Ghost Mansions of Palm Beach
Palm Beach’s massive 1920s sandcastles were all demolished by the 1960s. Except one. Mar-a-Lago is the only one that survived the wrecking ball.
The gilded glamour of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago may seem ostentatious to contemporary tastes, but it wouldn’t have to the millionaire industrialists who built Palm Beach’s Jazz Age mansions.
Too much was just enough for the Roaring ‘20s, when old fortunes met new money on the Palm Beach sand and both built castles on vast ocean-to-lake estates.
Of the era’s palaces, only Mar-a-Lago has survived nearly intact through the decades, as a last reminder of a lost world when American plutocrats flaunted their wealth during what was then a three-month Palm Beach season.
Mar-a-Lago was designed by Marion Sims Wyeth. Then, believing it needed some additional pizazz, owner Marjorie Merriweather Post hired theater designer Joseph Urban to luxe it up with a frosting of gold leaf and ancient Portuguese tiles.
If you don’t count a brief ownership by the federal government, which gave it back to the Post foundation, the home has had only two owners, Post and Donald Trump, a circumstance which likely saved it from destruction.
The rest of the island’s massive homes succumbed to the wrecking ball by the 1960s, victims of changing tastes and the costs of upkeep, their owners broke or dead, their contents sold, their exotic gardens pruned into subdivisions.
The biggest — far larger than Mar-a-Lago — were designed by architect Addison Mizner, the dream merchant of the rich.
In the years following World War I, Mizner built fantastical Mediterranean palazzos topped with turrets and towers, pierced with arches and balconies, parading rows of columns across their façades. Mizner anchored them high on the island’s dune ridge. Some were large enough to entertain more than 1,000 people.
Imbued with romance, these were homes designed for a tropical climate; they looked their best accessorized with fringes of swaying coconut palms.
The grounds of three of the largest — El Mirasol, Casa Bendita and Playa Riente, the grandest of them all — covered dozens of acres of beach hammock, running from the Atlantic across the island to Lake Worth (the Intracoastal today).
They’re the ghosts of Palm Beach.
This 40-room 1919 mansion cemented Mizner’s reputation — and elevated its owner, Eva Stotesbury, to social queen of the island resort.
Before the Stotesburys built El Mirasol, most entertaining in the resort town took place in hotels, like Henry Flagler’s Royal Poinciana, once known as the largest wooden hotel in the world.
Eva changed all that by building a mansion large enough to entertain 1,200 people at a time on the island’s North End. Every February, she held a big party for husband Ned’s (E.T. Stotesbury) birthday, at which he entertained guests by bringing out the drum he played during his Civil War years.
Towering at the east end of 42 acres that spanned the island, El Mirasol (“the sunflower” in Spanish) required butlers, chambermaids, parlor maids, cooks, gardeners and housemen to keep it running. The gardens, filled with monkeys and aviaries of tropical birds, included groves of citrus trees and a Moorish tea house on the lakeside.
Known for her ropes of natural pearls, Eva was once criticized by an acquaintance for wearing them during the day with a gingham dress.
“Yes, my dear,” she reportedly said. “I used to feel that way, too. But that was before I had the pearls.”
In 1922, Eva’s daughter, Louise Cromwell, married Gen. Douglas MacArthur in El Mirasol’s living room. Later, her son, James Cromwell, became Doris Duke’s first husband.
Such was the clout of the Stotesburys and their wealthy neighbors that after the 1928 hurricane they persuaded the town to reroute North Ocean Boulevard farther west to North County Road so cars wouldn’t disturb their ocean view.
According to a 1954 issue of All Florida magazine, Palm Beach’s biggest palacios had already become ungainly white elephants. A new generation epitomized by Lilly Pulitzer ushered in the resort’s barefoot era. Dozens of rooms maintained by an army of servants, the vast gardens, the formality all belonged to an earlier age.
For Eva, the money ran out with the era. She had to sell her pearls, her other houses, her limousines and her art collection. After her death at El Mirasol in 1946, everything else went at an estate sale attended by 4,000 people, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
El Mirasol wasn’t yet 40 years old when the bulldozers rolled through the gates in 1959. The vast property that held one mansion became subdivisions that now contain more than 50 homes. All that remains is a fountain on private property and an entry arch that can be seen from North County Road.
Of all the stories of the Palm Beach ghost mansions, the tale of Playa Riente (“Laughing Beach”) is the most haunting.
It was Addison Mizner’s masterpiece — massive, ornate and darkly Gothic — built for $2 million in 1923. Its owner was Joshua Cosden, a streetcar conductor who struck it rich in the oil fields of Oklahoma, married “the most beautiful girl in the state,” then built her a gargantuan mansion on 27 ocean-to-lake acres. To age its coquina stone walls, Mizner sank the blocks in the ocean for weeks.
Parts of the 70-room palace seemed to hover over the Atlantic, whose waves lapped for 1,000 feet along the east end of the estate. The front door opened to an 80-foot entrance hall, which ended in a massive stone staircase. Marble steps led directly into the Atlantic. In addition to 15 master bedrooms, a “bachelor” wing allowed single male guests to come and go without disturbing the rest of the house.
But by 1926, Cosden had gambled away his fortune and sold Playa Riente to Anna Dodge, widow of automaker Horace Dodge. Three weeks later, she married her real estate agent, Hugh Dillman, director of The Society of the Four Arts, who was almost 20 years younger. The Dillmans became famous for their parties, and even introduced the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Palm Beach society during one soiree in 1941.
By 1947, the marriage — and the market for Palm Beach’s conspicuous consumption — was over.
Anna Dodge (she resumed her earlier name) couldn’t sell the mansion for $1 million in the early 1950s, not even when she threw in 24.7 acres of land for only another million. She then attempted to have the estate rezoned for use as a school or private club, but the Town Council refused. Dodge sued the town and lost.
(Forty years later, Trump fared better in persuading the town to let him turn his mansion into a private club.)
In a snit, Dodge threw a lavish last party, sold everything at an estate sale, and called in the wrecking crews in 1957. Of the legendary mansion, not even a street name remains in Palm Beach.
In 1922, Mizner built this mansion on 28 acres, part of a much larger parcel steel magnate Henry Phipps purchased for his children in 1912.
At one time, the Phipps family owned much of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, including about 28 miles of oceanfront property between Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. (Phipps South Ocean Park in Palm Beach and Phipps Park in West Palm Beach are built on former family holdings.)
Casa Bendita was John S. “Jay” Phipps’ winter home, named for his wife, Margarita, known as “Dita.” During construction, it was dubbed “Phipps Castle” by one newspaper writer, awed at its size. Perched on one of the highest points along the old dune line, Casa Bendita had a four-story octagonal tower, a large courtyard on three sides and a romantic covered pool framed by arched columns.
Phipps, who founded the original Palm Beach Polo Club in Gulfstream, kept the house until his death in 1958. Afterward, his heirs razed the mansion and subdivided the land.
In the 1990s, the Phipps estate became Phipps Estates when part of its former grounds became Palm Beach’s only planned development. One 6-acre lot remains in the center of the island, owned by Susie Phipps Cochran and her husband, Bob Eigelberger, who playfully dubbed their house “Casa Phippsberger.”
All that’s left of Casa Bendita are the bits of walls, statuary and fountains the couple used to build picturesque ruin walls on their estate, which today contains one of South Florida’s most spectacular private gardens.
Additional research by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
Want to see remnants of the Ghost Mansions of Palm Beach?
You’ll have to drive 90 minutes north to Vero Beach, where tiles, wrought iron, carved wood doors and Moorish lanterns from Playa Riente and El Mirasol decorate four restaurants.
The late Indian River County pioneer and restaurateur Waldo Sexton bought bits and pieces of the grand old mansion as they were torn down in the 1950s. Playa Riente’s tiled Spanish bar is still used in . The Driftwood Resort, Ocean Grill and Szechuan Palace restaurants are decorated with all that’s left of the grandest of Palm Beach’s 1920s sand castles.