During the summer of 1929, when Gracia and Charles Hall drove down El Bravo Way, where their new Spanish Renaissance-inspired house was being built, they might have imagined they were on the Camino Real headed for El Dorado. El Bravo Way, after all, was lined with a constellation of homes with red-tiled roofs, wrought-iron balconies and miradors, designed by Addison Mizner, Marion Sims Wyeth and Volk & Maass. The latter firm had, in fact, designed the Halls’ house.
More than 85 years later, Frances and Jeff Fisher were set to break ground on a North Lake Way state-of-the-art contemporary home “with everything we ever wanted,” Frances recalls. Having previously completed an extensive restoration of a 1920s Old World design on Clarke Avenue, the Fishers believed they were ready for 21st-century living. And then, Frances recalls, her husband said something about their in-the-works house that took her aback: “There’s only one problem. Something’s missing. It’s the thing you love most — and that’s history.” She adds: “He was right. After dinner at Ta-boo, we rode over to El Bravo Way to this classic Spanish house on the corner. We’d been there for parties and knew it might soon become available,” Frances explained.
Months of patience and persistence followed before the house was theirs. By the time the Fishers finished a comprehensive restoration led by Vero Beach-based architect Clemens Bruns Schaub, they had revived the home’s architectural signatures while adapting the house to modern living. Windows and loggias looked onto award-winning gardens by Jorge Sanchez of SMI Landscape Architecture. The result is a historic house in a timeless setting as modern as any up-to-the-minute home they might have built.
“The Fishers wanted something historically true yet functional for their family. Also, they were concerned that inappropriate additions and details be removed,” said Schaub. “We wanted it to look like the original architects had renovated it.” Sanchez had worked with the Fishers on previous projects. “For this one, Mrs. Fisher told us one of her favorite places was the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. We translated the courtyard concept and applied it to the center garden,” Sanchez explains.
Having a lifetime’s regard for history’s relevance, Frances — who serves as the chairwoman of the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens board of trustees — set out to document the house and the lives of its first owner. “The as-built Volk & Maass-designed plans and specs from the John L. Volk Archive proved invaluable. Also, my friend Allison Haft, the original owner’s granddaughter, provided me with numerous photographs taken of the house and the family,” Frances said. “As masterful and precise as Clem Schaub and Jorge Sanchez were in creating the setting we wanted, Allie’s family photos allowed us to more closely reinstate lost elements and those subject to untimely or insensitive alterations. The drawings and the photos became the bible for the restoration,” she says.
From those historic materials, Frances discovered more about the couple who had commissioned the house. Grace Andrews Leath, who was known as Gracia, married Charles Hall, a Midwest industrialist, following the death of her first husband Arthur Leath, founder and president of a large Midwest furniture company. A year before the newly-married Halls bought their El Bravo lot, Hall, whose company manufactured automobile headlights and accessories, had been a house guest across the street at the Frank Cragin house, also designed by Volk & Maass.
Settling into the social whirl, the newlyweds reveled for several seasons of RSVPs, bridge parties and golf rounds, primarily with the Detroit-and-Chicago sets at the clubs, before splitting in 1936. Divorced on the grounds of Mr. Hall’s “ungovernable temper,” Gracia, with her two daughters, kept the Palm Beach house. Two months after receiving her final decree, she married Dr. Albert Jansick, director of the Safety Harbor Spa, first known as the Espiritu Santo Springs & Sanitorium located on Florida’s west coast. The couple married and divorced twice.
During the early 1940s, Gracia sold the El Bravo Way house to Edmund L. Goodman, who opened Finchley’s, a popular haberdashery with an English bar at the Hutton Building on Phipps Plaza. In 1953, the house was sold to Rhode Islander Robert Shepard, who installed an elevator from the family-owned department store in Providence. Shepard’s father was John Shepard Jr., a popular former mayor of Palm Beach. His equally civic-minded son and his wife opened the El Bravo Way house for several seasons to benefit the Episcopal Church of Bethesda by-the-Sea’s house and garden tours.
Then and now
“The architecture reflects a Spaniard who has traveled,” observes Schaub. Among the house’s original features, an elaborate rose-veined quarry Keystone frontispiece is set apart from the façade wall, adding an uncommon rectilinear dimensional element. Windows piercing the façade on the second floor have wrought-iron balcony railings. The 46-foot high mirador recalls hilltop 16th-century Andalusian fortresses, while the arcaded loggia serves both as an entertainment area and a passageway linking the gardens with the living areas.
Although subsequent owners made changes to the house and the patio, including removing original Mizner tiles, its as-built façade and cruciform floor plan remained intact. When the house was landmarked in 1989, historian Donald W. Curl, Ph.D., described it as “a first-rate house on an important street.”
The Fishers’ house was one of the last Spanish-style boom-time mansions to be built before the Great Depression ushered in the smaller houses of the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the earlier era’s Italian and Spanish houses had been damaged and rebuilt following the Hurricane of 1928, losing some of their initial luster in the process. Like its neighbors, the house’s structural soundness and design integrity helped set El Bravo Park apart from the town’s other subdivisions.
Swiss-born gardener Louis de Gottreau designed the landscapes, and Wyeth and Mizner were retained to design the first houses in the ocean block of El Bravo Way. The subdivision also included El Brillo Way, one street south. But two years later, Clements died. His wife, Anna Clements, sold the undeveloped portion to Philadelphian Earle P. Charlton, co-founder of Woolworth’s and company vice-president, who followed Clements’ development guidelines, as did other Estate Section builders.
By 1930, the Volk & Maass firm completed two other Spanish Renaissance inspired houses in addition to the Cragin and Hall homes. The others included the firm’s largest Spanish house of that era along the lakefront on El Bravo Way. For that house, the architects designed one of the town’s most distinctive arched entranceways, modeled on the Alfabia, the home and gardens of a Moorish viceroy on Majorca.
After a century of additions, renovations and alterations, some 1920s-era houses on Palm Beach are historic in name only. But the El Bravo house’s modifications had not undermined its fundamental architectural or structural quality, making a true restoration possible. Floors, bearing walls, leaded-glass windows, and ceiling beams were all intact. Yet, the house still required a considerable plan to bring it back to its formidable grandeur and make it practical and functioning for day-to-day living.
The updates, Schaub notes, were always planned to complement the home’s historical character. “The Fishers always took the right road,” he says. That road led to a house that today is as bold and dynamic as it must have seemed to the Halls when they built it. The brillo and the bravo have returned.
Nightfall at El Bravo Park
Photography by AUGUSTUS MAYHEW
Fisher family portrait Courtesy of CAPEHART PHOTOGRAPHY.
Augustus Mayhew is the author of Lost in Wonderland: Reflections on Palm Beach and Palm Beach: A Greater Grandeur.