By Mary Thurwachter
Not long after the coronavirus prompted stay-at-home orders last spring, Michelle Donahue noticed how many people from both the Manalapan and Lantana sides of Hypoluxo Island took advantage of the time to walk, jog or bike around the neighborhood. Beaches and parks were closed, and residents were eager to get outside.
Donahue, a history buff who is president of the Hypoluxo Island Property Owners Association and author of the Brown Wrapper newsletter, used the quarantine to fast-track a project that she had been considering for a while — creating a self-guided tour of Hypoluxo Island.
The island, just 3 miles long and a half-mile wide, boasts fascinating history that few seem to know, she says.
Her online guide came out just before the Fourth of July — an appropriate time, Donahue determined, since people would be looking for fun things to do and the beaches were closed for the holiday weekend.
She thought it would be nice for residents and others to “get out their phones and flip through the pages of the brochure and at least walk through the neighborhood and get exercise and learn a little something about where they lived.”
She explains: “You ask people about Hypoluxo Island and they say, ‘Oh, it’s a hidden gem,’ but no one ever really knows what the history is here.”
Donahue thought about doing the guide, but given her job as a Realtor with Douglas Elliman and other commitments, “it took me a few months just to kind of get it together.”
Since the online version of the tour came out, Donahue, 51, published a printed version as well, and on the first Friday of each month, she began a Happy Hour History Tour of the island. Donahue, a Miami native who grew up in Delray Beach, paid for the printing and did all the writing and research.
Hannibal Pierce, an assistant keeper at the Jupiter Lighthouse, settled on the island in 1873. He built a thatched-roof cabin and other pioneers followed suit, carving a community out of the wilderness. Until the 1950s and 1960s, when snowbirds started putting up cottages, the island was sparsely settled.
Donahue’s guide points out many historical sights, from McKinley Park, originally known as Beach Curve Park but renamed in the mid-1970s for Floyd Charles McKinley to honor his many years of community service to Lantana; to Casa Alva, the 26,000-square-foot, Maurice Fatio-designed home built for Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan.
Producing both the Brown Wrapper — a local history publication that debuted in 2017 — and the self-guided tour are labors of love, she says. The Property Owners Association pays printing costs of the newsletter, an annual publication.
“When you’re passionate about something, it’s more enjoyable than anything else,” Donahue says. “I really have gotten such great pleasure out of doing this and learning from it.”
She particularly enjoys connecting history with people who still live on the island, such as Narine Ebersold, who has lived on Hypoluxo since 1946; and Don Edge, an architect who helped create Manalapan’s La Coquille Club, where the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa stands today.
Both have become great sources of information for Donahue, who delights in visiting with them, even now when it’s socially distanced through screen doors and wearing masks.
“It’s so important because if we don’t capture it now, we’re going to lose it forever,” she says. “It’s too important not to tell the story of the island. I just feel like it’s never really had that opportunity.”
Donahue and her husband, Sean, live in an Addison Mizner home built in 1927. The historic house is called Casa Lillias, after Lillias Piper, a nationally known interior decorator who first owned the home. Since 1999, it has been declared the oldest house on the island.
Donahue’s day job keeps her very busy, and to keep in shape she runs in the morning.
“As much as I love to run, that’s my passion every day, this is just as much my passion,” Donahue says of her historical research and writing. “After dinner, when things settle down here at the house, I’ll just jump on the computer and do some more research. It’s always so fun. Especially when I find articles that are so relative to what I find to write in the papers.
“Of course, I don’t want to put anything out there that I haven’t totally documented or researched and … sometimes it can take days to get the answers. But it’s a good journey to be on.”