Yesterday’s La Coquille Club

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La Coquille's "luxurious informality" welcomed the chic who jet set to Florida simply to sun, swim and fish. Whitneys, Fords and Vanderbilts swam with Esther Williams, danced with Ginger Rogers, lunched with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and downed gimlets at the club's Tortoise Bar.

Because today’s La Coquille Club has been so magnificently recast for nearly the past twenty years as part of The Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach in Manalapan, memories have nearly vanished of the original club’s ambience and attraction. By recalling its legacy with the few available images, the vision of its founder, Rockefeller scion, Spelman Prentice, and the imagination of its architect,Byron F. Simonson, emerge, however incomplete and fragmented the vignettes, of an inspired 50’s fantasy.

When Spelman Prentice (1911-2000) died in Montecito, his New York Timesprofile overlooked his role in creating the La Coquille Club, a private oceanfront enclave south of Palm Beach fashioned with some of the area’s most significant Mid-century Modern buildings that were later demolished during the mid-1980s. Instead, the NYT obit mentioned that after Spelman Prentice attended Taft and Yale, he ran oil and gas companies, Bluewater Oil & Gas Co. and the Prenalta Corporation, named for his mother Alta Rockefeller (1871-1962), the daughter of Standard Oil godfather, John D. Rockefeller. A private person known for her musicales, in 1900 Alta Rockefeller married a Chicago attorney, Ezra Parmalee Prentice (1863-1955), often confused with his cousin, a New York attorney and Assemblyman also named Ezra Parmalee Prentice (1878-1966). When not in New York or Miami, the E. Parmalee Prentices, as they were known, and their three children, John Rockefeller, Mary Adeline and Spelman, could be found at Elm Tree House, hosting concerts and raising dairy herds on their 1,000-acre Mount Hope Farm in the Berkshires.

Mrs. Walter S. Gubelman and Spelman Prentice at the Club du Moulin Rouge in Palm Beach, 1955. Mr. Prentice was a social presence in Palm Beach.
Spelman Prentice shares a blissful moment with his wife, Lola Pierce Noyes, at Mr. Prentice’s La Coquille Club in Manalapan. Married in 1953, a second marriage for both, the Prentices lived on North Lake Way in Palm Beach. His first marriage to Dorothy Ryan of Coconut Grove ended in divorce.
La Coquille Club, Manalapan. c. 1955. When Prentice built the club, along with Palm Beach developer Robert Bissett, SR A-1-A was a scenic ocean boulevard running along the ocean, the club’s eye-catching modernistic design became an area attraction. Following a hurricane several years later, the road was re-routed to the west, along the Intracoastal Waterway extending as it does today from Chillingworth’s Curve to Sloan’s Curve.
L to R.: The Corvette Room was the club’s circular dining room.; Mid-century Fashionistas. White pants, white shoes and a turtleneck for him, a palazzo pants ensemble and heels for her, probably waiting for Don and Betty Draper to step out of their shag-carpeted apartment and join them for Brandy Alexanders.

To design the club, Prentice retained Palm Beach architect Byron Simonson, a Wisconsin native who studied architecture at Chicago’s Vogue School of Design before affiliating with Clas, Shepherd and Clas in Milwaukee and the firm of York and Sawyer in New York.

By 1930, Mr. Simonson was chief draftsman for Addison Mizner’s Worth Avenue atelier; following Mizner’s death three years later, he joined Treanor and Fatio. After a brief partnership, he established his own office in 1945. Mr. Simonson’s prized architectural geometric compositions at La Coquille were described when they were built as replicating “the grace and symmetry of the palaces of ancient Greece.” Following the club’s opening, and the praise for Simonson’s avant-garde design, the state’s architects held their annual convention at the club.

Architect Byron Frederick Simonson is best-known for his design of The Colony Hotel in Midtown Palm Beach.
The club’s sleek polished ensemble of design elements included the apartment-hotel’s imposing port-cochere entrance.
The Tortoise Room was exuberantly modern. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
The circular Corvette Room was reserved for formal dining, described as “the grand salon of an ocean liner” where an orchestra played during dinner.
The serpentine sun shade shelter with cylindrical columns buffered the heated kidney-shaped saltwater pool from the ocean.
The entrance to the club’s north wing opened into a large banquet room-theater with a lower level accommodating a beauty parlor, soda fountain and bar.
The club’s awning entrance with general manager, Bob Scrutin, standing guard. After the club closed, Mr. Scrutin managed the private club at Ocean Reef.
Mme. Jacques Balsan, nee Consuelo Vanderbilt, a Manalapan resident, chatting with Harvey Ladew in the club’s glass-walled Ocean Room trimmed with California redwood columns and beams with inlaid floors. Mme. Balsan’s brother, Harold Sterling “Mike” Vanderbilt, incorporated the Town of Manalapan in 1931 and, when he wasn’t playing bridge, served as the town’s mayor for fifteen years and on the Town Council for more than thirty years..
Count de Lugar de Nuevo, chairman of the 1955 Goya Ball’s decoration committee. The club’s Ocean Room was a popular social center.
Left, Mrs. E. F. Hutton #2, chairman of the Goya Ball, photographed with the Spanish ambassador and various members of Spanish royalty in the club’s Ocean Room.

In 1972, Mr. Prentice sold the La Coquille Club for $1 million to former American Motors chairman, Donald B. Evans. Years later, after enhancing the club and adding buildings to the north, Mr. Evans sold the club in 1978 to Stephen and Patty Harrison. The Harrisons operated Executive Conferences of Florida, a corporate conference company, before they defaulted, unable to sustain more than $20 million in mortgages. These loans were predominately from C. H. Butcher, Jr.’s Tennessee banking empire that was subsequently shut down by the FDIC.

The club hosted its last affair in April 1983; poolside lunches were discontinued shortly after Easter. At the foreclosure sale, Mr. Evans bought the club back for $3.2 million, only to sell it again in 1985 to a Virginia hotelier, Norman Groh, who received approval for a 230-room hotel, but failed to obtain financing. Then finally, Mr. Evans made a deal with the late Midwest shopping center magnate Mel Simon and The Ritz Carlton was subsequently built. The La Coquille Club reopened within the hotel in July 1991.

Before demolition, the club’s fixtures and furnishings were sold to the public in 1985.
La Coquille Club, demolition. Eventually, the property was sold to a development group who razed the original buildings and reestablished the club within The Ritz-Carlton as an exclusive venue predominately for Manalapan residents.

Photographs courtesy of Palm Beach Daily News archive and La Coquille Villas.

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