By BILL McGOUN
Third in a series.
Part 1, Memories of Palm Beach County, 1943-1954
Part 2, The war years
Part 3, Before the urban sprawl
Part 4, The wide-open coastline
Part 5, The wide-open west
Part 6, Changing times
Lake Worth neighborhoods tend to be a hodgepodge of housing styles. That’s because the city was built in spurts. First, there were the original homes put up shortly after the 1912 drawing that kicked off the city. Then there were the houses built during the 1920s land boom. Finally, the remaining lots were filled in after World War II.
When we arrived in August of 1943, the first two phases had been completed. There were two vacant lots across from our home in the 200 block of S. O Street. Next to them was one of the oldest houses in town, home of Naomi Shipman Smith, one of the seven girls in Lake Worth High’s first graduating class in 1923.
Around the corner, at Palmway and Third Avenue S., was a palmetto-scrub lot in which I played as a child, and once got my foot speared by a cactus thorn that went through my sneaker. Such lots were common throughout the city.
The southwest was the least developed of the city’s quadrants. There was one big undeveloped tract bounded by B and F streets and 6th and 12th avenues, broken up only by a few sandy trails. The Whispering Pines subdivision south of 12th Avenue was yet to be built. The effect was that the Osborne section, then home to the city’s only African-Americans, was physically separated from the rest of Lake Worth.
What I remember most about the Whispering Pines land was how Dad would take me with him in December to cut one of the pines for a Christmas tree. These were slash pines and they were so crooked that the tree had to be tied up to keep it standing. In those days, we didn’t know slash pines would become endangered trees that no one in his right mind would cut today.
Undeveloped areas dotted the county
Other cities were similarly spotty in development. In the south end of West Palm Beach was a large undeveloped area bounded by Dixie Highway, Olive Avenue and Beverly and Gregory roads. The site of St. Juliana’s church and school was a golf driving range.
Driving down U.S. 1 in Palm Beach County there were several miles of open country between the villages of Jupiter and Juno Beach (today’s State Road A1A along the ocean was U.S. 1 then). After Juno Beach were several more miles of open country until you hit Lake Park.
From Lake Park through Lantana the highway as solidly urbanized. But there then were miles of open country between Lantana and Boynton Beach, between Boynton Beach and Delray Beach, and between Delray Beach and Boca Raton.
The first subdivision between Delray Beach and Boca Raton was Hidden Valley, which led to the observation that if there had been a valley in that area, it certainly had remained well hidden.
When sculptor Leno Lazzari and his wife were murdered in their U.S. 1 home in 1948, no one heard the shots and the bodies were not found until the next day. The home was at least a mile from any neighbors. It sat on the east side of the highway just south of today’s intersection with NE 20th Street and 5th Avenue in Boca Raton.
Most cities in those days were self-sufficient, and Lake Worth was no exception. Lake Avenue between Dixie Highway and L Street included three supermarkets, the chain-operated Lovett’s and Margaret Ann and the locally-owned Central Market. There were two movie theaters, the Fountain’s clothing store and two 5-and-10 cent stores.
One of the latter was built shortly after the war on the site of an outdoor bowling alley with concrete lanes and duckpins as well as standard tenpins. Yes, those lanes were just about as crude as they sound. I did my first tenpin bowling and my only duckpin bowling there, with the expected degree of success.
Each September, Mother and I would trek to The Book Store — that was its name — between K and L streets on the south side of Lake Avenue, to get my school supplies. Evidently the schools had been in touch with the store beforehand, as everything needed always was on hand, from pencils to paste pots to protractors.
Once I was old enough to go alone, I would spend my Friday afternoons in the Worth Theater, the building that now houses the Lake Worth Playhouse. My mother would give me a quarter. The double-feature bill of a Western and often a Bowery Boys film, plus a serial, cost nine cents. A big mug of A&W root beer was a nickel and a big candy bar another nickel. Sometimes I had no idea what to with the other six cents.
On family outings we would go to see a first-run film at the Lake Theater, now a shuttered museum at Lake and L. There a child’s admission was higher, 14 cents.
Downtown West Palm Beach was the big city
When Lake Worth was not enough, there was always downtown West Palm Beach. Mother and I would catch a bus a block from our house that would deposit us at Banyan Boulevard (then First Street) and Olive Avenue. Here we had out choice of three major department stores within a block. Montgomery Ward was on the east side of Olive where the city parking garage now sits. Burdine’s was on the northwest corner of Olive and Clematis Street and Penney’s was just to its north on the west side of Olive.
Later, Burdine’s would move to Dixie Highway, to the site of the just-opened City Center. Penney’s would move onto Clematis east of Olive and Belk’s would take over and combine the old Burdine’s and Penney’s spaces.
West Palm Beach was big time to someone from Lake Worth. It had three 5-and-10s and four movie theaters. There was the Florida, in the wedge formed by South Clematis and Narcissus, the Rialto on the east side of Narcissus north of Clematis, the Arcade behind the Comeau Building and the Coral on the north side of Clematis between Dixie and the FEC Railway tracks.
The only theater building remaining downtown is the Cuillo Center. It was built as the new Florida Theater in the 1950s and the Florida was renamed the Palms.
I don’t remember ever going to a movie in West Palm Beach then. Generally, Mother and I went north just to shop for clothes, usually at Montgomery Ward.
I got my first and only baseball glove, a Johnny Pesky model that I still have, at the Montgomery Ward sporting goods store that sat on the First Street (now Banyan Boulevard) side of what now is the parking lot of the just-vacated City Hall.
When we were finished shopping, Mother and I would walk to First Street and Dixie, near the Firestone tire store, to catch the southbound bus home.
For a brief time, Palm Beach Mercantile, a store that had been a downtown fixture since 1896, would be somewhat of a tourist attraction. That was due to a major expansion in 1950 that included, among other things, the first escalator in the county. Apparently too many people went to look and too few to shop, as the store went out of business in 1957.
In fact, major changes would come to all Palm Beach County downtowns in the years following the big war. In the concluding chapter of this series I will deal with those changes.
NEXT: The Wide-Open Coastline
Bill McGoun is a retired editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post. He is the author of four history books, including Lake Worth High School: A History and Southeast Florida Pioneers, which tells the history of Palm Beach County, the Treasure Coast and the Lake Okeechobee region through the lives of noted individuals. He is working on a history of the Palm Beach County school system.
Burdine’s photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County. Montgomery Ward photo courtesy of Pleasant Family Shopping (http://pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com/).