South Palm Beach: Imperial House looks ahead to shaky future

By Tim O’Meilia

Just over the dune at the Imperial House is a bungalow where industrialist, movie maker and aviator Howard Hughes once lived, or so the story goes.
Long-time residents of the six-story co-operative have heard the tales and spin the yarns themselves. “We’d hear stories of how Howard Hughes would bring movie stars in here and sneak them out,” said Phyllis Williams, whose family has owned an apartment for more than 30 years.
“Probably the last one was Piper Laurie,” old-time resident Helen Decora said of the popular actress of the ’50s. “This was his getaway where no one could find him. There were no buildings here.”
She heard the stories at the bar at the old Hawaiian Inn, where townsfolk would gather and swap stories in the town’s early days.

Whether Hughes actually lived there or not, the two-story beach house pre-dates the 58-unit Imperial House itself, back to a time when the beach was 100 feet wide and the bungalow, a few feet north of Lantana’s public beach, was the only building in sight.

Now, residents of the building are scrambling for a way to save Imperial House from a slowly encroaching ocean. A planned $500,000 seawall is stalled because of a financial dispute with the town of Lantana over how to get construction equipment onto the beach.

But in the 1950s, the ocean wasn’t the problem. The ocean was the answer for a pair of Finnish brothers who built the town’s first three multi-family buildings, all with ocean-to-Intracoastal Waterway views.
The Imperial House was the third built by Ames and Anton Aksila and designed by well-known local architect Frank Masiello. The H-shaped co-op (there were no condominiums then) opened in 1961, according to old documents and newspaper clippings gathered by 33-year resident Bonnie Fischer, including a town history written by the late town historian and Imperial House resident Marjorie Hamilton.
The apartments — ranging from $14,900 for a one-bedroom, one-bath to $34,480 for a top floor ocean view — sold quickly to retirees from the northeast and sun-seekers from Canada.
The co-op was built around the fabled Hughes bungalow and had a pool. A long deck that served as a gathering spot for apartment dwellers was washed away in the early 1990s. A rebuilt deck did not survive Hurricane Jeanne in 2004.
Phyllis Williams’ father, owner of a GM car dealership near Toronto, discovered the Imperial House in the mid-’60s. “He came for a holiday and traveled around. Someone told him of this little town and he fell in love with it, coming from Canada and all that snow,” said Williams, 73.
Bonnie Fischer’s family arrived from Connecticut in the late ’70s. Barbara DeLuca’s family came from New Jersey. She lives in the Howard Hughes guest house on the first floor, the one with the pecky cypress walls. “You ought to charge admission,” teased Helen Decora.
Through the decades, Imperial House residents nurtured its community feeling. Newcomers were greeted with chocolate-covered strawberries. People left notes on neighbors’ doors. Decora encouraged visiting children to add their own drawings to the nautical mural on the sixth-floor wall.

“We knew everyone. Everyone knew us. It’s always had a quaint, country feeling,” Williams said.
Times have changed. Assessments for new windows, structural repairs, painting and the proposed seawall have made the aging building expensive for some owners. As a result, more units are rentals now. Far fewer than half of the apartments are occupied only a few days before Christmas. The seawall dispute has created an uncertain future.

Still, the old-timers revel in their camaraderie. A poster near the mailboxes invited residents to a Dec. 22 sing-along. More than a dozen attended — age 10 to 80-plus — to sing Christmas carols along with a pair of guitarists.
Did Howard Hughes have a secret hideaway in South Palm Beach in the late ’40s? Whether he did or not, it’s a good story. One thing is true. In the ’50s, the bungalow was owned by the sister of Judge Charles E. Chillingworth.
The judge and his wife, you perhaps know, were kidnapped in 1955, weighted down and dropped overboard into the Atlantic Ocean not far from Imperial House.
But that’s a story for another day.

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