EL VERANO
            aka GEORGE WASHINGTON
                           aka HELEN WILKES HOTEL  

The George Washington Hotel began life as the El Verano Hotel in 1923, marketed as a fireproof building. Located at the corner of Banyan and Flagler, the structure survived until 2005 when it was demolished to make way for downtown development projects.

Oldtimers Mourn Lost Memories As Landmark Hotel Falls

Luxury Condos May Rise From Historic Site

August 15, 2005|By Peter Franceschina Staff Writer

West Palm Beach — Another piece of Florida history is falling to the wrecking ball -- the last of the once grand hotels built downtown after the turn of the century to cater to northern sun-seekers.

In its final incarnation, it was the Helen Wilkes Hotel, a residence for the elderly that was shuttered six years ago this summer.

Its beginnings were more auspicious. El Verano, "The Summer," was touted for its January 1923 opening as the city's premier "fire-proof" hotel, perched on beautiful Lake Worth with 160 rooms, private baths, an elegant courtyard, a large dining room and a bar.

In between, there were countless memories -- World War II soldiers who spent their honeymoons there on leave, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries, to its final days when the evening cocktail hour still drew politicians, judges and power brokers.

"I think they made a mistake in tearing down the hotel, because of its historical value," said Helen Wilkes, the first woman to govern from the West Palm Beach mayor's office and who bought the hotel in 1973. "It was just such a landmark. They  keep tearing  them  down, tearing  them  down. After a  while, we  won't have any left."

The hungry claw of a backhoe and the crunch of the wrecking ball will be the last thing the hotel knows, as it steadily collapses into a dusty rubble heap at the corner of Banyan Boulevard and Flagler Drive.

In a way, progress doomed the distinguished lady long ago.

Despite being cherished by so many, the six-story hotel lost much of its architectural significance to changes wrought over the years. That made it unlikely it would be granted designation as a historical building, which could have meant a restoration  to its former glory.

The original one-story passageway that encircled the front and sides was torn down in 1965. Its arched columns and the decorative medallion over the entrance were replaced with a two-story river rock veneer and concrete canopy, in the style of the time. Other interior and exterior architecture elements also disappeared. State officials twice said the building wouldn't qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. The city's preservation board, by a 4-3 vote in June, chose not to seek a historical designation.

"It was the last waterfront hotel in West Palm Beach. That alone, I thought, merited preserving the building. Not only that, it had an intrinsic role in shaping Clematis Street and the waterfront," said board member Joseph Pubillones, who voted for the historic designation. "I think it could have been the landmark hotel in West Palm Beach, like The Breakers is on Palm Beach."

Back when El Verano opened, it was almost right on the water. Flagler Drive was a narrow road at the time, and fishing boats were docked at the marina across the street.

Many longtime Palm Beach County residents may remember the hotel for its buffet lunch. Judges, who favored the spot, often sent jurors there for their county-paid lunches. And after business hours, more than a few courthouse employees could be found there.

"They had a pretty good buffet," said Rick Hussey, who has worked for court administration for 30 years. "There weren't a whole lot of restaurants. It was small town back then."

Just about every social group -- Rotary, Kiwanis, the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches -- held their meetings there. The Forum Club, in particular, brought in political heavyweights to address important issues of the day.

Former Florida Senate President Phil Lewis, D-West Palm Beach, said every statewide candidate would make an appearance at the hotel. He ate more meals  there than he can count.

"I  wouldn't  even  hazard a  guess. It was a  heap over the years," he said. "It was a great place to meet."  Presi-

dential candidate Jimmy Carter appeared before the Forum Club. Wilkes, a native Georgian with a honeyed drawl, remembers it well.

"He smiled and said, `Oh, Helen, I know you are going to vote for me. I'm from Georgia, you're from Georgia.' I said, `Jimmy, if Miss Lillian was running I would vote for her.' Miss Lillian was his mother. She was a fantastic lady. There was no way I was going to vote for Jimmy Carter."

Wilkes ran the hotel until she tired of it in 1996, selling it for $4 million to a Michigan investment group, which closed the doors for the final time three years later. WCI Communities bought the property for $13.1 million in August 2004. The developer plans to build The Madison, 30 luxury condos priced from $1.5 million to $5 million.

While WCI has approval for its plans, city commissioners voted earlier this month to include the site in an area along Banyan Boulevard where no new construction can take place for now. Mayor Lois Frankel, whose office overlooks the hotel, wants the property to be part of the city's plans to redevelop the waterfront.

EL VERANO HOTEL , along the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront, stood for more than eight decades until it was razed in 2005.

Built for $1 million, it opened in 1923 as the 160-room El Verano Hotel — Spanish for summer. With the real estate boom well on, the area was losing thousands of tourists and potential buyers because they simply had no place to stay. Several hotels soon went up to fill the void.

“One of the finest and most modern of the hotels in West Palm Beach is El Verano, located on the lakefront north of the city park,” a 1924 newspaper story said. Guests were so picky that the owners bought a farm so they could grow their own fresh produce. It later became the Hotel George Washington.  One of the region’s more colorful — and long discounted — urban legends says it was owned by a German family, and red aircraft warning lights on its roof flashed in a sequence that messaged submarines.

In 1946, when the Philadelphia Athletics came to West Palm Beach to train at Wright Field — later Connie Mack Stadium — the players and their manager, Connie Mack, stayed there.

Helen Wilkes bought the then-troubled hotel in 1973, five years before she became the city’s first female mayor. The former nurse also was a city commissioner until 1992. It became vacant in 1999. There were proposals to replace it with offices, restaurants and townhouses. It was considered for the National Register of Historic Places, which might have saved it, but the first two floors had been wrapped in a 1970s “river rock veneer.”

The city, meanwhile, envisioned replacing it with an open public area or into a public building. Finally, the city gave the owner, WCI Communities, permission to level it for the Madison condominium, with 30 units selling for $1.3 million to $5 million.

Palm Beach Post file photo: Helen Wilkes poses in this undated photo in front of the hotel that bore her name after she bought the property in 1973.