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