By Mary Thurwachter
If you’ve just returned to the barrier island after a summer away, a short jaunt to Palm Beach’s most fashionable shopping district promises to be well “Worth” the drive.
While you were gone, Worth Avenue was undergoing a $15 million makeover.
One of the major creative forces charged with designing the avenue’s new look was architect Mark Marsh of Bridges, Marsh & Associates of Palm Beach. Marsh and his business partner, Digby Bridges, both live in Ocean Ridge.
The architect’s collaborators on the design included landscape designer Jorge Sanchez and historian/attorney Harvey Oyer III. Burkhardt Construction Inc., known for its downtown projects throughout the state, handled the construction.
From a property owner’s standpoint, Worth Avenue had lapsed into a somewhat tired look, Marsh said.
“It was like a pretty girl with a tattered dress,” he said. “We needed a plan to bring it back to its heyday in the roaring ’20s.”
Work began in April and is, remarkably, ahead of schedule. The ambitious undertaking is expected to be complete by Thanksgiving. A ribbon cutting is set for 11 a.m. Dec. 1.
“There was a revamp in 1983,” Marsh said, “but it was more infrastructure than aesthetic.”
Sometimes referred to as the Rodeo Drive of Florida, Worth Avenue’s rich history began in 1918, when Addison Mizner built the exclusive Mediterranean-style Everglades Club at the avenue’s west end. That structure set the pace the prestige the shopping area, currently home to more than 200 shops, would eventually demand.
Clock tower marks entranceOne of the most noticeable additions to the avenue can be found at the entrance from South Ocean Boulevard, where a 30-foot clock tower has been built. Across the street, on either side of the entrance to the avenue, are two 15-foot-tallpillars crowned with gaslights.
In the past, many people driving up South Ocean would drive right by, not noticing the entrance to Worth Avenue, Marsh said. Between the tower on the beach and the pillars, the entrance will be hard to miss.
“The clock tower creates something to identify the east end of the avenue,” Marsh said, “and it’s somewhat symbolic to the pier that stretched out over the Atlantic Ocean (from 1926 to 1969).”
The pier was eventually torn down as a result of storm damage and a plaque marking the pier has been moved to the side of the clock tower.
Other unique areas include the addition of a piazza — with a fountain, trees and a reflective pool — at HibiscusAvenue, and a living wall in the triangular-shaped park at the southeast corner of the intersection of South County Road and Worth Avenue, next to Saks FifthAvenue.
Designers expect the piazza at Hibiscus will be the perfect spot for special events like fashion shows and the Christmas tree lighting.
“The living wall is a vertical planting tapestry and very unique,” Marsh said. “It will attract people that don’t normally come to the avenue.”
More shade, better walkways
Shoppers will find widened sidewalks made of tabby concrete scattered with seashells and plenty of shade beneath the more than 200 coconut palm trees.
“The Christmas palms hadn’t been changed in 26 years,” Marsh said, “but coconut palms were the official tree of the avenue in its infancy.”
The sidewalks were very uneven, cracked and patched up, Marsh said.
“We picked the special concrete mix with shells for a very traditional, mainly European look, and it is symbolic since we are on the ocean,” he explained.
Visible power lines were buried soon after the project began in April. Sanitary sewer and drainage work was done by the town then, too.
Crosswalks were added for pedestrian safety and to slow down drivers giving them time to see all the tony shops on the avenue, like Tiffany, Chanel, Hermes, Saks, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Neiman Marcus, to name a few.
“We took the traditional feel and revived it and supplemented it and made it much more attractive,” Marsh said. “It has a certain understated effect that makes you feel you are somewhere special.”
Marsh said the renovation project was collaboration of efforts between the property owners on Worth Avenue and the town of Palm Beach, which secured municipal
bonds to help pay for the work. Residents will not pay for the renovation, only those who own property in the Worth Avenue Tax District.
Mary Thurwachter is a West Palm Beach freelance writer and founder/producer of INNsideFlorida.com (www.innsideflorida.com)