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A House Divided

Friday, January 13, 2017

When John Magee, a prosperous New York coal broker, decided to make his presence known in South Florida during the Roaring Twenties, he hired seminal Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner to design an imposing, Mediterranean Revival style mansion.

Mizner obliged.

He conjured up Lagomar—a 16-room villa on a six-acre estate (no relation to Mar-a-Lago), which spanned the island from ocean to lake, with 400 feet of private frontage on each and a boathouse on the lake. In the ensuing years, Mizner designed several additions. Over time, Lagomar became renowned not only for its gracious proportions, but also for its tropical landscaping and walled sunken garden with fountain and reflecting pool. The property abounded with citrus trees, palms, seagrape, bougainvillea, oleander and hibiscus.

In the 1950s, a developer purchased Lagomar and more or less ran a buzz saw through its elegant design. He artlessly bisected the main house by cutting a ten-foot section from its midriff, then treated this gaping wound by slapping a new exterior wall on each of the resulting half-houses. A guest house, originally connected to the main villa by a bridge, was severed and became a separate home.

“It really was a crime what they did,” said Joanne de Guardiola, who bought the western portion of the dismembered villa with her husband, Roberto, an investment banker, in 2005. “It looked like a lonely child, as if it had been cut off and never treated as a separate house.”

Less imaginative owners would have razed the truncated villa, which was awkwardly situated just five feet from one of its lot lines and 155 feet from another. But Mrs. de Guardiola, an interior designer, set out with her architect to expand and reenvision the fragment as a 21st-century home worthy of its Miznerian origins. It was an ambitious undertaking, but a successful one by any measure.

By the time the de Guardiolas put the rejuvenated five-bedroom house on the market last year for $16,950,000, it had won the Ballinger Award, given by the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach to honor inspired rehabilitations of historic buildings.

“By saving a slice of the subdivided 1924 Lagomar estate, [the project] has one foot in the past. But by combining classical Roman additions with New York townhouse- style living, it refashions that slice into a vision for the future,” said Alexander Ives, then the Preservation Foundation’s president, at the Ballinger Award ceremony in 2012. The resulting hybrid of old and new, Ives added, “certainly does the estate’s original architect—that Gatsby figure of imagination and Palm Beach dreams, Addison Mizner—proud.”

The original Lagomar was accessed on the ocean side through an arched portico, which gave way to a grand hall with a tiled floor and a staircase adorned with wrought-iron railings. An octagonal card room off the hall was crowned with a carved ceiling imported from Spain, according to the late architectural historian Donald W. Curl. An expansive living room featured a high, coffered ceiling. The dining room was located in its own wing facing the patio and Lake Worth.

Two years after the mansion’s completion, it was sold to Mrs. Henry Robinson Rea, a widow whose husband’s family had owned a foundry near Pittsburgh. Never quite satisfied, Mrs. Rea put Mizner to work designing addition after addition.

The expanded villa survived intact until 1953, when it succumbed to the postwar Palm Beach trend toward smaller homes. Alan M. Graf, a northern hotel owner, bought Lagomar for a mere $180,000, according to research conducted by the Preservation Foundation. Graf then proceeded, with the tenderness of a sailing ship’s drunken barber performing surgery on the high seas, to hack the estate into 12 pieces. The result was collectively renamed Lagomar Park.

As inelegant as this dismemberment may have been, it undoubtedly spared the house a worse fate. By contrast, El Mirasol, the 37-room Palm Beach mansion that Mizner had designed for J. P. Morgan partner Edward T. Stotesbury, was demolished in 1958.

When the de Guardiolas purchased the western half of the bisected Lagomar villa, known today as 12 Lagomar Road, the home was in pretty rough shape. “All the windows had been removed, the openings were covered with plywood, and some construction had started but had been stopped midstream,” said Raphael Saladrigas, the couple’s architect, who at the time worked for Brower Architectural Associates. “The house had been modified, demolished and disassembled to the point where there was not a lot left that was really identifiable.”

The main exception—and it was a notable one—was the dining room, a marvelous Mizner confection with 16-foot ceilings that was still in remarkably good condition. The 24-by-35-foot room, facing Lake Worth, was embellished on all four walls with a trademark Mizner touch: Woodite reproductions of English linen-fold paneling that the architect had shipped from the University of Salamanca in Spain and installed in his own Palm Beach dining room. An imposing fireplace with Spanish tiles and a bold mantel dominated one wall. Underfoot were original terra-cotta tiles. Overhead were handsome ceiling beams of pecky cypress, a local wood Mizner favored for the feeling of antiquity that its imperfections conveyed.

“My husband and I both fell in love with that amazing room,” said Mrs. de Guardiola. “And we love a challenge, so I thought, ‘Let’s restore this jewel.’”

The dining room, which the de Guardiolas converted into a living room, was the sweet spot of the house. It was the “cookie in the design,” as Saladrigas put it. “That was the room you really wanted to get people up to.”

The truncated building lacked any proper formal entrance. This left the architect facing the conundrum of how to construct a complete house out of the existing partial house in a way that allowed that Mizner “cookie” to serve as an organic centerpiece.

The solution Saladrigas and Mrs. de Guardiola settled on was to extend the house to the west to create a more welcoming (and at the same time more formal) greeting space at ground level. From the cul-de-sac on Lagomar Road, visitors drive into a greeting court. A single arched doorway, surmounted by a roof colonnade, beckons them inside on foot. They then immediately ascend a staircase to a courtyard flanked by covered breezeways. To the south of the courtyard is a pool pavilion. Directly to the east is a new dining room and a gallery, from which a sinuous spiral staircase leads guests upstairs to the living room(the erstwhile Mizner dining room). Above this level are two guest bedrooms and the master suite, which offers breathtaking views up and down the Intracoastal Waterway and clear across to downtown West Palm Beach.

“It’s a vertical house,” said Saladrigas, who is now a partner in Studio SR, an architecture and design firm. “It’s really a three-story townhouse with a fourth story below that’s a garage, basement and storage area.”

The key elements of the Mizner-designed dining room turned living room—its linen-fold panels, flooring and fireplace—were painstakingly removed, restored off-site and returned. The three arch-topped openings were moved closer together in the west wall’s center. They now open onto a spacious, partially covered balcony that overlooks the lake.

To open up the property and create more play space for the couple’s children, the de Guardiolas bought an adjacent parcel and tore down what had been staff quarters on the original estate.

“It’s very much a family house,” said Mrs. de Guardiola. “It’s about Christmas dinner and having kids of all different ages running in and out.”

Mrs. de Guardiola also had family in mind when she undertook the renovation of the Highlander, a far-famed 151-foot yacht. The couple bought the vessel in 2014 from the heirs of Malcolm Forbes, editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine. Forbes loved to entertain on the boat, hosting a roster of luminaries over the years that included Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Harrison Ford, Margaret Thatcher and Liz Taylor.

“It’s an iconic boat—a little more iconic than I realized,” Mrs. de Guardiola said with a laugh. “We can’t always keep as low-profile as we like.”

While the couple have done their fair share of entertaining on the Highlander—hosting Judy and Leonard Lauder, Gail and Carl Icahn, Rudolph Giuliani, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney—the primary focus of Mrs. de Guardiola’s renovation was her children and stepchildren.

“I made it a family boat,” she said. “It had a rounded back to pick up speed, but there was no way to go swimming, so I cut off the back, added on 15 feet, and made it a big huge open swim platform.”

The Highlander has a cushy life, summering in the Mediterranean and wintering in the Caribbean. One year the family took the boat through the Bosphorus into the Black Sea. This winter the couple plan to snorkel in Belize.

These days the two spend 10 weeks of the year on the boat. And now that the children are all grown and spread around the globe, the Lagomar villa has just become too much house. The de Guardiolas are ready, having reinvigorated a historic property, to hand it off to new owners.

With any luck, the couple’s transition to their next phase of life will be as seamless as the renovation of their Palm Beach home. “It’s the best of both worlds—an old Mizner house but also a brand-new house,” Mrs. de Guardiola said. “You can’t tell where the old one ends and the new one starts.”

John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in March 2017.


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