By Ron Hayes
On a cold January afternoon in 1952, a young man named Donald Edge stepped off a curb in downtown Detroit and landed in West Palm Beach.
“I was leaving home in the dark and getting home in the dark,” he remembers, “so when I stepped into that pile of slush, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to Florida.’”
Edge arrived in town that year with a degree in architecture from the University of Michigan, a few months’ experience as a draftsman for a boss he didn’t love, a new brown Chevy with a mortgage on it, and $100 in his pocket.
He was 24 then. He is 92 now.
In the 68 years between, Don Edge helped create Manalapan’s swanky La Coquille Club, where the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa stands today.
He founded his own architecture firm.
He designed a dozen Seventh-day Adventist hospitals in eight states.
In 1969, he designed the controversial wraparound building that both concealed and enlarged the county’s historic 1916 courthouse, then saw his work demolished 35 years later when the original building was uncovered and restored.
Today, he lives in the waterfront home he built on Hypoluxo Island 60 years ago, with a cat named Oreo and a memory lively enough to recount all this.
“I was working for Byron Simonson, an architect who had a divided, one-room office in Phipps Plaza in Palm Beach,” he begins. “There were about 12 architects in the area then, and his was the only office with air conditioning.”
Simonson’s draftsman had left to fight in the Korean War, and his secretary remembered Edge’s application.
That summer, the architect had been hired by a man named Spelman Prentice, a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, to design a small resort hotel on the dunes in Manalapan. Simonson did the rendering, and then Edge drafted the detailed drawings from which the contractor would work. The drawings took six months. He was paid $85 a week.
“I was there in the office when Mrs. Prentice named it,” he says.
Simonson, Prentice and his wife, Lola, had just returned from a drive along A1A.
“They were standing by my drawing board, and Mrs. Prentice, who spoke French, mentioned that Spanish names were so common, French would make a name stand out,” Edge remembers. “She pronounced it ‘lah ko-KEE’ and said it meant ‘the seashell.’ That was it, we were named.”
The Prentices were used to getting what they wanted. When they realized the 18-foot dunes were so high guests wouldn’t be able to see the ocean from the roadside rooms, they wanted the dunes bulldozed.
That didn’t happen, but when the Prentices found they wouldn’t be granted a liquor license with only 20 rooms, they ordered more rooms. Still not enough, so they added a restaurant, with a bar on the second floor, high enough so drinkers could see over the dunes.
“The Prentices were difficult clients,” Edge says. “They wanted a lot of changes, mostly expansions, but they realized they’d have to pay for it. They wanted an elite place.”
And they got it. The hotel soon became a private club, and in its heyday, La Coquille welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Vanderbilts, Fords and Whitneys to its English china, Irish crystal and French linens.
Ethel Merman sang a duet with Henry Ford Jr. there, Ginger Rogers graced the dance floor, and Esther Williams swam in the pool.
Don Edge had an off-season summer membership.
“It was $100 for three months in those days, and I was trying hard to earn $10,000 a year,” he laughs. “I didn’t associate with the classy members. No, no. They knew I was a flunky. But I did get the first drink from the bar. The bartender was setting up for the opening night gala, and he asked me if wanted a drink.
“… a Manhattan, I think.”
In 1954, Edge and Simonson went their separate ways. His previous draftsman was home from the war, and because both men were fellow Christian Scientists, Edge figured he’d be let go. He went to work for William Manly King, who had designed the Comeau Building in downtown West Palm Beach and Lake Worth High School.
In 1956, he married Alice Nan Divine, with whom he would have three children — Carol, Karl and Nan.
And on April 9, 1959, the Edges moved into the 3,000-square-foot waterfront home he’d built on Hypoluxo Island.
Edge designed the house, paid a contractor to put up the walls and supports, and did the rest himself.
“There were probably 10 houses on the north end of the island, and 10 to 20 on this end back then,” he recalls. “No houses on either side of me, and one between me and the street. It was remote. Most of our friends said, ‘You’re going where? Way down there?’
“Can you imagine raising three kids on this island? They had jungles to play in!”
He’d bought the 6,000-square-foot lot two years earlier for $6,000.
“That was a whole year’s pay!”
Today, the lot alone is appraised at $600,000, he says, and $1.2 million if you add the house. Which is not for sale.
“What the hell would I do in a condominium?” he exclaims with a derisive chortle. “I’d go nuts.”
The next year, he opened his own firm, Donald R. Edge, Architect, in Phipps Plaza, where he’d worked eight years before.
Edge is an affable man.
“It’s Don,” he will tell you, not Donald. Reminiscing, he’s friendly, chatty, candid and cheerful, until the saga of the old 1916 neoclassical county courthouse in West Palm Beach comes up. Then you can’t mistake a slight note of disgruntlement creeping into his voice.
“It was quite controversial at the time,” he concedes.
ABOVE: Don Edge was the draftsman for the original La Coquille Club. This is a 1960s postcard of the club. The club was later replaced by what is now the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa. The property in the background is now Plaza del Mar. BELOW: Edge also designed the plans for this wrap around the old Palm Beach County Courthouse. Photos provided by the Historical Society of Palm Beach County
The original courthouse, built for $135,000 when Palm Beach County had 18,000 residents, was soon outgrown.
In 1927, an addition doubled its size, but by 1967, the courthouse was again too small.
Rather than tear it down, the county hired Edge’s firm to design a new building around the old building. Finished in 1972, the modern, “wraparound” courthouse was described by some as a 232,150-square-foot box.
Less generous critics compared it to a bus station,
By 1995, when the current courthouse, even newer and even bigger, opened across the street, Don Edge’s 1969 wraparound was destined to fall so the original building could be restored and become home to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County.
In 2004, Hedrick Brothers Construction undid what Edge had done.
“It was a lovely building, but it had no windows,” he says. “But when you took the cost, $5.5 million, and divided it by the total square feet we added, which was 180,000, it was about $30 a square foot. That’s a huge bargain.”
Bitter would be too strong a word, but thinking about it, he’s clearly saddened.
“When they took it down, it hurt,” he says. “I avoided it like the plague. And I still don’t think that old county courthouse is a gem.
“I guess I’d consider myself a modernist.”
The old, original La Coquille clubhouse is long gone now.
Byron Simonson died in 1972, the same year Spelman Prentice sold the property. After passing through several owners, it closed for good in 1983 and was torn down in 1986 to make way for the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, now the Eau Palm Beach Resort.
La Coquille Club is still there in spirit today, a dining room with membership limited to Manalapan residents. Edge hasn’t visited in years.
Spelman Prentice died in 2000 and Donald R. Edge, Architect, closed in 2001.
Edge did some more independent work, then retired for good on Jan. 25, 2007, his 80th birthday.
Alice, his wife of 53 years, died in 2009. A portrait of her as a teenager sits on a table in the living room, a lovely young woman with a 1940s hairdo and a timeless beauty.
“She was fantastically good for me,” he says. “She was outgoing while I was kind of inward-bound.”
But he’s still here, still in the house they shared all those years, now with Oreo the cat, a back that gives him some trouble these days, and a woodworking shop where he carves driftwood and refinishes furniture.
“I got nothing to do,” he jokes, “and I can’t get it done.”
The secret of a long life, he believes, is a good wife and a lack of stress. And a lack of stress comes from having a good wife.
“I never smoked, but I do have a glass of red wine every night,” he says. “I pay $10 for a big bottle at Publix.
“Alice and I used to have a glass of red wine together every Friday night when I got home from work, and then when the kids were grown, we’d have one every night, and I still do.
“I still have a glass of wine with her every night.”