Sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s, I remember driving up from Miami Beach to Palm Beach with my parents. We had all been encamped at my grandparents’ place for some school break and, desperately in need of an escape, took up the offer from some very stylish friends of my parents for cocktails and dinner at their place in Palm Beach. As we drove north, I recall the contrast from Miami Beach’s canyons of condo towers, poolside canasta games and kosher-style delis, to the manicured, patrician feel of Palm Beach. There were a great many little signs at the entrances to driveways that read “private.” I had never seen that before, nor did I fully understand their context at the time. I was more enchanted by the hushed architecture of the buildings as we drove by them. One, in particular, caught my eye: A cluster of gleaming white ziggurat-shaped structures with cantilevered terraces and boldly angled buttresses. For me, it was pure real estate porn. The sign out front simply said, “The Reef.” Little did I know that one day I would call this place home, nor that it would also become the subject of such fascination, not to mention a little gossip, on the Palm Beach scene.
The Reef was the creation of Eugene Lawrence, a young modernist architect who opened a small office on Palm Beach’s posh Worth Avenue in 1965. A 1957 graduate of the University of Florida’s College of Architecture and Fine Arts, he was also a devoted disciple of Edward Durrell Stone, the renowned proponent of the modern colonnade style perhaps best known for his Museum of Modern Art in New York. While Lawrence’s buildings can be seen all over Palm Beach, The Reef is widely recognized as his triumph. He died in 2013, after practicing out of the same building for 47 years.
As stunning as The Reef’s architecture may be, it has also become a bit of a local legend due to its mix of residents. Some say it’s like a cross between Melrose Place and The Golden Girls with a big pinch of Will & Grace. Regardless of the reference, ever since The Reef welcomed its first owners in 1974, it’s attracted an eclectic crowd. Only a handful of original owners remain, including Berenice Weinberg, who is a feisty 105, along with a good amount of “legacy owners”—the children and grandchildren of original “Reefers.” But a snapshot of The Reef’s four and a half decades also reads like a Who’s Who of artsy achievers and even a few boldfaced names, such as actress Stockard Channing, landscape architect Mario Nievera, fashionistas Ninette Ricca and Richard Lambertson, Broadway press agent Peter Cromarty, Esquire magazine alum Stephen Jacoby, ad execs Tom Shaffer and Barry Lowenthal and socialite Sharon Bush.
What is it about this discreet cluster of low-lying buildings, aptly named for the actual fringing coral reef fronting the property, that has historically attracted such a smart crowd? “The Reef is a paradox. Homey and welcoming, but also reeking of style and glamour,” says Simon Doonan, who, with his husband Jonathan Adler, owned several units over the years. Says board president Bram Majtlis, “It’s just so architecturally appealing, and magnificently preserved.” Indeed, every owner questioned mentions the architecture, along with the decades of initiatives to preserve and protect The Reef.
“How could you not be inspired by the architecture?” says designer Scott Sanders, who has expanded his New York practice to include Palm Beach, and is currently completing the restoration of an iconic South Lake Trail estate for a young family.
Sanders himself inhabits one of the best tributes to the complex's history. “It was as if time had stopped,” he says of the apartment that he and his husband, retired attorney Peter Wilson, recently purchased. “The previous owners clearly had a fabulous decorator or great taste, or both!” he says.
Indeed, the 1970s interior was, at first glance, pristine and breathtakingly stylish—so much so that it appeared on the cover of a local magazine. All the hallmarks of the moment were there: the expansive sectional sofa covered in white Haitian cotton, the wrapped rattan chairs and glass-topped tables and expressive brass light fixtures. “It looked like the set of the Merv Griffin Show,” jokes Sanders, who headed up the interior design department of Ralph Lauren before going out on his own in 2000. “But I immediately recognized so many wonderful design classics, it would have been unthinkable—let alone wasteful—to discard them. I felt that I could incorporate the original soul of the apartment in a fresh, new way.” As such, he's began filling out the original interior with vintage pieces found at his favorite spots on Dixie Highway.
Such preservation wasn't always in style, though. In the late '80s, one group of owners went on a little tear to soften The Reef’s brutalist edges with bits of frippery more in keeping with the moment’s love affair with both English country and Mediterranean revival style. The results were less than successful; the simple aqua pool suddenly sported a border of highly decorative cobalt and white Portuguese tile, while pinky-beige crown moldings appeared in the lobbies. Elsewhere around the complex, other expressions of that time cropped up, such as sponged walls, framed botanical prints and country French furniture.
There’s even a rumor that the idea was floated to paint The Reef a pale yellow to appear less austere. Fortunately, it never happened, and after this ten-year blip of untethered taste, a re-energized house and grounds committee was charged to bring The Reef back to its original 1970s splendor. Karl Springer waterfall benches and cantilevered cane-wrapped chairs were discovered locked away in storage rooms. They were refreshed and put out, the pool restored, and sad alterations, like fluorescent tube lighting and colonial carriage lamps, were replaced with more thoughtful elements. Almost every creative decision was made in reference to historic photographs and magazine articles, resulting in a pristine place that is now enjoying as brilliant a day in the sun as it did the moment it opened.
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