The Phipps Family in Florida: A World of Their Own, Part III

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Casa Bendita, living room. Addison Mizner, architect. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Los Incas and Casa Bendita — however short-lived their presence and distant their memory, these Palm Beach landmarks represented significant chapters in Palm Beach’s architectural history.

Los Incas
North County Road

Whether at The Beach Club or the Palm Beach Country Club, financier and shipping impresario Michael P. Grace probably felt at ease on Palm Beach, both in the company of his son-in-law Jay Phipps’ family and the camaraderie of the resort’s bigger-than-life characters, such as Richard Croker and E. R. Bradley, among them. He followed the Phipps family in buying Palm Beach real estate for speculation, including the Midtown development that includes Grace Trail, and to build a home, perhaps an alternative to winters in New York or Battle Abbey, his historic East Sussex lodge.

Variously described as a “dynamic and brilliant financier,” Michael Paul Grace was also the “younger, more flamboyant” brother of William R. Grace, founder of W.R. Grace & Company and New York’s two-term mayor during the 1880s. Both brothers were said to enjoy “strong virtues and occasional vices.” Following his brother’s death in 1904, Michael and his nephew Joseph Grace led the WR Grace Company’s continuing international expansion and diversification.

Los Incas, c. 1918, south and east elevations, view from the oceanfront. Portrait of Michael Grace. The name Los Incas comes from the Grace family’s longstanding relationship with Peru where they acquired extensive commercial holdings and initiated a shipping business during the mid-1800s. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Los Incas, c. 1918. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Los Incas and El Mirasol, west elevations, aerial view east toward the ocean. [Robert Yarnall Richie Photograph Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU Libraries]

Battle Abbey, East Sussex. [Library of Congress]

In 1902, Michael and his wife Margarita Anita Mason Grace left the Hertfordshire country house they had lived at since the late 1880s and leased the landmark 11th-century Battle Abbey from owner Sir Augustus Walpole Webster. They lived at the Abbey for many years. With a London house at 40 Belgrave Square and a Scottish retreat, the Graces disrupted tradition when they announced they were “modernizing” the Abbey, installing electricity and indoor plumbing that shocked the surrounding villagers. They hosted their daughter and Jay Phipps’ wedding reception at the Abbey. Though born in Ireland and an American citizen, both Grace and his wife were buried on the grounds of Battle Abbey. Margarita, who was Scottish, died at the Belgrave Square house in 1930.

Brrrrr. Winifred Hudnut and her daughter Winifred (Natacha) at Los Incas. [Library of Congress]
Grace opted to stay at one of the Breakers’ cottages or other Phipps houses, leasing Los Incas during the season. Among the lessees, New Jersey’s Theodore Frelinghuysen in January 1919. Perfumier Richard Hudnut, his wife Winifred, and their daughter, also named Winifred, also spent a winter at Los Incas. The Hudnut’s daughter changed her name to Natacha Rambova, became a Hollywood costume designer, and was best known as the second Mrs. Rudolph Valentino in 1923.

In January 1920, Grace held a New Year’s celebration at Los Incas. Tapped that season as president of the Sailfish Club, Grace entertained frequently at the Palm Beach Country Club and dinner parties at the Everglades Club. Before leaving Palm Beach for New York and returning to Cortachy Castle, Forfarshire, Scotland, Grace had deeded the Palm Beach house to his daughter Margarita, though planning to return to Palm Beach that September. Upon his arrival at Forfarshire, he suffered a paralytic stroke and was moved to London where he died soon after. Michael Grace left a $6.5 million estate including the house at 40 Belgrave Square.

As construction neared completion of Casa Bendita, Margarita and Jay intermittently stayed at Los Incas, leasing it in December 1922 to New Jersey utility magnate Anthony Kuser. The following February, the Kusers paid $250,000 for the house, retaining architect Marion Sims Wyeth to design additions and “make the house more Italian.” The June 1924 building permit for $100,000 indicated the addition of a new floor for bedrooms and loggias on the south and east elevations.

The Kuser estates in New Jersey and South Carolina hint at their possible inspiration for the Kuser’s additions and alterations to Los Incas in 1924.

Los Incas, south and east elevations. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Los Incas, loggia with a fireplace. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Los Incas, east ocean side elevation and north elevation, view looking southwest. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Following Anthony Kuser’s death in February 1929, his estate sold Los Incas with 250-feet of oceanfront to John Sanford, who owned Villa Marina at the time, located just south of Los Incas. Sanford paid $483,000, hiring architect Addison Mizner to design a new kitchen, staff wing, and a cloister.

John Sanford, right, and his daughter, Gertrude Sanford Legendre, at the Palm Beach Country Club. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

After Stephen “Laddie” Sanford married former actress Mary Duncan in the early 1930s, the couple made Los Incas their home. [Morgan Collection, Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

The unrestrained Mary Sanford, pictured above at Los Incas, became one of Palm Beach’s social juggernauts. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

After Laddie died, his estate sold Los Incas for $1.4 million in 1978 to Joseph Farish, a West Palm Beach lawyer. Within weeks Los Incas was demolished, transformed from a 20-room mansion set on six acres into a ten-lot subdivision. Mary bought the former Goldie and Sam Paley house on Tangier Avenue’s lakeside.

August 1978. Los Incas. “Palm Beaches Most Famous Estate.” [Palm Beach Post & Miami News]

Los Incas, 1978. “An era passes — grand mansion awaits wreckers … Empty beer cans littering the roof …” [Palm Beach Post & Miami News]

Los Incas, 1981. “The Most Fabulous Ten – In The Most Fabulous Town.” From ruins to a Gottfried-designed subdivision with a Los Incas street sign. “Worth Waiting For!” [Palm Beach Post & Miami News]

Casa Bendita
434 North County Road

“A monumental work built with the essentials of Spanish architecture, the refined type, combined with comfort and logic … no florid baroque ornament, yet a perfect Spanish flavor with an arcaded courtyard, truly Spanish and almost monastic in expression, ” wrote author George Harold Edgell, dean of the Harvard School of Architecture, describing Casa Bendita in his book The American Architecture of Today published in 1928.

Built when North Ocean Boulevard ran parallel along the ocean, Casa Bendita was positioned on the coastal ridge as if anticipating a decade later when the boulevard washed away, was permanently closed off, and traffic rerouted along North County Road. Unlike the existing oceanfront houses sited with east oceanfront and side entrances, Jay and Margarita located their home at the end of a long, winding driveway facing west toward County Road. Highlighted by a distinctive four-story, octagonal entrance tower, the front entrance opened onto a lower landing with a stairway leading to an open cloister where another staircase led to the upper-story’s family bedrooms and staff quarters.

In March 1921, Jay and Margarita were checked-in at The Breakers’ Oceanic cottage as construction was underway on the new house, located on 375 feet of ocean frontage between Hal and Gladys’ Heamaw and Charles and Mary Munn’s Amado and. Built for an estimated cost of $150,000 and completed in June 1922, the house’s U-shaped design was highlighted by a ground floor arcade leading to a roofed pool framed by colonnades overlooking the central courtyard. A larger outdoor pool was framed by a walled formal garden with an elaborate fountain cast from the Charles V fountain at the Alhambra. Considered among Mizner’s finest, Casa Bendita was featured tin Architectural Forum magazine’s May 1923 issue. Further improvements were made after the first season, including a sun room, another loggia, and a dock/boathouse on the lakeside.

Casa Bendita, 1922. “True Spanish Lines In True Italian Atmosphere.” Perfect Palm Beach. [Palm Beach Post archive]

Casa Bendita, north and west elevations The “first public picture” of with the four-story, octagonal tower entrance, was published on the Palm Beach Post’s front page on June 30, 1922.

Casa Bendita, east elevation, view southwest from the front entrance tower to the living room in the southeast corner. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, floor plans. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, west elevation view from the courtyard toward the north tower and covered pool located on the house’s southwest corner. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, east elevation looking northwest from the southeast corner oceanfront. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, west elevation, view from lower terrace toward the courtyard and arcade. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, courtyard stairway, northeast corner. [Arts & Decoration magazine, 1926]

Arcade below, Colonnade above. View from the central courtyard. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Clark (Everglades Club and El Mirasol) and Louis deGottreau supervised the landscaping. A walled English garden was maintained on the south side of the house. Plantings included rose de Montana, bougainvillea, trumpet vines, Easter lily vines, coconut trees, and sea gapes. To the west across County Road extending to their boat house on Lake Worth, the family kept greenhouses, a tennis court, as well as guest and staff cottages.

Casa Bendita. A flamboyance of flamingos cavorts amid the palms. [Florida Department of Agriculture]

Casa Bendita, potting shed. Salvaged from one of the earlier Phipps-owned lakeside properties, the potting shed was actually the town’s first school, known as the “Little Red Schoolhouse” preserved since the early 1960s at Phipps Ocean Park. [Palm Beach Post archive]

Casa Bendita, aerial, with view of outdoor swimming pool and the main house’s southwest corner where an enclosed pool was located. Atop the tower, a brass Spanish sloop weathervane, described as “nothing short of a tropical palace.” [Robert Yarnall Richie Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU]

November 21, 1923. Margarita Phipps and her daughter Miss Peggie Phipps at the time of Peggie’s debut. Old Westbury House & Casa Bendita. [New York World]

Casa Bendita, open swimming pool, view looking northeast toward the covered pool. Added in 1928 at a cost of $30,000, the Spanish Renaissance-styled pool with its Fuente de Carlos V was regarded as the largest private swimming pool on Palm Beach. [Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, The Garden Club of America collection.]

“Mr. and Mrs. John S. Phipps accept with pleasure …” and Peggie goes shopping on Worth Avenue… barefoot. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, sunroom between the living room and the dining room. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

Casa Bendita, living room. The dining room brocades were Venetian red. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County]

After Jay and Margarita’s deaths, occurring only months apart, their son Michael bought Casa Bendita, selling off the oceanfront parcel to a developer for a twelve-lot subdivision and keeping the 20-acre parcel west of North County Road.

May 1958. “Friend & Benefactor,” newspaper editorial. As construction of the Royal Poinciana Plaza and the Playhouse was underway, Jay Phipps died. The Miami News praised Phipps’ immeasurable contribution to the City of Miami’s development. Jay Phipps’ death marked the end of an era for the Bessemer Trust Company. [Miami News]

Back then and Later on. Mike & Molly Phipps at Gulf Stream and at their Palm Beach backyard ready for takeoff. [Historical Society of Palm Beach County & Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection]

Casa Bendita’s new owner, Joseph Cole, said, “Great old palaces are no longer attractive to modern buyers in Palm Beach. The demand is for less pretentious but strictly modern dwellings.” In January 1961, Big Chief Wrecking Company obtained a demolition permit to level the house.

February-March 1961. “Casa Bendita Yields to Wrecker’s Hammer; “Wrecking Phipps Estate.” As the Big Chief Wrecking Company began dismantling Casa Bendita, developer Robert Gottfried salvaged various statues and architectural artifacts that he planned to install in the new houses. [Palm Beach Post archive]

February 12, 1961. The next month, Trosby Galleries auctioned more than 400 furniture pieces and artifacts from Casa Bendita, a mix of authentic Renaissance Spanish and Italian pieces and those fabricated by Mizner Industries at its Bunker Road factory in West Palm Beach. [Palm Beach Post archive]

Casa Bendita, courtyard view looking northeast from the saltwater pool covered with an arched gallery and featuring a diving tower, located in the southwest corner of the main house. [Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, The Garden Club of America collection]

Sublime splendor. Palm Beach once upon a time.

Click here to read Part I
Click here to read Part II

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