And before that, it was a neighborhood of more than 600 homes and businesses — most built during the boom years of the 1920s and early ’30s — in historic, if not officially designated historic, buildings.
In the mid-1980s David Paladino and Henry Rolfs began buying properties in the 77-acre area from Fern Street south to N Street and from Florida East Coast Railway tracks west to Georgia and Lake avenues.
They presented their plans for the Downtown/Uptown development in October 1987. A Palm Beach Post story about the presentation described the project: “The focal point of the project would be two parks between Florida and Georgia avenues on the north and south sides of the widened Okeechobee Boulevard” which would have an 80-foot-long palm-lined median “to encourage pedestrian traffic.” Okeechobee Boulevard would become an “important commercial address, much like New York’s prestigious Central Park.”
In March 1989 the 77 acres would become “one of the nation’s largest demolition projects.”
From a January 29, 1989, Palm Beach Post story:
“That’s when the Palm Beach developers plan to raze every building — except the United Methodist Church at the corner of Florida Avenue and Hibiscus Street — in the heart of downtown. Also in March, Rolfs and Paladino plan to widen and realign streets such as Okeechobee Boulevard, which now juts awkwardly around old buildings and a ballpark. In fact, the developers say Okeechobee Boulevard — to be redesigned to resemble Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Way with majestic palms lining a wide, meticulously landscaped median — will become a much-needed grand entrance to downtown.”
In July 1989 The Palm Beach Post ran a photo essay showing some of the demolished buildings and their residents:
DECO DOORWAYS: Among the buildings that were demolished to make way for the Downtown/Uptown project are many examples of art deco architecture. Popular in the 1930s and 1940s, art deco was characterized by a look of sleek elegance, geometric shapes, smooth lines and streamlined forms. Here, a lion insignia, wrought iron railing and pillars tell of the area’s elegant past. None of the doors remain. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
When Palm Beach art gallery owner Bruce Helander spotted a classic Coca-Cola ad that was uncovered during Downtown/Uptown demolition, he asked the developers to save the 1950-era piece of history. Workers tried to preserve the soft drink fresco, but when the wall it was on became unsturdy, they had to push it over. Helander meticulously pieced most of the advertisement together, and plans to eventually find a place of honor in the redevelopment site where its cherub can smile once again. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
LAST HOLDOUT: Called `The Cat Lady’ by admirers and detractors alike, Trini Fahy, 73, many years ago turned her home at 616 Hibiscus into a haven for abandoned dogs and cats. Occasionally, fishermen donate fish to feed her strays. Besides steadfastly declining developers’ offers for relocation, Fahy wanted to build a five-story building on her property. ‘Touche to Mr. Paladino,’ she says, referring to project developer David Paladino. (Palm Beach Post file photo)
During the months-long demolition process a series of fires burned several buildings in the area, including the historic Hibiscus Gardens Apartments at 619 Hibiscus St., one of four city structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The three-story, 57-unit building was built in 1926, and it was architecturally significant as one of the earliest examples of the Early Mediterranean Revival period in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources)
State Sen. John Beacham bought the apartments in 1939 and entertained such notable guests as President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Florida’s 28th governor, Spessard Holland; and U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper.
City planners had recommended the landmark building be renovated and incorporated into the Downtown/Uptown development plans. Five other historic buildings were also scheduled to be demolished.
The United Methodist Church at Florida Avenue and Hibiscus Street, a 1926 Spanish Colonial-style building, was spared. It became the Harriet Himmel Theater.
By the time CityPlace opened in October 2000 it had been more than 10 years since the land had been cleared.
Want to read more about City Place? Check out the Malled blog: CityPlace in West Palm Beach marks 10th anniversary on Oct. 27, 2010