October 06, 2020 | Centennial
The History of Palm Beach Day Academy: Part 1 – The 1920s

Written by Hilary Mendoza ’71

As Palm Beach goes, so goes the history of Palm Beach Day Academy which, through their long histories and many iterations, have both undergone a lengthy journey of adaptation that has been simultaneously arduous, fascinating, controversial, tragic, hilarious, and intriguing; but above all, illustrious and educational. As PBDA enters into its 100th anniversary, it is important that its history be retold and shared, especially in the light of the important people who had a vision of what exceptional education should be, even before 1921.

The Okeechobee Hurricane

On September 17, 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane came ashore near West Palm Beach with 145 mile per hour winds, producing a storm surge of 10 feet and waves of up to 20 feet. The storm caused severe damage in Palm Beach and to the Palm Beach School for Boys and the Palm Beach School for Girls, located on Chilean Avenue and Cocoanut Row, respectively. However, the students were never in any danger, because throughout the 1920s, school did not open until The Palm Beach Season began in early December.

The Destruction of Palm Beach’s Landmark Lodging

The Season ended in February following the traditional Washington’s Birthday Ball. That event was held each year at the Royal Poinciana Hotel which was completed in 1893 by Henry Flagler whose  descendants went on to become students, parents, and trustees at the school. The Royal Poinciana Hotel overlooked the Lake Worth Lagoon and was one of the hardest hit buildings in the hurricane. Part of the building was tilted off its foundation by the Category 4 winds, and had to be torn down. The baseball diamond and its stands, where the school held its annual rivalry game, were destroyed along with the gardens. Although the storm was the death knell for the Royal Poinciana Hotel, the Breakers – originally the Palm Beach Inn and also developed by Flagler – only suffered minor damage. Even though the Breakers faced the ocean and the brunt of the buffeting winds, it had been rebuilt with concrete rather than wood after it burned down for the second time in 1925.

The Alba Hotel – currently the Biltmore – also suffered severe water damage and was deroofed. The hotel was originally built by school parent Sydney Maddock and named the Palm Beach Hotel in the Orange Grove Park subdivision. Maddock’s son Paul attended Miss Gates’ Palm Beach Private School, the precursor to our school, and was a strong supporter of the educational philosophy of excellence of the school, as were his children and grandchildren, who all attended the school.

White House Ties – Past and Present

Palm Beach in the 1920s was the home to America’s captains of industry who came south to escape the cold of New York, the Midwest, and Newport. They also aimed  to expose their children to cultural, social and athletic opportunities that existed in Florida. Many put their trust in our growing school to maintain the educational standards that were the hallmark of their northern boarding schools.

Finished in 1927, Mar-a-Lago, the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post who was one of the original shareholders in the Palm Beach Private School, suffered few effects from the 1928 storm other than uprooted trees and the destruction of a large Roman-style window. The home of Rodman Wanamaker, a parent at the Palm Beach Private School whose house was known as “La Guerida,” suffered heavy damage during the storm. A few years later, “La Guerida” was sold to Joseph Kennedy and was later used by John F. Kennedy during his presidency as the “Winter Whitehouse.” Although JFK was admitted to our school as a child, he never attended; however, his sister Patricia and brother Edward attended during the war years.

The Local Swimming Hole

It wasn’t just hotels and homes that were irreparably damaged. During the 1920s, students at the schools participated in weekly classes at the Palm Beach Swimming Club, located at the end of Sunset Avenue in the Floral Park subdivision. Gus Jordahn, operator of The Breakers Casino, owned the swimming club along with Gus’ Baths at the east end of Worth Avenue.  Gus’ Baths was the only bathing beach open year-round in Palm Beach, and offered a boardwalk with three gazebos, three heated saltwater pools, and a tunnel to the beach. In 1924, Jordahn added the 1,000-foot Rainbo Pier which became a favorite fishing spot where students from the school spent their 2-hour lunch break enjoying the swimming and camaraderie. The Okeechobee hurricane swept away all but the pier’s pilings, and severely damaged the Baths. Eventually, it was sold in 1931, renamed the Lido Pools, but remained the home of Palm Beach Private’s swim team until the 1960s when it was torn down.

Stay tuned as we continue to our journey of recounting the fascinating history of Palm Beach Day Academy and our local community.