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Downtown West Palm Beach History Strolls

If you’ve walked around downtown West Palm Beach for years or are visiting for the first time, the new History Stroll will open your eyes to the richness of the streets around you in new ways.

Sponsored by the Historical Society of Pam Beach County and REG Architects, the firm behind the spectacular renovation of the original courthouse as well as the Art Deco building that houses the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County in Lake Worth, the Downtown West Palm Beach History Stroll is narrated by Rick Gonzalez. He is President of the REG firm and in charge of design and marketing.  Rick is involved in pursuing new jobs, preparing proposals, conceptualizing designs and providing design input through project’s development. He knows the architectural history of the city well, and has volunteered his wealth of time and knowledge to host the stroll.

During a sunny, windy Saturday in early March the Greenmarket was bustling with shoppers, dogs, veggie and fruit vendors, bakers and live music. A large group of tour takers met at the huge banyan tree that overlooks the Greenmarket. Rick started the tour by handing out a foldout color map of downtown WPB with the notable and historic streets and buildings marked on it. A survey of the crowd found it mostly comprised of out of towners, hailing from Chicago, Kansas City, Canada and New York.

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He began by giving the history of how the main street of Clematis has been shaped by the evolution of people’s shopping patterns and migrations.

“When most of these buildings downtown were first built in the 1920s, this was the only place to shop,” he explained. “Later on populations migrated out to the suburbs of the city west and shopping malls became the main place to shop. When that happened a lot of the beautiful signs and original storefronts here were either covered up or gutted by new tenants. The range of styles goes all the way from Venetian Mediterranean to Art Deco to Art Moderne to Mid-Century Modern to contemporary.”

We started walking up Clematis as he pointed out specific buildings and their renovation history. Pioneer Linens at 210 Clematis is one such building, it has been here a long time, having moved in the 1930s from Lake Worth after being destroyed by the 1928 Category 5 hurricane and had a facelift renovation by REG in the 1990s. The whitewashed front with pink lettering is an anchor building.

The Comeau Building was built in 1925 and has Mediterranean Revival style, elegant and commanding with its strong front entrance and bold lettering. It is one of the two original “skyscraper” buildings downtown, the other being the stately Harvey Building on Datura Street which towered over everything at 14 stories when it was first built. The offices of West Pam Beach Magazine reside on the top floor, which gave me the inspiration to name this column View From The Harvey.

Downtown West Palm Beach History Strolls
Entrance of the Comeau Building in Downtown West Palm Beach

The brick building that houses Rocco’s Tacos has some interesting design elements, having managed to keep its original windows and decorative top floor moulding work. It was originally a turn of the century hotel, its 1890s Brick Vernacular is original except for a corner that was replaced in the 1950s with a modern 2 story building. Rocco’s blew out the ground floor interior to stretch all the way to the back, and is one of the busiest restaurants on the street.

Downtown West Palm Beach History Strolls
View of the building that houses a popular dining destination in West Palm Beach – Rocco’s Tacos

Contrasted with the simple strong style of the Rocco’s building, the elaborate painting and architecture of 300 Clematis on the corner is Mediterranean built in the 1920s as the 1st American Bank. It has beautiful detailed painting on its exterior and even a Spanish crest. REG has their current offices there, right across the street from the DDA offices in the Deco building.

The Ultima Gym building has a commanding curved corner entrance to its Deco building. It was a decorating showroom in the 1980s and a department store in the 1950s. It was updated in the 1990s.

Downtown West Palm Beach History Strolls
View of the building hosting the Ultima Gym in Downtown West Palm Beach

Moving up the street, Rick paused to tell us how the main library and other buildings were once outsourced west by the airport but moved back downtown. We turned the corner to walk towards the courthouse.

As Rick spoke I learned a new term that is used in architecture – unsympathetic. When used in relationships it generally means to not have a mutual feeling toward a person or situation. In architecture it means an addition of renovation that has been done without regard to the original look, style or intent of the design. There has been lots of unsympathetic design done in downtown WPB, none more so than at our final destination, the 1916 County Courthouse.

It’s hard to believe this stately historic building has had so much done to and around it. Rick stands at the lush green grass carpet corner of the lot by the edge of the sidewalk.

“This,” he says dramatically “is where an ugly brick addition was built in the early 1970s that completely encircled and covered the courthouse building. They stripped the façade of it and constructed a brick building all the way around it to the sidewalk. It’s amazing the original withstood this.”

Downtown West Palm Beach History Strolls
History Stroll tour guide Rick Gonzalez

When the population and uses of the addition outgrew its confines, a new courthouse was constructed across the street, and the city decided to uncover and restore the original in 2004. It was also pointed out that the entrance to the courthouses don’t line up as they face each other, but poor hodge podge West Palm Beach has lots of things that don’t line up.

“It was quite a challenge,” Rick says,” as so many of the original design elements – the entrance, the columns, had all been destroyed. So piece by piece we tracked down similar elements and then had to also update and redo the inside to accommodate handicap access, air conditioning, sprinkler systems, and more. We added staircases and elevators also.”

The new design is stately and dignified, housing the Historical Society museum and offices, a gift shop and an original court room on its upper floors. Photos of the design stages through the decades line the walls.

A camera was placed across the street and filmed four years of the renovation process. It’s a speedy deconstruction and reconstruction of history.

The current show is the history of baseball in the county, and a fun permanent exhibit is next door with artifacts and mannequins in period costumes.

This tour was fascinating and capped off the morning at the Greenmarket. So I strolled back over to Clematis, had a delicious brunch at C Street – my favorite coffee shop hang – and then made my way over to the Antique & Flea Market for some one-of-a-kind browsing.

For more information about tour dates, see www.hspbc.org

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Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.