This tiny structure is Palm Beach County’s oldest commercial building

Every day, motorists on downtown West Palm Beach’s Flagler Drive speed past a funny little building that is older than the city itself.

Across 120 years, the doors of Palm Beach County’s oldest commercial building, a distinctive octagonal cone-roofed structure, have, at times, opened to bank tellers, to a kaleidoscope of grotesque Halloween masks and Santa costumes, and, over the last three decades, to dusty high school football trophies.

But few can get to it.

Its current managers hope it will find one more home, and more frequent visitors, at the South Florida Fairgrounds.

The building, at a Lilliputian 584 square feet, has since 1987 housed the Palm Beach High Alumni Association’s museum. Since the 1970s, it has stood on the waterfront at Fourth Street and North Flagler Drive, just south of the Flagler Bridge. The group would like to move it to Yesteryear Village, a collection of historic homes.

Actually, the group has talked for years — decades — about moving the building, association president Dwight Saxon said.

Over the past few years, it wasn’t even sure who owned the building. The answer: the city. And it sits on land leased by the city to the Chamber of Commerce of The Palm Beaches, whose main building is about 50 feet to the south. The city says the chamber actually pays the electric bill.

The problem is that weeks or months go by with no one visiting the museum. That would require someone coming down and unlocking the place, Saxon said.

And while the yearbooks, photos and trophies in it are in good shape, the building’s roof needs work and the air conditioning is on its last legs.

“I’ve got to spend two, three thousand (dollars) on the AC,” Saxon said. “If we’ve got to do that, it’s time to start thinking about a move.”

Yesteryear Village would be happy to take the building. But it’s up to the city.

“We have met with a couple of people from the (high school) alumni association and they said they were interested in having it brought out here,” Fair Vice President Victoria Chouris, who oversees Yesteryear Village, said.

But, she said, “Mayor (Jeri) Muoio likes having that in her city. That’s kind of where it stands.”

Asked where the mayor stands, Muoio spokeswoman Kathleen Walter said that “we are going to have to take a pass this time” on commenting.

The building opened for business May 11, 1893 as the Dade County State Bank, the first savings institution in the region. At that time, Dade County -– now Miami-Dade County -– extended to Stuart.

One article said the building’s first locale was Jupiter Island, and it later was floated down to Palm Beach. In 1897, it was floated to the mainland and to 223 Clematis Street, at the corner of Olive Avenue.

The Dade bank later would become Pioneer Bank, then First National Bank of West Palm Beach, according to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

The Dade bank built a new brick structure. By 1903, the little building was a barber shop. By July 1908, it was a dentist’s office. At one point, it was the Sheen’s Real Estate office.

In 1920, it was a beauty shop.

Then it became Johnny’s Playland.

“It’s always fun to shop at Johnny’s.”

John R. “Johnny” Eggert, was born in 1899 in Denmark. Even after moving to Florida, he never lost his accent, and he’d return to Scandinavia every year for four months.

Johnny was just a teen when he started out in 1916 as a “white face” clown with Copenhagen’s famed Schumann circus. He later appeared in several stage plays. He came to New Jersey in 1925 and opened a car wash in Asbury Park. When he moved to Palm Beach County, he first worked at the Lido Pools in Palm Beach.

The Playland, a “novelty and trick shop,” opened in 1935. Some stories spell it “Johnnie’s,” but his ads say “Johnny’s.”

By 1940, the building had moved to Clematis Street, opposite Flagler Park, now the site of the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront.

An ad said the store sported “a larger and more diversified stock of tricks, games, novelties and toys,” adding, “Remember: it’s always fun to shop at Johnny’s.”

Johnny, puffing his ever-present cigar, explained in one article that much of his stock of puzzles, practical jokes, costumes and masks was from Europe. He noted that Europeans preferred “beautiful masks” while Americans liked those that were “weird or scary.”

Ads over the years said Johnny would keep his place open late on Halloween and New Year’s Eve. He also was a big local supplier of Christmas paraphernalia, especially Santa costumes, wigs and beards. He sold 30 outfits in 1963 alone. He also would give frequent magic demonstrations for school groups.

“I have 10,000 tricks to sell,” Johnny said in a 1963 in an advertising story. It said customers who entered the tiny shop were confronted with a life-size figure of Johnny while his disembodied voice called out from the rear.

Where there was Johnny, there was Crystal.

Crystal Welch was a soprano singer and a veteran of the Keith’s Vaudeville circuit, who around 1930 had come to Palm Beach in the summers to sing with the Romany Chorus. “Roma,” “Romani” and “Romany” are preferred terms for the European ethnic group often referred to as “gypsies.”

But Crystal’s story wasn’t nearly as exotic.

“She was born in Kankakee, Illinois,” niece Dixie Normandin Price, 93, said in December from her home in DeLand, north of Orlando.

She said Crystal begin singing in the 11th grade “and then she was in vaudeville for oh, so many years.”

Crystal and Johnny were married in March 1932 in “a traditional Romany ceremony” and amid “lilting melodies of the trail” and “youthfully zesty customs,” a Palm Beach Post article said.

They were dressed in “brilliant gypsy costumes” imported from Denmark; black velvet, spangled with short black boleros worn over brown silk shirts. Crystal wore a yellow bandana and long hoop earrings. In the ceremony’s highlight, the couple pricked their wrists and tied them together to mingle their blood.

The Eggerts later would live at 159 Sunset Ave. in Palm Beach. And Crystal would run another shop a few blocks from her husband’s: The Campus Shop.

Johnny had opened it in 1934 or 1935 at 600 S. Sapodilla Ave., at Hibiscus Street. The spot now is part of CityPlace.

Crystal and her sister, Marie Carlson, sold school supplies, sandwiches and drinks to kids who crossed Georgia street after school — and sometimes during classes.

For nearly a half-century, Palm Beach High students shamelessly skipping class would run across Georgia Street to knock back milkshakes and brownies. It was an innocent time, at least on the surface. But societal upheaval was simmering. In 1969, a racially tinged knife fight outside the shop led high school authorities to declare it off-limits to students. Her clientele stymied, Crystal closed the shop later that year.

In 1984, local businessman Jim Prather bought the Campus Shop from Crystal and her sister. It reopened in November 1985, but shut down soon after that.

By then, the playful Johnny was gone. He had died at 71 on March 18, 1971.

Crystal Welch Eggert outlived her husband by nearly a quarter century. She died at 92 in December 1993. The couple was childless.

But what about the Playland?

“Demolition by Neglect”

In 1975, Crystal Welch Eggert donated the iconic building to the city. The next year, it would be a headquarters for local activities celebrating the U.S. Bicentennial. A condition of the donation was that the city would move it off Clematis Street. Suggestions were Howard ParkCurrie Park or Dreher Park, or the grounds of the library that would stand on the waterfront from 1962 to 2009.

There were talks to move the museum to the historic Palm Beach High campus, which after integration became Twin Lakes High and eventually the Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts in 1997. But the committee couldn’t work out the details. So it ended up at its present location along Flagler Drive.

The city later turned it over to the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches. In 1987, the Palm Beach High Historical Committee established the museum, which houses more than 1,000 items.

After Palm Beach High had changed to Twin Lakes, the school’s principal, Bobby Riggs, had grown concerned about priceless historic trophies and other memorabilia, both athletic and academic, and had taken them to his home for safekeeping. Between 1979 and 1987, Riggs and ophthalmologist Reggie Stambaugh, a fellow alumnus, collected — and in some cases repaired — some 500 relics.

Price, Eggert’s niece, said she believes her aunt probably would be pleased if the building was moved to Yesteryear Village, the South Florida Fair’s 9-acre collection of historic buildings. The chamber doesn’t oppose the move, “if it allows more members of the general public to see the building and be told about the era of Palm Beach County development,” said Chamber president and CEO Dennis Grady. 

But Palm Beach Hugh alumni head Saxon said “Right now, we feel it’s probably better to leave it there,” meaning the waterfront.

Saxon said the city hasn’t done much maintenance on the grounds and “it’s a mess.” During a Dec. 12 visit, he showed a tree that had come down in Hurricane Irma, which still lay where it fell.

“I don’t want to sink what little bit of money we have, for repairs, if we don’t own the building,” Saxon said.

He said the group might wait five or even 10 years before moving, but wants to keep a move as an option.

Relocating the memorabilia back into the old high school building isn’t an option, Saxon said, because “nobody would be able see it.” As a working public school, Dreyfoos’ grounds are limited to visitors.

“We have an interest in it, I’ll say that,” fair vice president Chouris said. “We’ll have to figure out what it would cost.”

Chouris said the Village would hope to get financial help from the association or others to pay for the move and to get the building up to standards for visitors, which included numerous school tours.

She said the Village and the Fair would be responsible for ongoing maintenance, electricity and other expenses. The Fair covers the Village’s ongoing costs in its general budget, she said.

“We’re constantly having to put money into the Village,” Chouris said. “But, again, it serves the purpose the fair’s here for.”

>>RELATED: Historical newspaper archives 

Greg Rice, who’s on the board of both the high school group and the South Florida Fair, said he’d support the move and he believes many of his Fair board colleagues would as well.

The current spot, he said, “is not a bad location, but it (the building) needs a a lot of attention. If you or I personally owned a historic structure in that condition, we probably would be cited for a code violation.”

He said he worries the building will fall victim to “demolition by neglect,” adding, “Let’s don’t let this part of our city fall into ruins.”

Sources for this story were Palm Beach Post and Miami News archives, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, the city of West Palm Beach departments of development services and historic planning, and the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.

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