The Mansions of Palm Beach

Whether you aspire to be a former president (Kennedy), a current one (Trump), or a rock legend (John Lennon, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffett—all onetime or current Palm Beach residents)—no trip to the island is complete without gawking at the megamansions lining its perfectly manicured streets.

The town government, established in 1911, has done its best to keep things civil and orderly when it comes to appearances (even if scenes behind the walls have played out more like a Danielle Steel novel). Rules control everything from the percentage of a property that must be landscaped to the standardized shoe-box-size "For Sale" signs. Nowadays, there’s also a new aim: protecting historic homes. In 1979, the Landmark Preservation Commission was formed, and over the years its list has grown to include about 280 local properties. A small, oval-shape bronze plaque beside the house number is a telltale sign and a blessing for curious tourists. But don’t be fooled: some owners choose not to hang theirs, so it’s easy to stumble upon a landmark without even knowing it.

No one is more associated with how the island took shape than Addison Mizner, architect extraordinaire and society darling of the 1920s. But what people may not know is that a "fab four" was really the force behind the residential streets as they appear today: Mizner, of course, plus Maurice Fatio, Marion Sims Wyeth, and John Volk.

The four architects dabbled in different genres, some more so than others, but the unmissable style is Mediterranean revival, a Palm Beach hallmark mix of stucco walls, Spanish red-tile roofs, Italianate towers, Moorish-Gothic carvings, and the uniquely Floridian use of coquina, a grayish porous limestone made of coral rock with fossil-like imprints of shells. As for Mizner himself, he had quite the repertoire of signature elements, including using differently sized and shaped windows on one facade, blue tile work inside and out, and tiered roof lines (instead of one straight-sloping panel across, having several sections overlap like scales on a fish).

The majority of preserved estates are clustered in three sections: along Worth Avenue; the few blocks of South County Road after crossing Worth and the streets shooting off it; and the 5-mile stretch of South Ocean Boulevard from Barton Avenue to near Phipps Ocean Park, where the condos begin cropping up.

If 10 miles of riding on a bike while cars zip around you isn't intimidating, the two-wheeled trip may be the best way to fully take in the beauty of the mansions and surrounding scenery. Many hotels have bicycles for guest use. Another option is the dependable Palm Beach Bicycle Trail Shop (561/659–4583 www.palmbeachbicycle.com). Otherwise, driving is a good alternative. Just be mindful that Ocean Boulevard is a one-lane road and the only route on the island to cities like Lake Worth and Manalapan, so you can’t go too slowly, especially at peak travel times.

If gossip is more your speed, in-the-know concierges rely on Leslie Diver’s "Island Living Tours" (561/868–7944www.islandlivingpb.com); she’s one of the town’s leading experts on architecture and dish, both past and present.

Top 10 Self-Guided Stops: (1) Casa de Leoni (450 Worth Ave., Addison Mizner); (2) Villa des Cygnes (456 Worth Ave., Addison Mizner and Marion Sims Wyeth); (3) 17 Golfview Road (Marion Sims Wyeth); (4) 220 and 252 El Bravo Way (John Volk); (5) 126 South Ocean Boulevard (Marion Sims Wyeth); (6) El Solano (720 S. Ocean Blvd., Addison Mizner); (7) Casa Nana (780 S. Ocean Blvd., Addison Mizner); (8) 920 and 930 South Ocean Boulevard (Maurice Fatio); (9) Mar-a-Lago (1100 S. Ocean Blvd., Joseph Urban); (10) Il Palmetto (1500 S. Ocean Blvd., Maurice Fatio).

—Dorothea Hunter Sönne

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