Palm Beach takes pride in its architectural soul

  • The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, is one of the oldest buildings on the island known for its grand mansions and architecture.

    The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, is one of the oldest buildings on the island known for its grand mansions and architecture. Bloomberg News/Daily Herald File Photo, 2007

By Joseph Pubillones
Posted9/12/2021 7:01 AM

Editor's note: Joseph Pubillones is taking some time off. This column originally published in 2017.

Many think that the architecture of Palm Beach is one that never changes -- building in Palm Beach is no easy task. It is but for a fortunate few who can first and foremost afford it, and secondly jump through architectural reviews, neighbor's approvals and sometimes a lawsuit or two.


Architecture is not taken lightly, and while some see the island as a place where things never change, the architectural history begs to differ.

In its early days, Palm Beach was nothing more than a collection of wood-frame vernacular buildings. All were rooted in classical styling, some grand in stature, such as the Royal Poinciana Hotel and the original Breakers Hotel. Founding father Henry Flagler was more focused on getting the place established than on aesthetics. The wood vernacular buildings were easy to build and adapted well to the subtropic climate, except for the powerful sporadic hurricanes. Relatively few of these buildings are around for sampling.

Palm Beach has always been characterized by the Mediterranean architecture of the winding villas and the miles upon miles of mansions. Mediterranean revival has always been the preferred architecture because of the link to the maestro Addison Mizner. Mizner's vision created the idea of an exotic place to visit without the need to travel abroad.

After the financial crash of 1929, architects sought to replace the formality and expensive Mediterranean style for something affordable and casual. Throughout the 1930s, the Monterey, Bermuda and Modern styles emerged as a sensible and economical architecture in keeping with the times and economics.

Without the turrets, towers, and iron and stone decorations, these newer, more modest homes were easier to build and were ample enough for families. Some of these homes were built with brick and wood, and others consist entirely of plain stucco and flat-tiled roofs, which helped create the framework for what constitutes the architecture of central Palm Beach.

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Introduced into the island during the 1940s, the Palm Beach Regency style -- inspired by the Beaux-Arts movement -- was translated into less costly stucco construction for a tropical classic architecture. The style was most popular during the 1950s and '60s, developing in to entire neighborhoods. This architectural style catapulted the theme of an Anglo and Franco European elegance to Palm Beach. This style has endured the test of time and is perhaps the second most recognizable Palm Beach style.

Although at about the same time, the midcentury ranch was all the rage in the majority of the United States, Palm Beach did not catch on to this less glamorous and minimal architecture. A smattering of these ranches did develop on the north end of the island of Palm Beach. Today, many of these have received facelifts in every kind of flavor.

Palm Beach has had a love/hate affair with contemporary architecture. Star architects have come and gone and left some beautiful buildings, and neighbors have embraced them or feuded with architects and homeowners.

With each new home, the question of fitting in is always the conversation at every cocktail party or town meeting. Today, the argument of tradition versus contemporary architecture is more relevant than ever, both sides with equal fervor. One thing for certain is that Palm Beach is always in a quest for the best.

• Joseph Pubillones is the owner of Joseph Pubillones Interiors, an award-winning interior design firm based in Palm Beach, Florida.

© 2021, Creators Syndicate

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