouse would trigger the automatic loss of its non-conforming status, according to contemporaneous interpretations of Palm Beach zoning codes. Thus, the historic clubhouse underwent major structural alterations, including a new pro shop, lockers, club offices, cocktail lounge and bar, main dining room, card rooms, stainless steel kitchen, and two dining terraces with a 100-car parking lot. A separate two-story building housing cabana would encircle a 36 x 75 pool.

After receiving approvals during the spring of 1953, granting the non-conforming use in Class A zoning, the club’s company, the Palm Beach Country Realty Corporation received a conditional use permit in August.  At that time the corporation, headed by Morris Brown, president, Edward Cohen, vice-president, Edward Goldstein, secretary, Harry Fine, treasurer, and Louis Leibovit, attorney, paid Sonnabend $850,000 for the Palm Beach Country Club. The club opened in December 1953 with a more formal opening with two dinner dances the following month.

September 1953. Palm Beach Post archive.
December 1953. Architectural sketch. Image Palm Beach Daily News archive. Architect John Stetson’s plans made room for an entrance loggia, cocktail lounge, bathers lounge, and dining terrace, as well as a swimming pool and a bathing pool, and cabanas in a two-story building surrounding the pool. A tunnel connected the club with the beach.

John Stetson, AIA (1915-1986), a native Floridian and graduate of the University of Florida School of Architecture, first worked for two former Mizner associates, Lester Geisler and Howard Major, before establishing his own office in 1947. The 49-year Palm Beach resident’s sleek functional signature style can still be found at 455 Worth Avenue and 401 Peruvian Avenue apartments, as well as his own office-residential complex at 249 Peruvian.

Nearly every North End street once featured one of Stetson’s post-war Florida Modern residential designs until the demolition of hundreds of post-WW II houses in Palm Beach’s North End. Elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1963, Stetson was also a founder of the Islanders Club during the late 1940s, a group of civic-minded professionals who let the Town Council know their position on every topic from sewage to building heights,  “when Palm Beach was a small town not social zooism with traffic and ten different classes of society … when you could see Henry Phipps walking down Worth Avenue dressed like anybody’s gardener.” Stetson’s work and character are a noteworthy reminder of when everyone and everything in Palm Beach was different and it was this difference that gave the town its unique charm and character.

An early 1950s aerial glimpse of the club. “New Year’s Eve opens New Era at Country Club” read the January 1,1954 headline for the informal party that took place in “the undecorated new dining room” with a formal open scheduled the following month. Guests were greeted by the club’s officers and board members: Morris Brown, Edward Cohen, Daniel Udell, Charles Frost, Marcus Helitzer, Edward Goldstein, Nathan Yamins, and Irwin Wolff. Image courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach Country Club, North Ocean Boulevard entrance. The cabana area featured a solarium, massage room, beauty parlor, and barber shop. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Palm Beach sculptor Jane Manus spent her childhood at the club, pictured above, standing in front of the club’s Hawaiian-styled cabanas. Courtesy Jane Manus.
Palm Beach Country Club, aerials. Above, c. early 1950s; below 1960s. A sublime rolling ocean-to-lake landscape bordered by windbreaks of Australian pines, pictured above, before and after residential development began to the north and south. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

By the time the Palm Beach Country Club was established as a mainly private Jewish golf club during the mid-1950s, most of Palm Beach’s other private clubs, for the most part, had already lost the diversity that once constituted their memberships. After World War II, the Everglades Club was no longer synonymous with international Café Society, in favor of a more uniform suburban ambiance, The Bath & Tennis Club’s numbers no longer represented the spirit that Ned Hutton and Tony Biddle intended when they included Flo Ziegfeld, Mortimer Schiff, Otto Kahn, and Jules Bache, as founding members. The PBCC would no longer be utilized for hotel guests but as a private club where a member’s philanthropic endeavors were an essential consideration for their acceptance as members.

Palm Beach Country Club, c.1970s aerial. Courtesy Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Higher ground. A recent USGS elevation map. Along the lakeside coral ridge’s southwest corner, this map indicates an approx. 30-foot height in the vicinity of the 13th, 14th, and 16th holes.

Palm Beach Country Club III:

“More posh than in the past …”

Since June 1985, the Palm Beach Country Club was making plans for a “deluxe clubhouse.” The new club was finally completed to accommodate its 300 members at a cost of $5.5 million in 1988. “With a new entrance on North Ocean Boulevard, the club is going to appear much more posh than in the past,” remarked club manager Roberto Milanesi in October 1987. “It will be a classic facility in the Palm Beach sense,” Milanesi added. The Schwab & Twitty-designed facility with arched contemporary windows was described as having “Spanish and Mediterranean characteristics,” built on where the pool and snack bar were located in the previous John Stetson designed Hawaiian-styled complex.

Courtesy Palm Beach Daily News Archive.
Palm Beach Country Club, 1987. Architectural sketch. Courtesy Palm Beach Daily News Archive.

Palm Beach Country Club, 2019. The Donald Ross Society believes the course’s original designs “are works of art that merit close care and meticulous preservation.” Aerial courtesy Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.

When the Palm Beach Country Club was organized during the mid-1950s as a charitable like-minded camaraderie of members who shared the sporting life, mutual trust, and philanthropic interests, no one could have imagined the scale of the financial scandal in 2008 that rocked the club’s foundation,  reported to have affected as many as one-third of its membership. However dissimilar, Palm Beach’s private clubs share the same aversion to public scrutiny. Now more than a decade since the media glare, the Palm Beach Country Club has persevered with its low-key ambiance and standards intact.

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