At the northeast corner of Cocoanut Row and Royal Palm Way, a peaceful wonderland of enchanting landscaping and artworks once was an overgrown plot on the brink of a dreaded future.
Decades ago, all signs pointed to an incoming big-box supermarket — at the time, Palm Beach had never had one — instead of what’s now the Society of the Four Arts’ 2-plus-acre sculpture garden with its pavilion, trickling fountains and more.
“Can you imagine coming into Palm Beach from the middle bridge and being greeted by a grocery store? How awful,” Kit Pannill, a longtime Four Arts trustee and Garden Club of Palm Beach veteran, told the Daily News last week. “Instead, we have what is just glorious and something we can forever be proud of.”
The Society of the Four Arts, founded in 1936, has grown in recent years, and now hosts hundreds of cultural events and workshops annually.
Newcomers wouldn’t know it, but its campus, now 10 acres, hasn’t always boasted a performance hall, art gallery, education center for lifelong learning, two libraries and botanical gardens. Nor has it always featured a sculpture garden, which was born after some quick-thinking Palm Beachers and Four Arts supporters blocked the “unthinkable.”
It happened on a Friday in March of 1965.
Four Arts officer and board member J. Timothy Killen Jr. learned from longtime Palm Beacher Ben Walton that Walton’s brother William intended to sell a lot he owned at Cocoanut Row and Royal Palm Way. The buyers, Davis Brothers of Jacksonville, planned to build one of their chain supermarkets on the land: a Winn-Dixie. The company’s lawyers planned to close the deal with Walton on the following Monday.
A supermarket in that spot? Never, said Killen and Four Ars stalwarts Harold Sweatt, Stanton Griffis and Walter Gubelmann.
Over that weekend, Gubelmann led efforts to raise enough money to match the offer by the Davis Brothers, whose Winn-Dixie supermarket chain was growing fast, according to the Jacksonville Historical Society. By Monday morning, Gubelmann and his Four Arts compatriots closed on the land buy before the Davis Brothers’ attorneys.
Gubelmann — Four Arts president from 1966 to 1988 — called the intervention “a turning point” for the Four Arts.
“The Four Arts was his baby, along with his love of yachting,” son William S. Gubelmann, a longtime Four Arts trustee and officer, told the Daily News last week about his late father, who managed the successful defense of the 1964 America’s Cup with the 12-meter Constellation.
“Even at his 80th birthday (in 1988), he told of how proud he was to be a part of saving that land for the Four Arts.”
Had his father not been successful, Gubelmann added, “we might be shopping for groceries there now.”
The town’s first supermarket wasn’t far off. In the 1960s, Palm Beach was served by specialty-food stores, such as Herbert’s Lafayette on North County Road; Bustani’s Market and Aiello’s Market on South County Road, and Southampton Market on Royal Poinciana Way. Other needs were purchased from places “over the bridges,” residents recall.
But by 1970, Publix got the OK to begin construction at 135 Bradley Place; many Palm Beachers eschewed the plans. A Spanish-themed mosaic-tile pictorial for the store’s south side — designed by Palm Beach artist and trained architect Lee Olsen — quieted dissent.
The mural inspired other design changes for the store, which debuted with a Spanish-tile roof and archways in 1971 (much has since changed; Publix underwent a major remodel in 2010). Olsen’s lauded efforts prompted the creation in 1970 of the Architectural Review Commission, which remains today to review building plans.
Publix likely would have been a no-show had a Winn-Dixie — instead of a sculpture garden — opened at Cocoanut Row and Royal Palm Way. Still, the sculpture garden hardly happened overnight.
After the Four Arts in 1967 and 1968 bought two adjoining lots, the land remained wild until 1979. That’s when Four Arts supporter Kathrine Folger reignited efforts by reaching out to Palm Beacher and prominent couturier Philip Hulitar, who proposed a sculpture garden.
After the Four Arts got town permission to build a wall around the perimeter, Folger paid for it and an underground sprinkler system.
Hulitar, an avid gardener, artist and preservationist who restored many Palm Beach homes, designed his vision for a sculpture garden and solicited artworks. Supporters opened their wallets and art collections.
In 1988, after Hulitar had created the Four Arts’ first sculpture garden, the cultural organization named it in honor of his invaluable service. Hulitar’s wife Mary, a philanthropist and Four Arts champion, took over stewardship after her husband’s 1992 death.
In the early 2000s, Four Arts officials engaged the landscape architectural firm of Morgan Wheelock Inc. to execute a sculpture garden master plan that incorporated park-like features — from fountains to walkways.
Work began. After three hurricanes tore through the area in 2004 and 2005, a redesigned sculpture garden debuted in 2007 to an awed public. “It’s like night and day,” board member Edith Dixon, widow of longtime Four Arts chairman F. Eugene Dixon Jr. said at the time. “The old garden was nice, but it was just a big lawn with sculpture around.”’
Thanks to the redesign and efforts since at the Philip Hulitar Sculpture Garden, 65-plus varieties of plants and trees today mingle with 21 modern and contemporary sculptures by acclaimed European and American artists.
The 2.2-acre expanse features a plaza, the Pannill Pavilion and a fountain terrace that can double as a stage. Other fountains trickle amid a grand lawn, a palm grove, pergolas, walkways and seating areas. Adjoined is the 2007-revamped Four Arts botanical gardens, which have been maintained by their founder, the Garden Club of Palm Beach, since 1938 to demonstrate the region’s plant diversity.
The Four Arts’ Rebecca A. Dunham, head of fine arts and curator, said plans call for acquiring more artworks for the sculpture garden. “As the most visited part of The Society of the Four Arts,” she told the Daily News, “the Sculpture Garden is essential to its mission to encourage an appreciation for the arts.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Daily News: Four Arts sculpture garden was almost a Winn-Dixie in 1965
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