Which downtown West Palm building looks like ‘beautiful wedding cake’?

Which downtown West Palm building looks like ‘beautiful wedding cake’?

Left: The Wagg Building under construction in 1925 (Photo: Historical Society of Palm Beach County); detail pictures: Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post.

Rick Gonzalez makes his living at the intersection of history and architecture, and even he starts running low on superlatives when trying to explain the visual appeal of The Wagg Building.

It’s Spanish. Baroque. Italianate. Mediterranean Revival.

“I think it looks like a beautiful wedding cake,” he says of the intricate molding and royalist detail work — from shield-like emblems to kingly crowns and jousting masks — on the four-story West Palm Beach building at 215 S. Olive Ave.

Gonzalez, the president of REG Architects and recent winner of the county’s prestigious Judge James R. Knott Award for historic preservation, always points out the Wagg on his seasonal walking tours of downtown’s boom-era 1920’s structures.

“It’s a very unique building,” he says. “Very eclectic architecture.”

Neil Seidman agrees. The first time he saw it, “I said, ‘Holy smokes, I’ve got to have this building.’”

Seidman, a senior vice president for a Boca Raton cell tower company, has an unusual hobby. He collects vintage buildings. Seidman owns a historic downtown Baltimore structure known as The Chocolate Factory. Four years ago, he bought the Wagg.

Afterwards, he visited the county Historical Society and found a picture of the building under construction in 1925, when there were still houses along downtown Olive. He hung a framed reproduction in the Wagg’s stairwell.

+ The opening of the Wagg Building in March 1926. (Photo: Historical Society of Palm Beach County)

Outside the building on a recent morning, he pulled out an oversized, grainy photo of its grand opening in March 1926, with a sign stretching across the entrance: The Alfred H. Wagg Corporation. Standing in the center of the photo was its balding, mustachioed namesake.

It got him to thinking:

“I wanted to know who this Wagg is.”

The man with the Midas touch

Alfred Hoppock Wagg II was somebody worth knowing. He’s one of Palm Beach County’s overlooked pioneers — a civic-minded developer, state senator, Palm Beacher, Chamber of Commerce bigwig and garrulous booster who could find a silver lining in any dark cloud: He even predicted that the 1929 stock market crash was going to be good for local real estate.

+ Alfred H. Wagg

Wagg’s name on his signature building — and his modest gravestone at Hillcrest Cemetery — are the only obvious markers of him left in Palm Beach County. But his influence is everywhere:

Wagg carved out the historic West Palm neighborhood of Central Park just north of Southern Boulevard, and sold the land in many of today’s neighborhoods south of Southern and west of Dixie Highway.

His real estate companies at one time or another promoted the sale of Briny Breezes, Loxahatchee Groves, Lake Park, Clewiston, and the terminal port area at the Riviera Beach-West Palm border. He bankrolled a Methodist chapel on Garden Avenue and named it after his mother. He owned the land where the downtown Guaranty Building now stands. He was president of the American National Bank on Olive — which is now the Banko Cantina restaurant.

He opened real estate offices from Vero Beach to Miami. He resided in a Spanish-style house on Brazilian Avenue in Palm Beach, where he entertained the governor and other poobahs, and a Gatsby-like mansion known as “Driftwood Manor” on Long Island.

He became involved with the Palm Beach Yacht Club and soon was referred to as “Commodore” Wagg, sailing boats in regattas and collecting gold cups. When his boat, “The Clare,” blew up outside Yorktown, Va. in 1925, it was big news: “Wagg and Family Saved From Death As Yacht Burns.”

+ A story on the Waggs’ yacht accident in June 1925.

A 1926 Palm Beach Post ad declared: “Alfred H. Wagg Has The Midas’ Touch That Turns Earth To Gold.” A 1927 profile called him simply “Alfred The Great.” His Wagg Corporation had a slogan that pretty much summed up his ambitions: “We Sell The Earth.”

Real estate’s pioneer days

Born in New Jersey in 1886, Wagg was a pitchman from puberty. After hearing a lecture by Booker T. Washington, he was determined to succeed at an early age. Known as the “boy salesman,” he hawked pianos, books and cloth, according to a 1927 profile written by The Palm Beach Post’s Emilie Keyes.

After graduating from Dickinson College, he went into business on Broadway with a friend. “We had literally nothing but nerve, but we rented an office, seven-feet wide, downtown in New York, for $18 a month,” Wagg recalled of his business start in 1909. “(My friend) donated two chairs from his bedroom and I produced the desk from my college room.”

Within 10 years, the New York Daily News would describe Wagg as “one of the prominent real estate men of Broadway.” His Amsterdam Development and Sales Co. made its first mark building the town of Malverne, Long Island (which is probably the source name of Malverne Road in southern West Palm Beach.)

In a laudatory August 1915 profile in “The Real Estate Magazine” about his Malverne project, Wagg was described as wiry, aggressive and sure of his judgment. “He is not a sit-in-the-office type. He must have action…If a salesman is dubious about clinching a sale, Wagg applies the nippers.”

But Wagg also worked himself into a frenzy keeping Malverne afloat. “In the course of a year or two, I suffered a complete nervous breakdown,” he told Keyes. For his health, he quit his job and wintered in West Palm Beach in 1917. After assessing the possibilities here, he moved down permanently during the season.

“Many New Homes To Be Added To Palm Beach By New York Real Estate Men” announced the Dec. 1928 headline in the Post. “Their first enterprise will be the building of practically a new city in a charming section adjoining West Palm Beach and along the shores of Lake Worth…It will be built with New York money and it is hoped eventually populated by New York people.”

First known as the Estates of South Palm Beach, and later as College Park, the area then south of the city limits stretched over 125 acres from the Intracoastal to the Florida East Coast Railroad line and was “bisected by the Dixie Highway, the fine automobile road.”

Going into his usual hyperbolic pitch — one Post story ribbed him for never shutting up about it — Wagg promised sidewalks, a water system, “rock roads,” cottage and bungalow-style homes from $1,500-$3,000 and a centerpiece 80-foot-wide, tree-lined promenade, which is why Nottingham Boulevard has a grander name today than the simple street it actually is.

“Those were the pioneer days in Florida real estate,” Wagg recalled. “I was a licensed auctioneer and we had auctions right on the place and gave away candy and other souvenirs to the crowds.”

Throughout the late teens and early ’20s, Wagg’s name was attached to “hundreds of subdivisions” across Palm Beach County. Everything he did made news, from his comments on summer weather to housing conditions he observed in Europe after World War I. In just a few months in 1925, the Wagg Corporation boasted of selling more than 5,250 local lots for more than $10 million.

The company clearly needed a headquarters to match its ambitions.

+ The Wagg Building. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

In July 1925, it was announced that Wagg was planning a four-story, $200,000 office building on a home site along Olive Avenue. It was designed by the prominent local architects Harvey & Clarke, which had quite a year in 1925: It also created the downtown train station, the Comeau building on Clematis Street, the former Pennsylvania Hotel at Evernia and Flagler and Palm Beach’s town hall.

Architect Gonzalez said the train station and town hall are more reserved expressions of the Spanish style that Henry Flagler kicked off in the 1890s in St. Augustine. But the Wagg Building — with its medals, emblems, crowns and more — goes full-tilt with its flourishes, he said. “Look at the ornamentation,” added building owner Seidman, staring up at the Wagg. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Wagg himself must have been proud. “Opening of Wagg Building Crowns 20-Year Achievement,” the Post reported in March 1926. Hundreds of people attended its debut. The governor and Forbes Magazine founder B.C. Forbes sent telegrams of congratulation.

But Wagg had already hinted that he wanted to pursue more civic duties. By the end of 1926, he was elected to a two-year term as a state senator. He would be re-elected to a four-year term. In some ways, he got out just in time. The boom was about to go bust: the 1928 hurricane blew in, banks went under and the stock market crash of October 1929 decimated the local real estate business.

Losing his namesake

And, as it turned out, Wagg didn’t own the Wagg Building for very long.

One year after the stock market crash, which he confidently told the Post would be prosperous for real estate, he was forced to sell his signature building in a foreclosure suit. The Wagg and another building were auctioned off for $250,000, the Post reported. His financial distress might have been connected to the bankruptcy of the nearby Guaranty Bank, on which Wagg served as director and shareholder.

In Tallahassee, Wagg appeared to be a respected politician, working on everything from road construction to Everglades drainage, and a 1930 Post editorial said he would be a good candidate for national office. But he retired from the state senate in 1932, taking a job as president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

It’s hard to tell what exact effect the crash and Depression had on his fortunes. But in January 1934, he began leasing his Brazilian Avenue home out to snowbirds, moving his wife and children for the season to the Hotel Seaglade, which was then at the foot of Worth Avenue and South Ocean Boulevard.

He still had real estate interests in numerous states and summered on Lake George in New York. He never stopped talking up Florida business. But his health began to fail. In late 1936, he suffered a stroke and was hospitalized at Good Samaritan. On July 1, 1937, he died in Syracuse from a cerebral hemorrhage. Hundreds of dignitaries attended his West Palm funeral, which put him on the front page for the last time.

In his will, he left an estate valued at $20,000. Alfred H. Wagg II was 50 years old.

Reviving the Wagg

Over the years, the Wagg name has faded from view locally. His property on Brazilian Avenue is now a parking lot. The chapel he named after his mother no longer bears her name.

The Wagg Building wasn’t in great shape, either, when Seidman bought it four years ago. “The building was a mess,” he said.

+ Neil Seidman owns the Wagg Building in downtown West Palm Beach. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)

He upgraded the elevator, put in new air-conditioning units and cleaned up the roof. He’s redone some interior offices, added a modern art deco sign and hopes to bring back the front exterior windows to their mid-’20s glory.

Today, the Wagg houses a variety of tenants, including an advertising firm, a lawyer’s office, two residential units on the top floor and the Global Prospective School, a homeschooling center, on the ground floor.

“We wanted to be in the center of the city so the children can use it as a classroom,” explained the school’s co-owner, Ann Marie Mitchell, as students worked on assignments at a large round table.

Added co-owner Sophie Delapaz: “We love the history the building provides.”

With office space downtown in demand, Seidman gets a lot of interest in the Wagg.

“People call me all the time about buying it,” he said, “but I’m not ready to let it go.”

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report. Special thanks to Nick Golubov, research director at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.

+ Left: The Guaranty Building. Right: The Banko Cantina Building. (Photos: Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post)

OTHER BOOM-ERA BEAUTIES

Take a downtown history tour:

THE HARVEY BUILDING: 224 Datura Street. Built in 1925. At the time, the 14-story structure was West Palm’s tallest “skyscraper.” Named after developer George W. Harvey.

THE GUARANTY BUILDING: 120 S. Olive Ave. Built in 1922 for the Guaranty Bank, which went under after the ‘29 stock market crash. On the National Register of Historic Places.

THE COMEAU BUILDING: 319 Clematis St. Ten-story Neoclassical stunner built in 1925. On the National Register of Historic Places. Named after ’20s businessman Alfred J. Comeau.

THE FERNDIX BUILDING: 401 Fern St. Named for the corner it’s on — Fern and Dixie. Built 1924-1925. On the National Register of Historic Places.

THE BANKO CANTINA BUILDING: 114 S. Olive Ave. The Beaux Arts building, now Banko Cantina restaurant, was built in 1921 and originally housed the American National Bank. On National Register of Historic Places.

Source: Palm Beach Post archives; Wikipedia

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