Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Haunted House of North Palm Beach

"Winter Club" posted on Looking Back blog.
Estimated taken in the late 1970s.
            The mansion appears to sit alone on the top of the hill, shrouded by huge banyan trees. Saplings fight their way up between cracks in the foundation. Vines grow up the once proud stucco walls and the broken windows gape at the street like the vacant eyes of someone who has seen too much of the harsh side of life. Two young girls cautiously make their way up the north staircase. They hear skittering sounds coming from the second floor and grab each other’s hands in fear, but they still slowly ascend the stairs. Reaching the second floor landing, they jump in fright as thunder booms and lightning flashes through what’s left of the windows creating jagged shadows and illuminating a huge stain on the floor.
            “This is where it happened,” one girl solemnly says. “This is where Sir Harry Oakes was murdered!” And the lightning flashes again.

Sir Harry Oakes

            This scenario was one played out in the minds of children growing up in North Palm Beach in the 60s and 70s. I can say that most of the children I knew were convinced the “Oakes Mansion” was haunted. Older children made sure the younger ones had heard. Trips to the North Palm Beach Country Club involved lots of peering at the second floor of the mansion just east of the pool to see if one could get a glimpse of the famous terrifying ghost of Sir Harry Oakes.
            The truth is that Sir Harry Oakes was in The Bahamas when he was brutally murdered in July, 1943, not in North Palm Beach. His son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, was tried for the crime, but found innocent and the murder remains unsolved to this day. Speculation continues among mystery buffs and suspects include a reputed gangster as a possible culprit.
            As for the “Oakes Mansion,” its real name was “The Palm Beach Winter Club” and it wasn’t built by Oakes. Harry Kelsey started construction in 1925 at the instigation of Paris Singer who wanted a golf course for patrons of the hotel he was building on Singer Island. Kelsey hired Louis DePuyseger, a world-renowned French architect, to design a club house for the golf course he was building north of Kelsey City (Lake Park). DePuyseger didn’t disappoint. He designed a beautiful, Mediterranean-style club house of three stories with “gay orange and green awnings and old Cuban tile on the roof.” Palm Beach Post 03/06/1926.
Articles from the Palm Beach Post archives describe an incredibly elegant and sophisticated club complete with dining room. The basement held locker rooms and the first floor included lounges.  As the tale goes, Al Jolson once performed an impromptu concert in the men’s lounge which made him late for a scheduled performance further south. The third story had three bedrooms, although one article in the Palm Beach Post claimed it was twelve.
The grand opening of the Winter Club was on January 5, 1927. Celebrating went on for three days and used not less than three boatloads of smuggled liquor. The social elite of the day gathered, and names such as Vanderbilt, Phipps, Harriman, Woolworths and Basche were in attendance. The club opened to the public for the first time on January 9, 1927.
            After initial success, the 1928 hurricane season rolled in. The clubhouse suffered extensive damage in the devastating hurricane that year and had to be temporarily closed. About this time, Harry Kelsey had some financial difficulties of his own which were compounded by the hurricane and began selling off property. One of the properties sold was The Palm Beach Winter Club and the buyer was Sir Harry Oakes.
Oakes was an American who became a Canadian citizen, struck it rich in the gold mines of Canada and then, in an attempt to avoid Canadian taxes, became a British citizen. He was knighted by King George IV in 1939 after he donated a half million dollars to St. George’s Hospital in London.  Sir Harry stayed in the clubhouse sporadically and moved the western fairways of the golf course to the south side to accommodate his children’s horses and stables--a move some said seriously impacted the beauty of the course.
            After Sir Oakes’ murder, the property was sold by his Tesdam Corporation and eventually made its way to John D. MacArthur and then the Village of North Palm.  The library was located there in the 1960s and generations of children attended dance, gymnastics, art, pottery, and summer camp in its aging rooms.
            Unfortunately, you can’t drive by The Palm Beach Winter Club or “The Oakes Mansion” as it will always be known to the natives. Despite being named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, it was demolished in 1984, after huge controversy and bitter public debate.  It had deteriorated to the point where repairs were deemed “too expensive” to undertake and an empty hill now sits at 951 U.S. Highway One.
            You can, however, sit on the stone steps that once led to the clubhouse from the east. On a calm night lit only by a full moon, if you turn and look at the grassy plateau where the mansion once stood, perhaps you’ll see the ghost of Sir Harry Oakes. Or maybe just hear spectral ice tinkling in ghostly glasses as men who played a good game of golf in 1927 relax in the lounge


  1. Fascinating! What a cool building, too bad they had to demolish it. I can't help but wonder how the original story got circulated and morphed into legend.

  2. Hi Tammy :) My guess is that it started with a child and an overactive imagination. It was an eerie kind of place after dark, though. We usually tried to go in the front entrance of the Country Club after the sun went down - just in case!

  3. Great story Ruth... I was just talking about the mansion to another member of the Masters Swim Team this morning, standing on those very steps before practice, at 5:45am! Vǝrʎ Spooʞy!

  4. Thanks, Fred. I miss that building. I even miss the goosebumps...

  5. I love our local ghost stories and history.

  6. That is so sad that they tore it down! at least in that picture oakes doesn't look like he'd be a very mean ghost!

  7. so cool!!

    1. It was really something, Bobby. Wish it was still there :-(

  8. Just on a whim this evening, I did a search for this crumbling old NPB building from my childhood. I remember running around and exploring it with my classmates & brothers when we moved to NPB in the late 60's; I was about eight or nine at the time. I took swimming lessons, painting, ceramics & gymnastics there and was a constant visitor to the tiny library on my bike.

    Even with the kids & classes around, the Club was filled with dusty, abandoned rooms and creepy, unlit basement areas behind the kiln to explore. (Hard to imagine the same situation now!) Some of my new friends there told me about the ghost story when I moved to town, but they weren't terribly impressed by it, so I neither was I, of course. Or, at least they pretended not to be... so I pretended not to be. ;-)

    That place must've made a big impression on me or I wouldn't be here now on your blog: the art classes I took there set me on the path to being the artist I am today. I even remember every inch of the old library, even though it was replaced by a new and much larger one near my school while we still lived there.

    It was a beautiful building. I'm very sorry to hear it wasn't saved, despite being on the National Register. Thanks for the article!

    1. Hi Holly! Thank you so much for your comments. That old clubhouse sure loomed large in my childhood, too! Ballet classes, art classes, gymnastics... way too much fun!