Palm Beach’s famous Brazilian Court, fronting Brazilian and Australian Avenues at Hibiscus, was built in 1926 with an eye to the past and looking to the future.
Palm Beach’s status as America’s most elegant winter resort began in the 1890’s, when oilman Henry H. Flagler built first the Royal Poinciana and then the Breakers hotels. Flagler’s hotels followed the traditional model – giant, self-contained complexes of 1,000 rooms or more – and were designed in traditional Renaissance and Classical styles.
As transportation and services improved, winter residents began building their own homes, the most magnificent along the water, the more modest ones in the center of the island. These more permanent visitors, no longer with fixed connections to the hotels, developed other social outlets, such as the Everglades Club, built at mid-island in 1918, just four blocks south of the future site of The Brazilian Court.
In 1924 and 1925 two New York investors, Joseph D’Esterre and Stanley Paschal assembled the site of The Brazilian Court, at that time occupied by a few bungalows. They retained a rising young designer with whom Paschal had worked on apartment house projects in New York – Rosario Candela. Candela, born in Sicily, arrived in the United States in the 1910’s speaking only a few words of English. But by 1925 he was one of the top apartment house designers in New York, with a score of luxury buildings on Park and Fifth Avenues to his credit.
Candela used a Mediterranean design for The Brazilian Court, with tinted, rough stucco, classical details and tiled roofs. Candela developed a simple courtyard model which emphasized the inner face of the building, rather than the street façade. It was organized as an apartment hotel, with small kitchens for the meals that guests chose not to take outside.
Opening on New Year’s Day 1926, the $1 million Brazilian Court was first only the section at the southwest corner of Brazilian and Hibiscus.
In the 1980’s Bright Johnson and Gertrude Brown, long-time Brazilian Court employees, said that early guests included Gary Cooper, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, Howard Hughes and A.G. Gianni, founder of Bank of America, followed by, in later years, James Michener and Marcel Marceau. Johnson also said that Marjorie Merriweather Post would stay at The Brazilian Court while readying her house Mar-A-Lago for the season.
Period society reporters record more typical guests as Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (a member the Emperor’s family, but not a direct descendent), Ohan Berberyan, an antiquarian, and John B. Irwin, “one of Palm Beach’s most popular bachelors” according to the Palm Beach Times of 1929. Irwin stayed at The Brazilian Court, but gave large entertainments at the Everglades Club.
The Brazilian Court offered comfortably elegant quarters for those who didn’t have the money to run a large house – or who chose to spend it elsewhere. But the stock market crash of 1929 was too tough for D’Esterre and Paschal – they gave up their hotel which sold in 1931 for $125,000. Paschal left Palm Beach for a secret marriage with Hollywood actress Inez Courtney, which she called off two years later saying that he “stayed out late nights and at times displayed a bad temper”. D’Esterre stayed in Palm Beach, but as a maintenance man at the Biltmore Hotel – he had to move to the social Siberia of West Palm Beach.
The post-crash owner of The Brazilian Court was old guard Palm Beach, Vincent S. Mulford – who had never intended to buy. Mulford brought in as manager Elliott f. Bishop, who ran the Seven Ponds Inn in Southampton and was already in touch with the Palm Beach crowd and their equals. Mulford made a virtue out of his accidental ownership, and soon moved in.
As the Depression lifted slightly, Mulford and Bishop doubled the hotel in size in a 1936 alteration by Maurice Fatio. The Swiss-born Fatio was personable, like Mizner, but more refined and self assured – old money rather than new money.
Fatio’s expansion plan repeated Candela’s courtyard just to the south, filling out the lot to the Australian Avenue corner. The expanded section featured a more picturesque massing, with taller corner elements flanking a low, 3-story walled porch on the Australian Avenue side.
By the late 1930’s The Brazilian Court had an established group of regulars from Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Manhasset, Indianapolis, Winnetka and similar places. Bishop built the following with entertainments like Dudley Doe and His Orchestra, badminton tournaments, and “Pooshee Pooshee, International Card Manipulator and conjuror Extraordinary”. The more exotic visitors of the period reported in society pages included Lincoln Ellsworth, the polar explorer, H.V. Kaltenborn, the CBS radio commentator, Archduke Otto of Austria, who had lost his throne at the end of World War I, and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and son of the founder of the Pulitzer Prize.
By the 1960’s, when the Mulfords sold The Brazilian Court, it seemed like the jet lag had passed it by. It had neither the opulent architectural pretensions of the big resort hotels, and its suave understatement was lost in a time of bus terminal modernism.
The main entertaining rooms of The Brazilian Court are just what people come to Palm Beach for – the outside courtyards. The original offers a startling contrast, the sheer, tall palms rising straight up from the flat turf. The later is rich and complex with the sound of water, densely planted with a jungle symphony of palms, flowers, fruit trees and shrubs. Indeed The Brazilian Court is surrounded, inside and out, by an astonishing variety of flora colors -- scarlet, yellow, green, orange, white, purple and pink.
The most recent owners, Richard and Adam Schlesinger, have prepared The Brazilian Court for its current phase, conversion to a condominium hotel, for residents who appreciate what Richard Schlesinger calls “Palm Beach’s guest house” but with hotel service. Leslie Schlesinger has designed suites with luxurious fabrics, Provençal colorations, and mahogany millwork. Other elements – the lush plantings, the distinctive architecture and the rich history of The Brazilian Court – promise to remain the same.
Condensed and slightly revised historical chronology from Christopher Gray, noted architectural historian for The New York Times.
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