PERSONALITIES OF THE PALM BEACHES – Remembering Resident Historian Mr. James A. Ponce, 1917-2015

Mr.-Ponce
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published in March, 2015, nine months before Mr. Ponce's passing. The article is presented as it was first written, as a celebration of a living part of Palm Beach history.  We honor Mr. Ponce's contributions to our past and to our community.)
 

A treasured piece of Palm Beach history, The Breakers has upheld a tradition of excellence since its opening in 1896. Once a winter retreat for the wealthy, the hotel’s guest register read like a “who’s who” of early twentieth century America, its walls holding the secrets of history’s most high-society jetsetters. Today, the hotel continues to lure generations of discerning travelers to Florida’s idyllic Atlantic coast to experience the irresistible charm and storied history of this iconic oceanfront resort. No one knows The Breakers’ celebrated past better than resident historian Mr. James Ponce. At 97-years-old, Mr. Ponce has spent nearly two-thirds of his life sharing his knowledge about Palm Beach and The Breakers. Dubbed "Palm Beach's only two-legged, historical landmark," Mr. Ponce can be found guiding hotel guests on a weekly tour, and sharing with them the mesmerizing tales of The Breakers’ history. Recently, we had the chance to sit down with Mr. Ponce:

What first brought you to The Palm Beaches, and what has kept you in the county for all these years?

The Breakers is what brought me to Palm Beach, although I never believed I would have a job working here! As a child I remember hearing the story about The Breakers burning in 1925, and that the Flagler heirs, who still own the property today, were building a magnificent hotel in its place. I wouldn’t see it until 1936, as I lived in St. Augustine. The first time I visited Palm Beach and drove past The Breakers I was so taken by how spectacular it was. It was this breathtaking structure surrounded by so many shades of vibrant green, it was a revelation.

The next time I was here it was quite the different scene. It was 1943 and I was visiting a friend at the U.S. Army’s Ream General Hospital, which had taken over The Breakers during World War II. The patients would say that it was a beautiful hospital, as long as you looked up at those magnificent ceilings. A few years later, in 1951 my military service ended and I was back, but this time I had joined The Breakers’ team as a room clerk. Now here I am more than 60 years later.

What’s one of your favorite stories you tell visitors to The Breakers on your tour of the property?

The visitors love the stories about the celebrities and royalty that have visited us here, such as Diana and Charles and Bette Davis, but it always surprises them when they learn that we served as an army operated hospital. You see, during World War II The Breakers became the U.S. Army’s Ream General Hospital caring for servicemen and women from 1942 until 1944. During that period the lavish furnishings were removed, but it was still such a beautiful place, because of the spectacular hand-painted ceilings. The hospital even welcomed prominent visitors such as Eleanor Roosevelt who came to visit with the soldiers. One of the facts guests always enjoy about that period of time is that there were a number of babies born here at the hotel, now they are known as “Breakers Babies.”

How have you seen the county change over the past 60+ years, and what do you think visitors have to look forward to in the future?

It’s so hard to tell what the future will bring, but having been here as long as I have I’m sure the area will continue to grow and change. When I first came here it was a very seasonal place. After the holidays people from the North would come down for the warm weather, and then they would leave and return to their homes. The Breakers was not even open outside of season until 1971! Now we’re seeing visitors coming to Palm Beach year-round, and they’re arriving from all different parts of the world.

When you aren’t on the job, where’s your favorite place to visit in the county, whether it be a beach, a park, an attraction, etc.?

My favorite thing to do is garden, and we have so many lovely gardens here in Palm Beach, including the grounds at The Breakers and the Four Arts Botanical Gardens. Simply driving around the island and taking in the detailed landscaping and magnificent homes really is something to see.

What do you think separates The Palm Beaches from other Florida destinations?

Its history. Even the name Palm Beach has a fascinating story behind it. In 1878 a Spanish ship named The Providencia sank off what’s now Palm Beach’s shore, then known as Lake Worth. They were carrying 20,000 coconuts that the crew and locals salvaged. Since the coconut is one of the largest single seeds, many people planted them, in the hopes of starting up a commercial crop, and within a few years the island was filled with palm trees. Hence the name Palm Beach.

If you had just a weekend to visit the county, what are the top things you think are must-sees for anyone visiting?

There are so many wonderful places. To start, I’d say a visit to The Breakers of course. Then just a ways up the street from the hotel, guests can visit Henry Flagler’s home, Whitehall, which is now the Flagler Museum. It was built by the same architects that created Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, and it’s just beautiful.  Flagler’s Private Railcar No. 91 is also on display there. Palm Beach is home to some lovely churches and gardens that visitors and locals enjoy, such as Bethesda-by-the-Sea, St. Edward and the Four Arts Botanical Gardens. A nice way to see the island is by taking a stroll on the Lake Trail, which runs alongside the Intracoastal. It was originally used to connect the farm houses throughout the island, but I believe that visitors will be pleasantly surprised to find that it’s greatly improved since those days long ago!

Tell us about Addison Mizner, Henry Flagler and other key influencers on the look and feel of The Palm Beaches. What do you think is the overall experience visitors get when they see the architecture and décor throughout The Palm Beaches?

When Mizner introduced his Mediterranean-style design at The Everglades Club, it changed look of Palm Beach forever. Before that most people preferred the Art Deco-style, but they quickly became accustomed to Mizner, especially after El Mirasol was built for one of Palm Beach’s most notable families. The architecture of the homes, clubs and resorts here in Palm Beach is a part of the experience. The wonderfully manicured properties and stately homes all add to the beauty of Palm Beach. To think when Henry Flagler first arrived here there was a small hotel and farm houses. Quite a different scene than the Palm Beach we know today! His Florida East Coast Railway and magnificent hotels were the start of tourism here in Florida, and I believe he’d be quite pleased with Palm Beach if he saw it today.

What’s the most interesting question a visitor has asked you in all your years as a tour guide at The Breakers?

Did I ever meet Henry Flagler?

What are some of the best places to take a great photo throughout the county?

My favorite two photo spots are right here at The Breakers, either at the fountain or in the Mediterranean Courtyard.

Tell us something about yourself that few people know?

People are always surprised by just how much history I know about this area, and that I’ve lived it! I’ve been giving the tour here for 33 years, so I’ve had quite a bit of practice. My connection to Henry Flagler goes back long before my time here at The Breakers though, as I was born and raised in St. Augustine, the city where Flagler dreamt up the development of his masterful railroad. My father actually served as his undertaker when he passed in 1913.

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