Winter refuge for Washingtonians of substance and style
Palm Beach, named after its majestic royal palms and beautiful beaches, was first developed by Standard Oil partner and railroad magnate Henry Morrison Flagler in the 1890s. By the 1920s it had become America’s premier winter resort, attracting the social elite who entertained in grand style during the Christmas-to-Easter high season.
Immense Mediterranean Revival-style villas built by architects Addison Mizner, Marion Sims Wyeth, and Maurice Fatio for the Stotesburys, Phippses, Munns and other prominent families soon dominated the island’s Atlantic and Lake Worth shores. Many of these houses still exist today alongside newer – and much larger – residences built for modern Midases with names like Kimmell, Kluge and Koch, and even a Russian billionaire or two. (Note Donald Trump’s record-breaking sale last year of a $95 million home-away-from home to fertilizer king Dmitry Rybolovlev.)
The 14-mile-long, half-mile-wide island has long been the winter refuge of many Washingtonians with great flair and style of their own. The four residences we visited are prime examples of their owners’ highly personalized styles and ability to define private living spaces to suit personal needs.
Donald and Ann Brown
For Ann Brown, a former U.S. Consumer Product Safety commissioner in the Clinton Administration, and her husband real estate developer and lawyer Donald Brown, the priorities of selecting a residence in Palm Beach Garden’s elegant Frenchman’s Creek were very specific. “Lots of walls for the art, lots of space for entertaining, plus glass and light,” Ann Brown says, adding a requirement for separate offices for each and separate guest quarters on the grounds.
While the house had good bones, it was in need of renovation to suit their requirements. “Lots to work with and lots of work,” she adds.
It only took eight months to achieve the required specifications: a beautiful expanse of space, bleached floors, dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable furniture, and a white-and-cream color scheme providing a perfect backdrop for the couple’s extensive art collection. In the living room, works by Robert Longo, Sam Gilliam and Richard Artschwager display well alongside a red wall sculpture by Jack Youngerman and a Gina Porten sculpture, “Perfect Pairs,” atop a glass cocktail table. The dining room’s large contemporary glass table surrounded by antique Chippendale chairs inherited from Ann’s mother form an interesting juxtaposition with two works by African-American painter Jacob Lawrence.
The Browns have strong community-oriented sensibilities and have long been involved in Democratic Party politics. As a result, they entertain frequently and with great ease both indoors and out – 30 at dinner and several hundred for receptions. In the garden, Roy De Forrest’s whimsical “Dog Bench” sculpture and Washington artist Di Stovall’s oversized Florida-themed mural are centered around an amorphous pool. Masses of bougainvilleas and other flowers indigenous to Florida complete a “sculptural effect” that, like the house, are a beauty to behold.
Herman and Gina Porten
Nestled on a quiet palm-lined street half a block from the ocean, is the 1920’s pre-Mizner home of real estate developer Herman Porten and his Dutch-born wife, Gina. After purchasing it in 1998, the couple spent the next two years supervising a meticulous renovation.
Gina, an artist and interior-designer-turned-sculptor, had a good eye, plenty of imagination and all the sensibilities necessary to move and panel walls, vault ceilings and add columns and arches to create a jewel of a residence, replete with European antiques, fine paintings, and of course her own bronze sculptures.
Antique stone flooring throughout sets the stage for the arched entrance hall leading to the drawing room on the left and a cozy Fortuny-upholstered-and-paneled dining room on the right. The former features an oversized tufted ottoman easily seating ten in the center of the room – wonderful and as useful when hosting a cocktail buffet. Neutral color walls are anchored by Old Dutch Masters nicely complemented by a Gobelin tapestry above a plush settee. Soft glows from antique Murano chandeliers in both of the main rooms unify the atmosphere from the center hall. In the library, 19th-century English pine cases house the couple’s antique books and two early bronze works by Gina Porten, “Muna” and “The Globe.”
“I started sculpting shortly after we arrived in Palm Beach by joining the Armory Art Center five years ago,” the artist says. “Since then it has become my life.” (Herman Porten just happens to be the center’s president.) She has had several art exhibits to her credit and recently had a one-person, sold-out show at the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in West Palm Beach.
Gina Porten’s nudes and busts have evolved from neoclassical to minimalist forms, and more recently to a newly found language of “bones.” She humanizes these anatomical structures and creates beautiful Giacometti-like inspirations including the two 24-inch works called “Femme Femur” in the dining room’s bay window depicting tibia, fibula and patella talking to one another, as if in conversation.
She also recently designed a new Turtle Mascot with the Obama “Thumbs-Up” signature for the University of Maryland. “She is the most talented girl I know,” says Alma Gildenhorn, wife of the university’s board chairman, Joseph Gildenhorn.
Bill and Norma Tiefel
The grounds of “Casa Bendita,” the former Phipps estate and one of the most storied properties of old Palm Beach, now house a small number of beautiful French-, Spanish- and Mediterranean-Revival style residences. One of them, surrounded by 200-year-old banyan trees and giant palms, is the home of former Ritz-Carlton president Bill Tiefel and his wife, Norma Gewirz Kline Tiefel.
Norma Tiefel transformed a dark and gloomy interior into a bright and elegant space, full of whimsy and charm. She retained the Mizner-style high-beamed ceiling and red Spanish tile flooring, but conceived warm, sunny yellow walls for the drawing and dining rooms. The former is a perfect setting for sumptuous furniture (including two seating arrangements that easily function as one) and whimsical sculptures by Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, whose works have been collected by some of the world’s chicest people (Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent among them). The poetic flourish of the alligator chair in the living room provides contrast to the Louis XV French chinoiserie commode behind it. The large bronze Lalanne leopard sitting on a ledge between the living and dining rooms adds commanding presence as does the rare painting above the tall Italianate fireplace by Joseph Urban, who built Mar-a-Lago for Marjorie Merriweather Post.
The library’s triumph is the simplicity of its four original Art Deco chairs surrounding a leopard print ottoman doubling as a coffee table. An antique Majolica garden stool accents the scene.
Three large French doors lead to a rear terrace used as an outdoor living room, a common practice in Palm Beach. The wonderful 1930’s bamboo seating arrangement, featuring dark brown seat cushions accented by smart batik pillows, surrounds the lovely pools and fountain around which the Tiefels entertain in elegant Palm Beach style.
The Franklin Haney Family
In April of last year, Washington and Chattanooga, Tenn., real estate developer Franklin Haney purchased “Villa Venetia,” a magnificent Romanesque-style palazzo located on 3.5 oceanfront acres in Manalapan, just south of Palm Beach, for $22 million. Designed in 1929 by famed architect Maurice Fatio for Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, winner of the America’s Cup and a great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the house, which has been re-dubbed “Eastover” (its original Vanderbilt-era name) features sweeping waterfront vistas, garden courtyards, an enormous loggia with classic Palladian arches, and a private dock.
“We always vacationed together in Manalapan,” says Mr. Haney’s wife, Emmy, referring to her five children, their spouses, and nine grandchildren. “As our family grew, we just kept needing more space.”
The 52-room, 28,000-square-foot mansion should prove large enough for another generation, maybe even two, to enjoy as a winter retreat much as the Vanderbilts did in their heyday. The Haneys plan to restore the National Register of Historic Places listed property “to its original beauty” after years of controversial modifications (and the $6 million sale, in 2004, of a 1.6-acre parcel by previous owner Veronica Hearst, who defaulted on mortgages used in the $30 million purchase of the home in 2000).