Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Maurice Fatio's Il Palmetto: The Garden

Photo:  Palm Beach Daily News.
In South Florida, where the vegetation can grow so lush, The Devoted Classicist has always been surprised at the relative lack of beautiful gardens.  Althought the grounds surrounding Palm Beach mansions are usually well-tended, the artistic level of landscape design is generally lower than one would expect.  Part of this may have to do with the fact that so many of the houses are used only as winter vacation homes and not the owners' primary residence.  Despite the concentration of wealth, beautiful architecture, and tropical climate, Palm Beach is just not known today for an abundance of remarkable gardens.
The east elevation of Il Palmetto during the occupancy of Janet Annenberg Hooker.
Photo:  Roberto Schezen, PALM BEACH HOUSES

A notable stand-out, however, is the new garden of the estate named Il Palmetto.  When billionaire internet software developer Jim Clark bought the property for $11 million from the estate of Janet Annenberg Hooker, it was in poor condition.  But the 5 1/2 acre property extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Intercoastal Waterway, also known as Lake Worth.  (Although bisected by South County Road, a tunnel connects to the separate Beach House).  And perhaps best of all, the property includes the landmark 1930 mansion designed by Maurice Fatio, Treanor & Fatio Architects.  Determined to restore the estate to its former glory, and better, Clark set out on a full renovation of the house, complimented by a spectacular new garden designed by landscape architect Robert E. Truskowski.
As it appeared when occupied by Mrs. Hooker.
Photo:  Christie's Great Estates.

This writer had first met Mr. Truskowski and become familiar with his Laguna Beach-based firm in the 1980s when he designed the gardens of a couple residences whose interiors were designed by Parish-Hadley.  With several field offices and spectacular estate gardens completed nationwide, plus a few international projects, the firm is a leader in residential landscape architecture, as these images reveal.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski.
The property is located at two relatively sharp turns in South Ocean Boulevard, also known as Highway 1A, so there is dense planting along the road.  The driveway entrance, at the short east-west leg of the road called "Widener's Curve", is a handsome pair of iron gates and piers with a degree of discretion.  A short length of driveway leads a pair of entrances flanking a decorative wall feature to a walled motor court.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski.
The motor court contains a simple fountain in the center, with the main entrance to the house straight ahead and a drive-through entrance to the service court to the left.  At the intersection of the wings is a three story tower.  To the left, a series of grass terraces with built-in perspective provide a vista of green to contrast with the hard surfaces.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski.
Going straight through the house, one comes out to a three-sided courtyard with dramatic steps down to the expansive lawn and the Intercoastal Waterway on the right.  In the center of this courtyard is another fountain, again a spray of water, but this time in a circular pool.  Straight ahead of that is a Loggia, open on both sides but capable of being given a windbreak from the ocean with glass retracting within steel frames.
Photo:  Dias Brothers.
The swimming pool terrace is beyond the Loggia.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowsi.
The swimming pool was completely reworked, keeping the original shape, but re-surfaced with brilliant cobalt blue tile.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowsi.
Below the swimming pool terrace, another courtyard focuses on a large sculpture set within a rectangular pool.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski
Another view of the same space, showing a closer look at a different angle.  A tennis court occupied the space previously.
Photo:  Dias Brothers.
The path to the new Boat House passes by magnificent specimen trees.  Some were rescued from sites being cleared for re-development and delivered by barge to the site.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski

Photo:  www.landscapeonline.com
The second photo of almost the same view shows the profusion of staghorn ferns (platycerium) growing from the trunk of the tree and the extensive use of bromeliads (bromeliacae) for low maintenance year-around color.
Photo:  Robert E. Truskowski
Another path shows the extensive use of coquina stepping stones and water features.
A view from the Intercoastal Waterway shows an expanse of lawn terraced up to the house.


Photo:  about 1932-34, Robert Yarnell Richie
Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries,
DeGolyer Library.
Architect Maurice Fatio
Photo:  PALM BEACH HOUSES.
Architect Maurice Fatio might not be well-known outside of Palm Beach today, but he was nationally famous in the 1920s and 30s.  Born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1897 and arriving in New York City in 1920, he was named at a 1923 society bazaar as the most popular architect in New York according to Shirley Johnson's book PALM BEACH HOUSES.   First working for noted architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, he teamed up with William A. Treanor, twenty years his senior who had worked for Lindeberg for ten years, to establish Treanor & Fatio Architects.  In 1925, he moved to Palm Beach and began designing houses in the Mediterranean style, usually blending together Romanesque, Florentine, and Venetian influences as well.  One of these houses, built for the Wolcott Blairs and known as much for the interior design by Ruby Ross Wood (and assistant Billy Baldwin) as much as the architecture, is featured in a previous post here.
The main entrance as it appeared during the occupancy by Mrs. Hooker.
This is one of this writer's favorite doorways in all of Palm Beach.
Photo:  Roberto Schezen, PALM BEACH HOUSES.
Il Palmetto was an important commission, a 42 room mansion with nine master bedrooms built at the height of the Great Depression that employed hundreds for months.  Fatio later designed Palm Beach houses in the Georgian Revival style (as he had done in New York), the French Norman style, the British Colonial style, the Regency Revival style, and even Contemporary.   He was immensely social, constantly attending luncheons and dinner parties to promote his architectural practice.  Handsome and an immpeccable dresser, he was also known for his tango.  He is even mentioned in the lyrics of a Cole Porter song. Sadly, he died of cancer at the age of 47 in 1943.  More about the work of this talented architect can be found in the book MAURICE FATIO: PALM BEACH ARCHITECT.  (Both of these books may be purchased at a significant discount through The Devoted Classicist Library and the links accessed by clicking the titles).
Portrait of Joseph Early Widener by Augustus Johns, 1921.
National Gallery of Art.
Il Palmetto was built as the winter vacation home of Joseph Early Widener, 1871-1943.  (His wife Ella had died the previous year and their children, Peter A.B. Widener, 2nd, and Josephine "Fifi" Widener Leidy Holden Wichfeld Bigelow were grown by that time).  Widener was heir to a vast real estate and transportation fortune.  He grew up in his parents' immense mansion designed by Horace Trumbauer,  Lynnewood Hall on 300 acres in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania;  it continued to be his residence after marriage and was the place of his death after several years of ill health.  Widener's older brother had perished on the Titanic in 1912, leaving him to inherit the bulk of the family fortune in 1915, and making him the country's 20th richest man.  He attended Harvard University and studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, but his main interest was dogs and horses.  In 1931, he renovated Hialeah Park, a lavishly landscaped thoroughbred racetrack still recognized today for its beauty and hundreds of pink flamingos.  But his best known contribution is his being a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  His donation of the Widener Collection, consisting of 2,000 paintings, sculptures and decorative arts objects was put on display in 1942. 
An interior doorway at Il Palmetto as it appeared
during the occupancy by Mrs Hooker.
Photo:  Roberto Schezen, PALM BEACH HOUSES.

Although Jim Clark may have spent more than double his initial purchase price to improve Il Palmetto, it has been universally thought to be a wise investment.  The estate is one of the most sparkling of the Palm Beach jewels, a town where such estates are still coveted as a desirable example of one's worth.  In 2009, Clark, 65, married 'Sports Illustrated' swimsuit model Kristy Hinze, 29, his fourth wife, on the beach at Necker Island, the private retreat of Sir Richard Branson, part of a four day celebration that also included Clark's $100 million yacht.  Il Palmetto has regularly been the site of events hosted by the Clarks to benefit various charities.  Unlike some of the other significant residences that have been featured on this blog, Il Palmetto is not threatened any time in the near future.

33 comments:

  1. John,

    Fantastic post! Your writing is very enjoyable. One can live vicariously through TDC -

    Dean

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  2. I was recently there and I'd found that the island, on the whole, is well gardened, though you might be right that truly distinguished gardens are not to be found there. I did very much like the little garden at the Bethesda Church and at the Society of the Four Arts. There are also some municipal small gardens that are very well handled. But gardening in that climate is a funny thing—I don't believe that the tropics have ever produced a truly fine garden which can only exist in a temperate climate.

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    1. Paul, perhaps you are correct and the lack of seasonal change plays more of a role than I have considered. And maybe my expectations of an orchid-filled Eden are a bit high for a town with relatively few year-around residents. But one would still hope for more than just a mown lawn and clipped hedges. Thank you for commenting.

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  3. It is often the garden - when it is a garden and not just landscaping - that interests me more than the I've just left. This is a real garden - grounds, I suppose, one might say, with all the aspects to be expected in such a climate, including oodles of shade, from the hands of a good garden designer. Love it!

    Always such a good read over morning coffee, your blog.

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    1. Thanks, Blue, and I ALWAYS appreciate your words of wisdom from your fine blog.

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  4. Oh, and taking on a 27-year old at my age - not sure I would have the energy! Also not sure I'd be given the choice, but that's a different topic altogether.

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    1. It's just a matter of priorities, I'm sure.

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  5. One of my Devoted Readers has notified me of a 1926 Maurice Fatio house in Palm Beach that is currently for sale. Although modest in comparison to Il Palmetto, the listed price is $15,900,000. Also of interest is the landscape design by Mario Nievera, www.nieverawilliams.com/ The Sothebys Real Estate listing can be viewed here: http:/www.sothebysrealty.com/eng/sales/detail/180-l-1176-0075470/lakefront-mediterranean-estate-section-palm-beach-fl-33480

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  6. I'm a dyed in the wool New Englander but there is something about Palm Beach that I love. Many thanks for this post.

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    1. Palm Beach has a lot to offer. When I had my first project there, I felt like a teenager, relatively speaking, because of the advanced median age.

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  7. Ah yes, a ditty by Cole Porter that had the lines:
    "I want to have lunch on Maurice Fatio's patio..."

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    1. Thank you, Toby. I am not surprised, of course, that you would know - sophisticated humor combined with music and all that goes with it. Those days may be gone, but we still have the influences.

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  8. John,

    It is a tough climate down there. Heat kills everything in summer. Soil is not that good either. Aside from bouganvillias, royal palms, hybiscus, gardenias and jasmine, plants are limited. Of course there are also plenty of orchids but they are found in terraces or tied to the trees around the house. That is one of the reasons you will see a lot of impatients in winter to add some color and not much else. Recently, impatients have been plagued by a disease and not a single one can be found around the place.

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  9. Thank you for commenting, J. Apparently there are stringent environmental issues, but I think the correct choice of plants, with some variation from what has commonly been used in the past, is the key to success. There have been recent inroads however, and I sense a new Renaissance for gardens is beginning to happen in South Florida.

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  10. How delightful to read an essay about a house where the happy combination of endless money, infinite patience, and superb taste is realized. Reggie

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    1. The Will, the Talent, and the Money: it is a winning combination. Thanks, Reggie.

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  11. I've admired this house forever---the idea of a suitable sort of house for Palm Beach had certainly come a long way in the few decades that separate this sensuous house from the stiffness of Mr. Flagler's Whitehall.

    Marvelous what the current owners have done.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, D.E.D. I was hoping you would see this, thinking you were surely familiar with the house. I did not get into the architectural expansions and improvements, but they were very complimentary to the original design, on the exterior in particular.

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  12. PS---was there ever a happier marriage of material and location than south Florida and coquina stone?

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    1. I am absolutely wild for coquina stone. Once in the mid-80s, Albert Hadley had the walls of his office painted in subtle imitation of blocks of coquina stone, complete with bits of shell fragments and imprints of coral into the gesso. Although short-lived, it was my all time favorite of all the versions of his office decor.

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  13. John,
    What an amazing house. It was nice to see all of those beautiful photos. I can't quite imagine the tennis court which was previously in the little sculpture courtyard...interesting. I adore the loggia...what a fantastic outdoor room that must be! Thanks so much for sharing.
    Jennifer

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  14. Do you plan on covering the neall Miller's Syderby La Reverie?

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  15. Do you plan on covering the neall Miller's Syderby La Reverie?

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    1. I know which house you mean. It was built 10 to 12 years ago on South Ocean Blvd and it is enormous. But I have never been inside. So there are no plans at present.

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    2. Thank you for your reply! And of course, this great post about Il Palmetto. I have no idea how 'nearby' in the above post became 'neall'.

      It is the house number four on this website:

      http://www.davisgeneralcontracting.com/

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    3. Marina, it reminds me a bit of "Montsorrel" which was a renovation project for me a number of years ago. Though large, "Montsorrel" is just a fraction of the square footage, however. If you have not seen it, you can use the SEARCH THIS BLOG feature.

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  16. Convert Inches BlogJanuary 16, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find many of your post's to be just what I'm looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content for you personally? I wouldn't mind publishing a post or elaborating on a few of the subjects you write about her. Again, awesome weblog!

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    1. Thank you for your comment. But it is impossible, for a number of reasons, to allow guest posts on this blog. And I have an enormous backlog of subjects that I want to write about, myself. But I appreciate your interest and hope you will continue to be a regular reader.

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  17. My congratulations to Jim and Kristy Clark for what they have done with respect to restoring the magnificent jewel to its original splendor. When I lived there in 1951 as a member of the renowned Apollo Boys Choir, Il Palmetto was in pristine condition. How I remember the elegance that surrounded me as a wide-eyed nine-year old who suddenly walked into a world beyond his wildest dreams and imaginations. What a glorious life I would come to know at Il Palmetto and in Palm Beach. Now at the age of 73, I cherish my memories like they were only yesterday. I can still see myself and my 24 other brothers eating in the elegant dinning room, rehearsing in the pavillion, swimming in the pool, and being entered by distinguished and other guests in the living room. Before I leave this world, I would love nothing more than to walk once more through the splendor that was and is Il Palmetto, And I so very generously thank Jim and Kristy Clark for reserving my memories for me and in such a meaningful way.

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    1. Frank, thank you for commenting. It is not possible for me to edit comments, but I knew you meant to say that you were entertained while at Il Palmetto. Best wishes, _ JT

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  18. This house is on sale, from yesterday. The price is 137 million dollars.

    http://www.sothebyshomes.com/palmbeach/sales/0077024

    There are more than 20 beautiful photos in the listing of this glorious estate.

    I was wondering, since this house has been landmarked by the town of Palm Beach, does landmarking mean that the original, Fatio, plans are kept somewhere in some archive of the town or something like that? Is there anywhere that one can find the floor plans?

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    1. A reporter from The Wall Street Journal contacted me last week, so I knew it was coming up. But thank-you for the always appreciated heads-up.

      If I am not mistaken, the Fatio archives are held by the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.

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