February 11, 2009
By Augustus Mayhew

A substantial pending sale, a $62.5 million spec house, a real Palm Beach fire sale and a stockpile of listings with a negligible outbreak of price cuts, not as many as you would expect considering the headlines. Sotheby’s associate, Cristina Condon trimmed $4 million from 801 S. County Rd., now at $31.5 million.

The W. S. Farishes quickly cut $2 million off their Gulf Stream oceanfront, as they head to Boca Grande, now available at $11.9 million. The William J. Casey house in the North End is at $8.5 million, $1.35 million less than yesterday’s price. And then, there are those that snipped $100K here-and-there.

Under contract is a phrase rarely heard these days, add the words, cash with no contingencies, and you have a trifecta for listing agent Scott Gordon, a longtime islander and sales associate with the Fite Shavell & Associates office. “It’s a strong contract,” Gordon reassured, for the showroom new $7.995 million MedRev-style house that recently shaved $1 million off the asking price. Situated on the town’s highest coral ridge, the eclectic multi-level design by architect Peter Papadopoulos, of the Smith & Moore firm, was first approved by ARCOM four years ago, replete with cast stone façade, Venetian plaster ceilings, English cabinetry, washed cypress, an upstairs Juliet balcony and, because of its aerie perch, views overlooking the Palm Beach Country Club and the Beach Club to the east.

But, no matter Mr. Ford’s good fortune, for some, the site will always be associated with Mrs. Henry Ittleson’s magnificent Japanese-style house designed in 1958 by architect Howard Major, demolished in 2004 after being dismissed by the town’s staff as having no historical significance. With its multi-terraced gardens designed by Kabiachi, a Miami-based Japanese landscape architect, the house evoked a sense of Zen serenity, now only a memory.

Before the tragic fire that took the life of a good friend and totally gutted his house, James Hunt Barker’s salon was filled with floor-to-ceiling objets d’arts, including these portraits of, from left to right, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, Barbara “Bobbi” Whitney, HM Queen Farida of Egypt and Prince Albert, with smaller framed Cecil Beaton photos on the tabletops. Photo courtesy of James Hunt Barker.

During a period when some are hedging bets and cutting corners, Palm Beach builder Dan Swanson has enhanced one of his most latest creations, a 27,000-square-foot spec French chateau-styled manse priced at $62.5 million. “The 4-car garage is now a five-car, a staff apartment is added above the garage and there is additional storage space,” said Jim McCann, listing associate at Corcoran, recently named to Corcoran’s President’s Council for his past year’s extraordinary sales.

The estate features a 2,000-bottle wine room, a 2,000-square-foot master bedroom, five powder rooms, eight bedrooms en suite, an extensive garden sure to rival Giverny and, something you just don’t find everywhere these days, “informal gathering spaces for family and friends.” In August 2007, Mr. Swanson purchased the property for $20.8 million from Via Pelicano Trust, who bought the property the year before for $18.95 million in two separate transactions, according to court documents.

McCann is also the co-lister of the Mizner-designed Casa Nana, asking $72.5 million and another Swanson under-construction venture, a 22,000-square-foot house on the corner of El Bravo and South Ocean priced at $42 million.

Because Palm Beach-Nantucket-Kennebunk art dealer James Hunt Barker has been an island presence for years and a friend to many, I thought I would stop in and check his latest goings-on, considering last year’s house fire that claimed the life of Barker’s friend, James Heyman, as well as the loss of one of his King Charles Spaniels and a lifetime of irreplaceable valuables and artifacts reduced to ashes. What happened? Who-and-what to believe? And, in Palm Beach, who knows?

Jimmy Barker’s story of how-and-what-and-if is compelling however much the local authorities have their own different narrative. Yes, he was uninsured. And yes, he was restrained and handcuffed during the fire, for his own protection, and held at the County Road station. Fast forward eight months, Mr. Barker, unable to secure funds to rebuild, has decamped to his guest house behind the boarded-and-ashen shell of his scorched home.

“My mother’s prized Staffordshire dogs burnt to a crisp,” says Barker, who has maintained the house’s singed interiors as they were the day after the fire eight months ago.

Mr. Barker’s prized collection of more than 50 Staffordshire dogs filled a china cabinet before they were incinerated in the fire.

At the moment, this is what is definitely known. Two weeks ago, Joyce B. Edwards, sales associate at the Claude D. Reese Real Estate agency and Mr. Barker’s sister, listed the Midtown property for $3.2 million and, despite many calls, it has not sold, ” … but I am flexible,” adds Barker. The town’s Code Enforcement Board placed a lien on the property, retroactive to December 18th, thus accruing $250 in fines for every day the house is not in compliance, either demolished or until a building permit is issued for the existing structure. His neighbors have expressed aesthetic and safety concerns. Thus far, there is no concrete plan for Mr. Barker’s property.

Last week the town’s architectural commission voted a demolition permit for the house, boarded-up since the May 5th fire caused by faulty wiring, according to police and fireman. If the main house is demolished, Barker‘s guest house becomes illegal and he will be forced to leave. As I arrived at the house the other day, Barker was meeting with an engineer and contractor, still hoping to salvage the house. Mr. Barker, an 81-year-old Kentucky native, said, “This is where I have always lived.” Thus, whether the bulldozers will take down what the fire failed to destroy or the house will be restored again, thirty years ago a previous fire destroyed the second floor, remains largely unresolved, as James Hunt Barker sifts through the ashes still looking for what was once his life.

Croquet, one of Palm Beach’s favorite competitive sports, is now played on numerous private and public venues, in addition to the Palm Beach Croquet Club’s fields, located at the laser-leveled National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach, scene for the upcoming World Croquet Championships. With more than 300 clubs and 3,000 members, the US Croquet Association maintains a Hall of Fame that includes several of PB’s most celebrated croqueteers, Margaret Emerson, Joseph and Catherine Tankoos, Elizabeth “Libby” Newell, John Donnell, Pat and Fred Supper, Walter and Marjorie “Glamma” Gubelman, Lillian “Lil” Bostwick Phipps, whose North Lake Way field once hosted the East Coast Singles Championships, and seven-time national croquet champ and PB Croquet Club director, J. Archie Peck, recently named to the World Croquet Hall of Fame.

The recent five-days of harrowing mallet-and-hoops play at the 30th Annual Beach Club Invitational fielded 58 of the nation’s best and by the time the Champagne Brunch was over only Dwight Mayer, the Beach Club’s croquet domo, could remember the winners: Tom Hughes, Rich Watson and Dolph Cramer won in their division’s singles play; Chuck Whitlow, Geraldine McCauley and George Mathys topped in the Waterford doubles flights.