History for what its worth

Hard to believe that the site of Palm Beach’s posh Everglades Club was once a tourist attraction showcasing a pit full of alligators and crocodiles, but so it was.
[slickr-flickr tag=”W A history”]

Visitors paid a quarter to ride a chauffeured three-wheeled whicker chair along the meandering Jungle Trail to watch Warren Frazee, known as Joe Frazier, wrestle large reptiles, said Palm Beach historian James Ponce.
“That area was very low and a virtual jungle, and someone had cut a path through it from County Road to Alligator Joe’s. When Palm Beach’s Royal Park addition was platted in 1913, Jungle Trail became Worth Avenue, named for General William Jenkins Worth.”

In 1918, Singer Sewing Machine heir, Paris Singer, bought the alligator farm, hiring his friend, architect Addison Mizner, to build a convalescent hospital for veterans on the site. But World War I ended before the facility opened, and the Touchstone Convalescent Club was repurposed as the Everglade’s Club, captivating the town’s affluent social set who quickly sought membership.

“Mizner’s unique version of Mediterranean architecture caused controversy,” Worth Avenue tour guide Rick Rose said. “People were used to British Colonial and Mizner’s designs included lots of styles, blending different heights and different angles, but people loved the hodgepodge.”

The club was an immediate success, and Singer asked Mizner to supervise the construction of 12 “Maisonettes” to the east of the club, with storefronts on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. Soon after, Via Mizner and Via Parigi were built just across the street. A shopping mecca incorporating romantic architecture, enchanting passageways and intimate courtyards, the vias were the perfect setting for charming boutiques.
Early shops included Jay Thorpe, a fancy ready-to-wear shop; Exotic Gardens landscape company; Catherine Mac Veady’s shop, which sold hats and gowns; William Beaumgarten interior decorators; John and Annie Clifton’s realty; Feigh’s barbershop; Maria van Hausen’s corsetry shop; Etta Menko’s antique shop; and Darrah & Darrah silversmiths.

Within the decade, Saks Fifth Avenue leased the building where Ralph Lauren is now, and The Cadillac Motor Company occupied the space that the haberdashery Maus & Hoffman now occupies.

As Worth Avenue became the heart of the island, houses along the street slowly converted to storefronts, and by 1940, several Fifth-Avenue stores with Palm Beach addresses – the Elizabeth Arden Salon, Bonwit-Teller, Hattie Carnegie and Cartier – relocated there from the town’s older shopping areas.

The restaurant Ta-boo arrived in 1941 and Aldo Gucci opened his first store on the avenue in the 1950s.

“At that time, both sides of the road were solidly built until the last block on the south side facing County Road,” Ponce recalled. “That was a parking lot, and cross from it was the Standard Oil gas station.
“The town folded up by mid-April,” he added. “They even took the streetlights down.”

In the 1960s Ta-boo was the first to stay open year ’round, followed by Saks Fifth Avenue and The Breakers hotel, “and that was due to the advent of air-conditioning,” Rose explained.

Over the years, old buildings were replaced with new at the east end of the avenue, making room for The Esplanade (now 150 Worth), a two-story open-air promenade, and the premiere upscale department store, Neiman Marcus.
Some aspects of the avenue never change. Elegant clientele with discriminating taste know exactly what they want, and Worth Avenue merchants understanding that, offer tony labels as well as especially designed custom lines.

Today, the glamorous resort attracts a host of national and international visitors as well as winter residents who continue to establish multi-million-dollar seasonal homes on the island, and, as such, Worth Avenue carries a singular cachet that’s recognized the world over.

Considered one of the most famous retail destinations, famed purveyors of fine merchandise vie for the opportunity to display their pricey and precious wares along the thoroughfare. Among them are fabulous fine jewelry firms: Graff, noted for diamonds of extraordinary rarity and beauty; Cartier, crown jeweler to 19 royal houses; and Van Cleef & Arpel, a signature brand that bedazzles and beguiles with the choicest diamonds and gemstones in exquisite settings. Internationally renowned design houses proffer luxury wares that are the epitome of elegance and refinement, including Louis Vuitton, with its unparalleled hand-wrought luggage and iconic handbags, and Chanel, widely recognized for its exquisite haute couture and fashion accessories.

Currently, with more than 200 shops with a 60/40 mix of boutiques and corporate stores, “Worth Avenue is certainly not a concrete mall destination,” said Worth Avenue Association president, Gregg Beletsky, who is also general manager of Ralph Lauren’s Palm Beach shop. “It’s about 100 years of service, so to speak. You don’t get hand deliveries and personal note cards at big-box malls.

“We know our customers by name,” he said. “We offer an experience of community that’s been cultivated over the years, and that’s what makes us special and unique.”

In 2010 and 2011, the avenue’s $15.8 million renovation made shopping even more engaging, he said. “The mature trees, new sidewalks and benches along the street invite customers to sit down and take a moment to enjoy the beautiful landscape and architecture around them.”