Timeless Palm Beach: Spanish Revival at El Bravo Park

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In January 1931, Gracia and Charles Hall hosted a Sunday brunch in the courtyard of their El Bravo Park home that made national news. They placed a 50-foot square canvas painted as a backgammon board in their courtyard, making for a human backgammon game where guests moved about by rolling dice "as large as bread loaves.” Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.

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.

Frances and Jeff Fisher with their son Harrison, in the courtyard of their El Bravo Park home.

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.

El Bravo Way Facade, 2020.

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.

El Bravo Way. Facade, 1930. Access to the original F. E. Geisler photographs enhanced the Fishers’ restoration. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
El Bravo Way, 2020. At night, the house takes on more of a semblance of its 16th-century inspirations.

Past lives

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.

“The Happy Family.” Palm Beach, January 1927. Gracia Andrews Leath Hall with her first husband Arthur Leath and their two-year-old daughter Gloria, photographed during their third season on Palm Beach at 218 Everglade Avenue. The couple married in 1920; his second, her first. Five months after this photograph, Arthur Leath died from appendicitis complications, leaving his widow and daughter a more than $1 million estate. In December 1927, Gracia returned to Palm Beach, releasing the Everglade Avenue house. That February she gave a Bowery theme party at the Flamingo Restaurant in Phipps Plaza for several hundred costumed guests, including Charles Hall. She and Hall married several months later. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Gracia Hall was an avid sportswoman as well as an automobile enthusiast, pictured behind the wheel on Travers Way. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Frank Cragin House, façade. El Bravo Park, 1928. Volk & Maass, architect. Located across Travers Way from the Hall House, the Cragins’ tower is visible from the Hall’s courtyard, adding to the otherworldy ambiance. PHOTO: AUGUSTUS MAYHEW.

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.

L. to r.: El Bravo Way, Plateresque entrance. One of Palm Beach’s most distinctive facades; El Bravo Way, mirador.

Then and now

El Bravo Park, newspaper ad. February 1921.

“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.

Facade, architectural drawing. Volk & Maass, architect. Courtesy Fisher Family.
Gustav A. Maass, senior partner of the Volk and Maass firm, came to Palm Beach in 1925 to join the Harvey & Clarke firm, founded by Stephen Harvey and L. Phillips Clarke, fellow University of Pennsylvania School of Architecture graduates. As the firm’s managing architect with Beaux-Arts training, Maass supervised the building of Palm Beach Town Hall. Named a partner the following year, Maass directed the design and construction for South Florida’s Seaboard Air Line Railway stations, listed in the National Register of Historic Places. From c.1928 until 1935, he formed a partnership with architect John L. Volk, formerly of the Craig-Stevens-Volk Company, designer-builders. Photo courtesy of Maass family.
Gus Maass, 1st row – 4th from right, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1917, School of Architecture. Jeff Fisher’s parents are among Penn’s generous benefactors, endowing the Anne and Jerome Fisher Fine Arts Library and in conjunction with the Wharton School, the Jerome Fisher Program in Management & Technology, as well as the Fisher Hassenfeld College House and the Fisher Translational Research Center. Photo courtesy Maass family.
Seaboard Railway Station, façade. West Palm Beach, 1925. Gus Maass, supervising architect for Harvey & Clarke. PHOTO AUGUSTUS MAYHEW.
El Bravo Way. Facade, 2020.

Rebuilding history

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.

“The house’s façade was a major attraction,” observed Frances. “It was important to maintain the definitive Spanish architectural integrity, connecting it to the other El Bravo Way houses,” she added. Drawings courtesy of Clemens Bruns Schaub & Associates.
“The Fishers wanted to replace the coral red exterior with a more Spanish white. The coral color tended to upstage the architectural elements,” Clem Schaub noted.
Left: “The maple front door is original, retrofitting some of the panels. We kept as much hardware as possible, recreating those that needed updating,” said Schaub. According to the Town of Palm Beach’s building records of 1929, Volk & Maass prescribed the front door was first “charred with a blow torch, the ashes removed with a bristle brush, blown with sand before two brush coats of oil stain, and buffed for desired effect.”
Right: “The rose-veined coral keystone is rare and probably Mizner’s most beautiful on Palm Beach,” observed Rick Herpel, whose family keystone and cast stone workshops and craftsmen have served Palm Beach for more than six decades. Volk & Maass specified quarried key stone from Mizner’s Key Largo quarry, now known as the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geologic Park.
Left: Addison Mizner installed the same picket-shaped glass planes with diamond inserts at his Cloister Inn in Boca Raton, the Everglades Club ‘s 1924 addition, and his Worth Avenue apartment. The multi-color windows filter the ever changing light into the living room. Mizner Industries utilized antique glass with a mix of amber, green, blue, and lavender tints, according to the original specifications.
Right: Exterior glass doors were retrofitted with patterned wrought-iron grilles.
Courtyard, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Previous owners installed an eclectic fountain in the center of the main courtyard. Courtesy Fisher Collection.
The open patio once centered with a stone well and later a fountain, was reformulated as a walled courtyard parterre composed of intersecting quadrants divided by a central axis. On the upper level, colorful flowering plants are framed with low hedges and cornered with rectangular clay pots topped by rounded greenery. The stone paved walkway leads to a sunken garden with an oval-shaped koi pond and a barrel-tiled entrance portal.
The royal palms were transplanted from the property’s El Bravo Way elevation. The artfully-crafted geometric design complements the house’s picturesque architecture, as evocative of an Alhambra jardin as an Andalusian cortile.
The sunken garden’s oval water garden and koi pond is surrounded by a double staircase railed with flowering plants, divided from the main courtyard by tall arched cut-out see-through podocarpus hedging that parallel the loggia’s arches.
The Fishers were bestowed the Preservation Foundation’s 2016 Lesly S. Smith Landscape Award for SMI’s design.
A pool was installed during the late 1970s in the far patio. The added exedra offers a focal point. A staircase, to the left of the exedra, leads to the sunken garden.
The central courtyard, loggia and sun terrace. “For the second-floor terrace, we reworked the breezeway into a continuous wing and created more functional space without altering the overall look,” said architect Clem Schaub. “This aspect of the project called for creating office space, an exercise area, and more room for guests.” To the west of the master suite’s original morning room, the variegated roof lines add to the ambiance of a hacienda del patrón.
Entrance hall, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Living room, 1930. Gracia Hall was an accomplished harpist and vocalist, thus the harp enjoyed a prominent position in the living room. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
“For the living room, we lightened the beams and the walls, retrofitting the wrought-iron grilles on the doorways leading into the courtyard, keeping the spirit of a more formal gathering place,” said Schaub. Drawings courtesy Clemens Bruns Schaub & Associates.
Loggia, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Loggia, 2020. “After we removed the previous owner’s faux murals from the loggia’s vaulted ceiling and returned the loggia back to how it was built, it resulted in a more authentic space,” said Frances.
Loggia, 2020.
Original formal dining room, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Formal dining room, 2020.
Formal dining room, 2020. For the dining room’s ceiling beams, “We recreated the originals. The beams were stripped, stained, and stenciled, with the Moorish-inspired colors and patterns,” said Schaub.
Formal dining room, 2020.
West courtyard. Opening from the dining room, the west walled patio features tropical plantings and orchids.
Library, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
The Fishers repurposed the Halls’ original library as an informal dining room.
Original Tap Room, 1930. F. E. Geisler, photographer. Courtesy Allison Rogers Haft Family.
Tap Room, 2020. The present owners reinstalled the present bar.
Tapestry, Tap Room. 2020.
Frances and Jeff Fisher transformed the outdated kitchen, service and storage area in the far southwest corner into an open, ultra-modern kitchen and family room. The wing’s service and storage areas were divided into a maze of small rooms, made for the Downton Abbey era when only the live-in staff would occupy it. After reformulating the space with an uplifting reconstruction, the architect achieved a functional 21st-century kitchen and family room with a new staircase leading to a guest suite.

Nightfall at El Bravo Park

Frances and Jeff Fisher’s house in El Bravo Park remains as attractive and functional for living and entertaining as it was when Gracia and Charles Hall built it in 1930.

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.

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