A Brief History of the Island of Palms

An image of historic Palm Beach is easy to conjure, much like a Slim Aarons photograph: a woman in a Lily Pulitzer sheath and oversized sunglasses, Hermès scarf wrapped around her coiffed hair, stands before a turquoise pool and bright tropical garden. There is a martini somewhere in frame. She is casually chic, confident, and certainly from a well-appointed family. For over a century, Palm Beach has conjured up this idyllic vision of wealth, luxury, and ease since Flagler transformed the swampy jungle into this exclusive winter resort still thriving today.

By the late 1700s, the original indigenous population of South Florida had disappeared either from war, disease, or enslavement, while by the late 1800s, the Seminoles and Miccosukee, originally from Georgia and Alabama, had mostly retreated to the center of the state. Pioneers settled Palm Beach in 1872, then known as Lake Worth. The coquina barrier island was renamed Palm Beach not long after when a Spanish boat wrecked offshore, its cargo of coconuts creating the eponymous coastline of wild palms.

Reports of the area’s natural beauty soon filtered north. By 1894, Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway reached West Palm Beach. That same year, the Standard Oil tycoon built the Royal Poinciana Hotel on the island, followed up by The Breakers in 1896 (which was rebuilt in its current style in 1925), and his private 100,000 square foot residence, Whitehall, in 1902, now the Flagler Museum. The town of Palm Beach officially incorporated in 1911.

The 1920s land boom brought down tycoons, socialites, and famous architects such as Addison Mizner, Maurice Fatio, Howard Major, Joseph Urban, Marion Syms Wyeth and John Volk. Their contributions are still visible across the island in private residences, country clubs such as the Bath and Tennis Club, the Everglades Club, and Mar-a-Lago, Via Mizner on Worth Avenue, the Society of the Four Arts, the Paramount Theater, or the Royal Poinciana Plaza to name a few.

Throughout the last century, Palm Beach has hosted its share of dignitaries, including two presidents, John F. Kennedy, who vacationed in the Kennedy Compound on North Ocean Road, and of course, Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Billionaire’s Row, as well as famed socialites, global leaders, entrepreneurs, and even the occasional royalty-in-hiding. All this because the island has favored a culture of privacy and exclusivity, making it possible for the elite to vacation away from the public eye.

In recent years, the snowbird population and winter resort vibe has been transformed as more and more families and companies are opting into permanent year-round Florida residence, taking advantage of lifestyle, quality local schools, ease of transportation, financial benefits, and of course, the stunning subtropical weather. No doubt this town will continue to forge its unique path in American history.