February 20, 2010 - The Palm Beach Post

This Old House

Palm Beach was conceived by Henry Flagler in this prim Victorian house with the gray shingles and proper white trim. Now Sea Gull Cottage, Flagler's former residence and the town's oldest house, has been reborn after a $4.9 million renovation.

Earlier this month, the Royal Poinciana Chapel, which owns the cottage, unveiled the results of the two-year restoration project. Gone are the peeling paint, the rickety porch and the termite-infested wood. Instead, Palm Beach architect Jacqueline Albarron led a historically sensitive “adaptive reuse” restoration, that includes a 2,200-square-foot addition. Chapel pastor Dr. Robert Norris said the cottage now meets the needs of his congregation, with space for church school, meetings and social events, without altering the building's historical significance.

“It's a real honor to re-create history and make it work for the present,” said Norris, still beaming at the reinstalled original stained glass windows and the mahogany staircase painstakingly designed to duplicate the original, which was built from shipwreck-salvaged wood.

The chapel's congregation raised the cost of the restoration, working in conjunction with the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, which contributed expertise and a $600,000 grant. Several Palm Beach residents also contributed funds. Built in the Shingle-style of Palm Beach's earliest homes, the cottage is one of the few remaining tethers to the town's 19th-century origins. “It's a rare example of the type of architecture that represents Palm Beach before Addison Mizner,” said Jane Day, the town's historic preservation consultant.

But a few years ago, no one wanted the house where Flagler hatched his plans to transform a primeval beach jungle into a palmy resort paradise.

In 1886, a Denver railroad man, R.R. McCormick, built the two-story winter residence after falling in love with “the lake country” on a fishing trip. An astonished Flagler saw a photograph of McCormick's house and reportedly said, “Why, I didn't know there was anything that beautiful south of Rockledge” (then the southern terminus of the railroad).

In 1893, Flagler bought the cottage, which was then on the lake a few hundred yards north of its present home, near what is now Royal Poinciana Plaza. He spent winters there until his mansion, Whitehall, was finished in 1902. During those years, he brought his railroad south while constructing what became America's premier winter resort town.

In 1913, Sea Gull Cottage was moved to The Breakers, as part of the hotel's winter cottage colony. Close to being demolished in 1983, the cottage was rescued and moved to the chapel's grounds, where it became the Preservation Foundation's headquarters. But when they left for larger offices, no one wanted the building -- or the work of restoration.

“We tried to give it away and no one would take it,” said Norris. Finally, the chapel decided to undertake restoration itself. The satisfying result, Norris said, is being “part of the heritage of the building, yet also leaving a legacy for the future.”

Barbara Marshall, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

View images from inside Flagler's Sea Gull Cottage

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