Photos courtesy of the Orthwein family
By Tim Pallesen
Polo put the luster in Gulf Stream in the town’s early days.
Socialites, movie stars and even royalty flocked to the town that the Phipps family chose to be the Winter Polo Capital of the World.
“People would come in yachts to watch polo,” recalled Steve Orthwein, who grew up in Gulf Stream, lived next to the stables and played polo as a boy.
Gulfstream Polo still exists today — 90 years after it opened in 1923. The club moved to western Lake Worth in 1965.
But the 1920s and 1950s were the glory years. The original vision for Gulf Stream to be an exclusive resort for the Sport of Kings helped to define the town’s character today.
The sons of industrialist Henry S. Phipps began by buying 25 miles of oceanfront when a road was built between Palm Beach and Boca Raton in 1913.
The Phipps family wintered in Palm Beach, but the polo-playing sons wanted a more reserved setting where America’s richest families could play their favorite sport.
Gulf Stream became that enclave. Addison Mizner designed the elegant Gulf Stream Club, and three polo fields opened with stables for 150 horses and a complex of frame cottages for players and their families.
The Phipps brothers built oceanfront mansions across from the polo fields and sold land to wealthy friends who wanted nearby mansions, too.
Sunday polo matches in Gulf Stream drew spectators from Palm Beach to Miami.
In the early days, ladies wore long dresses and hats. Spectators who arrived by yacht from Palm Beach were a spectacle themselves.
“The story was they always had their lunch at the Bath & Tennis Club before they took their boats to watch polo,” said William Corey, a Delray Beach polo player whose father competed in Gulf Stream.
The club was temporarily shut down during World War II when the U.S. Coast Guard used the stables for horses that military officers rode to patrol the beaches looking for enemy submarines.
Two of the best polo players, Michael Phipps and Gulf Stream resident Stewart Iglehart, resurrected the polo games in 1946.
Polo players came from clubs in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit each winter. Phipps arrived from Palm Beach by seaplane.
Movie stars Cary Grant and Ava Gardner mingled in the crowd with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
“It was a major social event back in the 1950s and we got very good crowds,” Orthwein said.
The biggest turnout of 4,000 spectators came to watch international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa and the Trujilo Polo Club of Santo Domingo play a Gulf Stream team in 1953.
The ladies always attended when Rubirosa, the former husband of Barbara Hutton, performed on a polo pony. “He was always an attraction,” Orthwein recalled.
Less glitzy today
The Gulfstream Polo Club of today is a much different place as it quietly celebrates its 90th anniversary.
The club moved to western Lake Worth when oceanfront land prices skyrocketed in the 1960s. A dozen polo players, led by Philip Iglehart, bought 100 acres for polo fields surrounded by 450 acres for their private stables.
The professional polo players now compete at the International Polo Club in nearby Wellington. Northern businessmen fly in on weekends to compete at Gulfstream.
“This is a club for members to join for fun,” Gulfstream president Randy Aversano said. “We encourage games without professionals where a bunch of friends can just get together and play.
“The International Polo Club is a wonderful place,” Aversano added, but those guys play hired guns against hired guns. Our games aren’t so intense.”
The Gulfstream Polo story nearly ended in 2006 when a housing developer offered $66.5 million to buy 221 acres.
“When the boom was alive, developers were offering fortunes for land,” Orthwein said. “The history of polo is that the land becomes too valuable for polo.”
That developer pulled out when the housing market collapsed.
But the Gulfstream properties are the largest undeveloped parcel remaining in the urban corridor between Boca Raton and Jupiter.
“The only thing that would keep us from our 100th anniversary would be if the price of real estate went way up again,” Orthwein said.
Until then, Gulfstream survives as the only polo club where anyone can stable a polo pony and receive lessons on fields where they play in a match.
“We’re the last remaining club of its kind in the country,” Aversano said. “We want to do this as long as we can.”
Polo players Joe Casey (left), Len Bernard, K. Colee and Porfirio Rubirosa take a closer look at a trophy after a match.