By CHRISTINE DAVIS
Neighborhood News Group
Posted March 5, 2012
WEST PALM BEACH — Local resident and noted historian James Ponce, 94, who has earned the title of Palm Beach’s only “two-legged historic landmark,” found himself out of commission following a fall while walking his dog Penny last year.
Now that Ponce is back giving weekly tours at The Breakers, visitors once again are soaking up his tales of Henry Flagler, the American tycoon who founded Palm Beach.
He tells Flagler’s story – Flagler originally built The Breakers in 1896– and he talks about the hotel’s current architecture (last built by Flagler’s heirs in 1926), while he shows guests around various public rooms.
“The bar in the Tapestry Room is out of a men’s club in London that was destroyed during the Blitz,” he says during one recent tour.
Always a history buff, Ponce has lectured at elementary schools, is the official historian of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, has served as president of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County and last year received the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Providencia Award, which recognizes achievement in promoting tourism.
Ponce, who has been hosting tours at The Breakers for the past 29 years, is also known for his Palm Beach tours on Worth Avenue.
In fact, he’s famous for dressing as Henry Flagler for Worth Avenue tours. For these tours, he “throws in (architect) Addison Mizner’s history,” he says, because “he’s the start of Worth Avenue.”
He adds, “The Everglades Club, which Mizner designed, is there, as well as Via Mizner and Via Parigi, which he built. It’s surprising how many people never bother to walk down the vias.”
Ponce, born and raised in St. Augustine, first visited Palm Beach in 1936.
“The green tropical shrubbery was quite a thrill to see, Ponce says. “We don’t have tropical plants in St. Augustine. The Royal Palms on Royal Poinciana Way were only ten feet high and everywhere I looked was so beautifully manicured.
“And there were beautiful structures like The Breakers and other buildings with the Mediterranean look to the architecture.”
Unfortunately, Ponce adds that not all of those beautiful buildings remain. “There were more (Mizner-designed villas) than we have today because a number of those beautiful big mansions have been torn down.”
After the Korean War, he came back to visit again, got a job and stayed.
“I worked at the Palm Beach Plaza for a few weeks. That’s the Bradley House now, and the next winter, I went to The Breakers,” he says.
Following that position as a relief room clerk, he worked at The Colony and The Brazilian Court Hotel before returning to The Breakers in 1977 until he retired in 1982.
Over the years, he accumulated his knowledge of history, learning along the way. “I was surprised that the history of our area was so sketchy,” he says.
The fact that The Breakers was a military hospital during the war, and that babies were born there, surprises tourists, Ponce says.
And there were surprises for Ponce as well. “Flagler was a micro-manager. When I was reading his letters, I was surprised how involved he was in the operation of his hotels and railroads.”
When tourists ask him “sensitive” questions, he answers: “Now, you don’t expect me to answer that, do you?”
What about Mary Lily’s ghost at Whitehall? “I was born and grew up in a funeral home. I don’t know any ghost stories,” he said.
And what about that gossip about Flagler keeping Mary Lily at Seagull Cottage before they were married?
“Couldn’t have happened,” Ponce says. “Flagler lived at Seagull Cottage from 1894 to 1902 when Whitehall was being built and he married her in 1902. I don’t think he would have had a young lady living in his house. He couldn’t be that brazen.”
According to Ponce, Seagull Cottage was on the front lawn of the Royal Poinciana (Flagler’s first Palm Beach hotel built in 1894) until he died.
Though he may be adept at fending off intrusive questions, Worth Avenue Association president Sherry Frankel, considers him a joyful person. “I think he’s like Santa Claus all year round,” she says.
Paul Leone, president of The Breakers, agrees.
“In all the years I’ve known Jim, he hasn’t lost one bit of enthusiasm for sharing the history of The Breakers and Palm Beach County,” he said. “We feel blessed in our association with Jim and proud to have had him on our team for over 50 years.”
So, what’s his favorite story? “I saw Bette Davis off after filming a TV series, ‘Little Gloria Happy at Last,’” he says. “When she was leaving, there were people in the hotel lobby, so I snuck her out the ocean entrance.
“They had been getting her around in a station wagon and outside there was a big black limo waiting for her. She said, ‘How lovely. They’ve station-wagoned me to death since I’ve been here.’”