The task that faced Richard Marconi when he set out to compile his book “Then and Now: Palm Beach” (Arcadia) was made considerably easier by the pleasant fact that Palm Beach changes less than any community outside of Monaco.
Marconi’s book is full of pictures of Worth Avenue from 50 or 60 years ago where only the names of the stores have changed. Similarly, The Breakers of 1940 is different from The Breakers of 2013 by virtue of the fact that the palm trees are taller.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” says Marconi, the curator of education at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. “Palm Beach is a time capsule of the early and mid-20th century.”
Some things have changed: the Palm Beach Historic Inn, across from Town Hall, used to be a store. Town Hall was originally two buildings, put together in a couple of renovations.
“What I find amazing is that there are really no fast food places. The McDonald’s and Burger Kings are all off the island, and on the east end there’s one Starbucks. From the government to private individuals, the island has done a great job of maintaining the small town charm of the island. They work hand in hand to preserve the historic structures.”
That never-changing quality isn’t done solely out of altruism; the pristine nature of Palm Beach is one of the reasons it continues to attract New Money, who are needed to buy the homes left behind by deceased Old Money. Case in point, Howard Stern, who defines just how nouveau the riche can get.
But there are unavoidable gaps left by time. Marconi’s book showcases some of the mammoth mansions built during and after World War I that were mostly torn down by the late 1950s because they were simply too costly to run, let alone repair. “I don’t think people want 40-room mansions even today, even if they have great wealth,” says Marconi.
You may think you know Palm Beach, but Marconi’s book offers some surprises: the home of the gambler and horseman E.R. Bradley, of which only a wall and a fireplace remain, was comparatively modest, perhaps because that made it easy to ride out those times when the cards weren’t falling Bradley’s way.
And the Palm Beach Bookstore on Royal Poinciana Way occupies the first floor of what used to be a movie theater that opened in 1922 with Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Affairs of Anatol.” (By the 1940s, the building had become a French restaurant that, oddly enough, featured a Gypsy violinist.)
In terms of commercial buildings, the one that got away was undoubtedly the Paramount Theater, designed by the great Viennese architect Joseph Urban, of which only the facade and a few interior pieces remain. While the island could no longer support a stand-alone theater, the Paramount could have been repurposed as a performing arts center had it not been for the Regency-style Royal Poinciana Theater, itself now dancing on the thin line between survival and landfill.
Marconi’s favorite places in Palm Beach include the Vias off Worth Avenue, the Seagull cottage, Whitehall, and the aforementioned Town Hall. And there’s one special private residence on South Ocean, built of coquina stone and brick by Maurice Fatio. “I really like the layering of the brick.”
Marconi has been in love with history since he got lucky with a good teacher in the 8th grade. “My dad was career Coast Guard, so we moved a lot, but I had a great teacher in California who got me into ancient history.”
After 20 years in the Army as a military policeman, Marconi retired with the rank of Master Sergeant and moved here to go back to school. “My wife asked me what I was going to get a degree in, and I told her and she said, ‘You really like that?’
“ ‘Then get a degree in something you really love.’
“So I went for a history degree. When I first moved here, I didn’t think there was that much history here. But when I started interning at the Historical Society in 1999, I was proved pleasantly wrong. There’s a great amount of history in Palm Beach County, and it goes back 10,000 years. The person who helped me understand Palm Beach County was Debi Murray, our chief curator. I’ve come to really love our county and our history.”
That love is now contained in Marconi’s loving tribute to a place like no other: the island of Palm Beach