Thirty years ago at the Philip Johnson-designed Historical Museum of South Florida in Miami (now the HistoryMiami Museum), I came across a series of letters and telegrams written in 1931 between Garden Club of Palm Beach president Marion Rappeleye McKinlock and Olmsted Brothers associate landscape architect William Lyman Phillips, in regard to a proposed lakeside marina and park plan on South Lake Trail. At the time, the Garden Club’s 1929 Plan for the Town of Palm Beach had a significant civic impact and Phillips was supervising Olmsted’s Mountain Lake Estates development in Lake Wales.
I recalled this correspondence last Sunday when I explored the recently dedicated Town of Palm Beach’s $38 million lakeside marina revamp and Lake Drive Park’s $4 million redesign. I realized I had never written about this correspondence packed away in a box that included a two-page letter from a vigilant South Lake Trail resident, Lillian (Mrs. Peyton) Van Rensselaer, expressing concern for her sunset and water views from the perspective of Casa Rosado del Lago, her residence at the corner of Peruvian Avenue and South Lake Trail.
“If you do not change your plan, you will rob Palm Beach of its greatest beauty — Lake Worth. Were Palm Beach on higher ground your plan would be very attractive, but considering the fact Palm Beach is absolutely flat, a fill of 90 to 100-feet wide will completely obliterate all view except this tiny, narrow line, which could be seen from the lake drive.” After suggesting “… not to include any shrubs or vegetation which would obliterate the water views,” Van Rensselaer concluded with understated Palm Beach elegance, “If you do not modify your plan, it will be an everlasting disgrace to the name of the Olmsted Brothers.”
What’s new? Clocks may have been turned back only an hour, nonetheless the past has never been more present than on ageless Palm Beach. Having found what might have been Midtown’s only public parking space, here are some of my impressions of the new park and marina peppered with flashbacks to the McKinlock and Phillips correspondence. Afterward I popped by the Hutton Building to check on the restoration, one of Addison Mizner’s few remaining original designs being converted into a private club by Carriage House Properties Partners LLC.
Town of Palm Beach Marina & Lake Drive Park
South Lake Drive
Dedicated November 1, 2021
“Palm Beach has embarked on a wave of improvements. There is a very real danger that intended forward steps will prove to be steps backward, if the sources of the town’s charm are not clearly comprehended.” Letter. Phillips to McKinlock, April 17, 1931.
“At best, the waterfronts of Palm Beach have a precarious existence … we must recognize the occurrence of occasional flooding and to plant only such vegetation as will tolerate flooding with salt water, may be the logical thing to do.” Letter, proposed Waterfront Treatment Plan for The Garden Club of Palm Beach. Phillips to McKinlock, April 25, 1931.
In his correspondence, Phillips related that since “river and harbor engineers are not likely to be moved by aesthetic considerations,” there was the possibility residents might “… see the picturesque irregularity of the lake shore wiped out, and with it, witness the passing of the famed charm of Lake Shore Trail.” Along with the Olmsted firm’s Mountain Lake Estates and Bok Tower in Lake Wales, William Lyman Phillips is known for Coconut Grove’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Vero Beach’s McKee Botanical Garden.
Phillips suggested an alternative plan, likened to the two-level Seine River embankments in Paris. The road and park would be on an even level, affording residents and pedestrians panoramic lake views. Staircases would lead to a lower-level for dock moorings and piers with Venetian poles, a stylistic complement to the Grand Canal houses at the west end of Worth Avenue. Since Midtown basin’s depth was not sufficient for yachts, the Garden Club’s plan had proposed a marina closer to the inlet for larger craft.
Ever the diplomat, McKinlock and The Garden Club appeared to settle on a plan accommodating nearby residents. Because the $43,000 plan was not approved in the 1931 budget, the club and the town planted royal palms and coconut trees. The marina-and-park plan was budgeted in 1940 when the cost of acquisition and beautification was more than $250,000.
Today the town’s marina boasts floating docks, increased security, public dockage tie-ups at the north end, and 84 berths with space for up to nearly 300-foot superyachts. Lake Drive Park’s new trappings include a coral-and-tile dog fountain, various clusters of native plantings, grass lawns, designer benches, bike racks, and permit-only parking. Residents and visitors not arriving by foot, bicycle, or Uber may be challenged during the season to find a nearby parking spot.
264 South County Road
In December 1931, E. F. Hutton opened his brokerage office at Phipps Plaza across County Road (then Palm Beach Avenue) from the First National Bank, built for $35,000 by the Phipps-owned Bessemer Properties.
Hutton Building, flashback …
One of Palm Beach’s natural wonders …
Photography Augustus Mayhew