Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Fast facts on an historic (West) Palm Beach Home

Photo: Palm Beach County Historical Society

This photo of my great-grandfather, George Wells Potter's, home was featured in a recent Palm Beach Daily News article as an example of early Palm Beach architecture from the period just prior to Henry M. Flagler's arrival. It is actually one of the best examples of the work of George W. Lainhart, who built many of the early Palm Beach homes in the 1880's and '90s. But it was not built on Palm Beach island.

The caption under the Palm Beach County Historical Society photo is correctly dated as being taken in 1893. That was the year that George Potter married Ella May Dimick and built her a new home on the other side of Lake Worth, in West Palm Beach, after selling his 160 acre Palm Beach homestead. It sat on a ridge about 150 yards up from the shore, overlooking the lake. The Trump Towers occupy the location today.

It was also the year that George Potter and George Lainhart founded the Lainhart & Potter Building Materials Company. Potter's new house was their first project. They built a tramway nearby to offload the materials. and that tramway served the new company when they took on their next job; providing lumber and materials for Henry Flagler's Royal Poinciana Hotel.

I remember this house well. I visited my great grandmother Ella there many times as a child. Right at the entrance, in the foyer, was a large display case filled with a museum-quality shell collection that fascinated my sister and I. All of the shells were lined up on wide shelves and labeled with their scientific names.

My grandmother was born in this house and grew up in it. She would often speak of watching Flagler's Whitehall being built across the lake when she was five years old from the third floor dormer room windows as she played with her dolls.

The house and property remained in the family after my great-grandmother died, but sat empty on the lakefront for a good decade before it was torn down sometime around 1967. Over the years, the property had become increasingly valuable due to waterfront development and the taxes were eating my father and his sister alive. They had two choices, either sell the property or develop it and sell it for more later.

Unfortunately, there was no interest in the historical value of the home at the time.

My father, an architect, decided to develop the property with a motel that he designed himself. I was with him and my grandfather as we cleared the house of remaining furniture and fixtures before it was to be demolished. Up in one of the dormer rooms, my grandfather leaned on a closet wall and it fell through to reveal a secret storage area filled with china.

I was standing by my dad's side, watching, as the old house was torn down. I'll never forget how he laughed when the wrecking ball literally bounced off of the house. The demolition company had to call in heavier equipment to tear it down and it took them much longer than expected. The house was made out of Dade County Pine which has a sap that turns into a composite-like material with age ... harder than concrete. The corner posts were made out of 8" X 8"s, and the walls were framed with 4" X 4"s.

They don't build them like that anymore.

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