In Palm Beach, history hides behind tall hedges.
Beyond those fierce stands of ficus stand the mansions of some of America’s wealthiest citizens.
The houses seem old and venerable today, but when their builders arrived in Palm Beach at the start of the Jazz Age, everything was brand new. That included social codes, dress codes — and much of the money. The stuffy resort life centered around the big hotels was over. New high society wanted to party at homes.
And these new mansion owners wanted those homes to be as jazzy as the age.
Architects Addison Mizner,Maurice Fatio and Marion Sims Wyeth responded, designing immense castles in the midst of the wild beach jungle, in a dizzying combination of Mediterranean styles. There, the owners of these party palaces lived in walled splendor for the three short months of the Palm Beach winter season.
Except for Mar-a-Lago, now the domain of President Donald Trump, the largest estates fell to bulldozers in the 1950s and ’60s. But many other mansions survived, even if their once-vast grounds became subdivisions.
Here’s a peek behind the hedges of nine of Palm Beach’s most spectacular remaining 1920s mansions.
In 1930, it cost $2.5 million and took 450 workers eight months to build this 60,000-square-foot home for Joseph Widener, a Philadelphia industrialist, horseman and the founder of Hialeah Race Track. Maurice Fatio’s design for the Italian Renaissance estate included a 50-foot-long living room and a 16th-century carved ceiling. Today, the home’s site, south of Southern Boulevard where Ocean Boulevard swings east, is known as “Widener’s Curve.”
In 1951, when the big estates had gone out of style, Il Palmetto sold for $97,000. Twenty years later, Jan Annenberg Hooker, one of publisher Moses Annenberg’s seven daughters, bought it for $975,000. Il Palmetto was in poor condition when Netscape co-founder James Clark purchased it for $11 million in 1999. He since has completed a major renovation of the house which spreads more than 68,000 square feet on a 5-acre lot. In August, Clark listed the property for $137 million.
This property was once part of the historic Blossom-Bingham estate dating to 1894. In 1918, architect Abram Garfield, the son of President James Garfield, designed the house on a ridge of original beach hammock for Chester Bolton, a Cleveland congressman, and his wife, Frances, a member of the Bingham family. She served out her husband’s term after his death and was reelected for nearly 30 years.
The estate’s palm garden was so thick that a 1970s architectural survey of the property reported that sunlight did not reach the ground.
Ron Perelman, the Revlon boss, owned the seven-bedroom, 18-bath home in the early 2000s while married to actress Ellen Barkin. He sold it in 2004 to Virginia home builder Dwight Schar for $70 million, then the highest price ever paid for residential real estate in the U.S.
In 2015, hedge funder Paul Tudor Jones II paid a total of $116.1 million for the house and an adjacent property, creating an ocean-to-lake estate.
She commissioned architect Marion Sims Wyeth to construct a 58-bedroom, Spanish-Moorish-Portuguese-Venetian palace on the 17 acres she purchased between the ocean and Lake Worth (the Intracoastal). By the time it was finished in 1927, Joseph Urban, a Viennese architect and theater designer, had provided much of the ornamentation.
Six hundred workers labored for more than three years to build this mansion, using boatloads of Italian stone and approximately 36,000 antique Spanish and Portuguese tiles, as well as old marble floors and roof tiles from Cuba. The living room’s 30-foot-tall, gold-leafed ceiling is a copy of the famous “Thousand-Wing Ceiling” in the Accademia Museum in Venice — only with secular rather than ecclesiastical motifs.
For decades, the estate’s 75-foot tower has been a navigational aid for local boaters.
When she died in 1973, Post gave Mar-a-Lago (“ocean to lake” in Spanish) to the U.S. government for a presidential retreat, but the government balked at its million-dollar-a-year maintenance cost and its site under the Palm Beach International Airport’s flight path.
In 1985, Donald Trump paid $10 million for the estate, which contained 33 bathrooms, three bomb shelters and a nine-hole golf course. Ten years later, he converted it to a private club with a spa, tennis and croquet courts, a new ballroom and beach club. It became the Southern White House following Trump’s presidential inauguration earlier this year. Current initiation fees for the club are $200,000.
Of the largest 1920s Palm Beach estates, Mar-a-Lago is the only one to survive nearly intact through the decades.
With his last significant Palm Beach commission, Addison Mizner built this house with its two-story, Venetian-style loggias and an open circular stairwell in 1926 for George Rasmussen, the founder of the National Tea Company, who named it after his wife. The living room contains a circa-1550 fireplace King Henri II of France had made for his mistress, Diana De Poitiers. The fireplace’s engraved double D’s refer to her; the “H” above stands for the king. In addition to the original circular stair tower leading to an oceanfront master suite, the 30,000-square-foot estate has nine bedrooms, 14 baths and a movie theater with tiered seating for 12.
Its former owners include Mary Woolworth Donahue, a host of early Chicago TV shows, who married the heir to the dime-store fortune and once rented the house to Adnan Khashoggi before selling it for $3 million in 1980.
Bud Paxson, founder of Paxson Communications, and his wife, Marla, who owned Casa Nana in the late 1990s and early 2000s, hosted a 2000 fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign there before selling it furnished for $30.25 million in 2003.
In 2003, Terry Taylor, one of the country’s biggest car dealers who owns Automotive Management Services, Inc. paid $22.2 million for the property.
One of the largest of Palm Beach’s Jazz Age palazzos, the 45,000-square-foot “little bit of heaven” was originally sequestered in the midst of 16 lush ocean-to-lake acres. Built by Marion Sims Wyeth in 1927 for dime-store heiress Jessie Woolworth Donahue, the 135-room house was “one of the finest Hispanic-American houses in that land of magical dwellings — Palm Beach,” enthused Arts & Decoration magazine the following year, citing its distinctive Moorish brickwork and wooden window grills.
But in 1948 after the suicide of her husband, playboy James Donahue, Jessie sold the house to developers who built Kings Road straight through her former living room while subdividing the mansion into five still-sizeable homes. So large was the original mansion that one of these “smaller” homes (on the south side of Kings Road) still contained 20 rooms — and retained the name, Cielito Lindo.
Incredibly, TV’s Dr. Mehmet Oz and his wife, Lisa, are only the second family to own Louwana, one of Mizner’s earliest and most romantic homes, built on Palm Beach’s north end in 1919. The house, on 150 feet of oceanfront, with 12 bedrooms and a graceful Venetian-style stairway on one side of the courtyard, was part of a huge land parcel once owned by the Phipps family.
Built for Gurnee Munn, who was married to Marie Louis Wanamaker of the Philadelphia department store family, the house remained in their extended family for nearly a century. The Oz family purchased it in 2015 for $18 million from Munn-Wanamaker heiress, Cristina de Heeren Noble.
This season, the Oz’s advertised the house for rent for $95,000 a month, through The Fite Group.
Best-known as the house John Lennon and Yoko Ono owned briefly in the early ’80s, El Solano was supposed to be Addison Mizner’s own abode. Set in a tangled beach jungle in 1919, he sold it to a persuasive Harold S. Vanderbilt, who had Mizner add a large new living room and swimming pool. Vanderbilt spent winters there in the 1920s but when the town refused to close South Ocean Boulevard in front of his house (as the town had done for the wealthy residents on North Ocean Boulevard), he built a larger mansion farther south in Manalapan.
In the 1960s and ’70s, El Solano’s 22 rooms were a top society party destination when John “Jock” and Brownie McLean owned the house. (The McLean family once owned The Washington Post and the Hope Diamond.) It was also the scene of raunchy photo shoots for Hustler magazine when Brownie unknowingly rented the estate to the magazine’s publisher, Larry Flynt. Former Florida governor Claude Kirk stayed in the house the Christmas before his 1967 inauguration.
McLean sold the estate to Lennon and Ono, who vacationed there for about two weeks one winter but never moved in. Ono renovated the house after Lennon’s death, then sold it for $3.15 million. The house sold again for $23 million in 2016.
El Solano and the house next door, owned by prolific author James Patterson, are part of Palm Beach house lore. In the 1920s, Vanderbilt and Standard Oil heiress Elizabeth Kay, who lived in the house on the north side, had a dispute over an addition Vanderbilt constructed close to Kay’s home. In an attempt to resolve the feud, Vanderbilt sold the addition to Kay, who built a bridge connecting it to her house, now Patterson’s home, with a bridge that spans the driveway.
For $5 in 1969, the public could stroll through this 32-room home, past its six fountains and antique Spanish tiles during that year’s Palm Beach Garden Club home tour. Its owner at the time was Alexander Kirkland, whose second wife was stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
The Jazz Age mansion was built by Addison Mizner in 1923 for Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr., who was married to tobacco heiress Mary Duke.
By the early 1990s, 16,000-square-foot El Sarmiento had been “architecturally vandalized,” according to a New York designer renovating the house for new owners. That face-lift, in which 14 small bedrooms became six large suites, earned El Sarmiento its first Ballinger Award from the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation in 1991.
In 1998, energy tycoon David Koch paid $10.5 million for the estate. He and his wife, Julia, embarked on a $12 million restoration, which included incorporating the house next door to create a playhouse for their three children as well as staff quarters. The renovation, which expanded the home to 30,000 square feet, won the Preservation Foundation’s 2008 Ballinger award.
Estee Lauder House
It was built by Marion Sims Wyeth in 1938 for Mrs. Francis A. Shaughnessy. The late cosmetics queen and her husband, Joe, purchased this Neo-Classical oceanfront home in 1964. In later years, the couple came to Palm Beach in December, staying until April. Their son, Leonard Lauder and his late wife, Evelyn, completed a renovation which won the Ballinger Award for preservation in 1999.
The Kennedy Estate
The family hasn’t owned it for more than 10 years, but the house on North Ocean Boulevard will always be known as the Kennedy Estate. Originally named “La Guerida,” the 11-bedroom home was built by Addison Mizner in 1923 for department store tycoon Rodman Wannamaker. Joe Kennedy purchased it for $120,000 in 1933.
During the brief, bright years of Camelot, it was the winter White House, where newly elected John F. Kennedy chose his Cabinet and worked on his inaugural address. Its oceanfront lawn was the scene of the famous Kennedy football games. After her husband’s death, Rose Kennedy continued to spend time in Palm Beach, visited frequently by various family members.
After she died, the un-air-conditioned, increasingly ramshackle estate housed rotating gangs of Kennedy kids on spring break. In 1991, it was the scene of the police investigation into a rape allegation made against William Kennedy Smith, who was acquitted of the charge.
In 1995, the Kennedys sold the furnished house for $4.9 million to John and Marianne Castle, who began an extensive restoration using Mizner’s original plans, keeping most of the Kennedys’ furniture. In 2015, the Castles sold it to part-time Palm Beacher Jane Goldman for $31 million then auctioned the Kennedy furnishings.
Additional research by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and Palm Beach Daily News.