Palm Beach Bath & Tennis Club

The First Cabana Club in the U.S.

The Bath & Tennis Club is considered one of the finest private beach clubs in the world.  According to founder Mrs. E. F. Hutton, born Marjorie Merriweather Post, “It is the first cabana club in this country.”  Located on nearly five hundred feet of palm-shaded oceanfront on the Atlantic, the club stands on the location of where the fabled Providencia ran aground in 1878 carrying 20,000 coconuts inspiring the name of the sixteen-mile long barrier island. 

Joseph Urban’s rambling, 85,000 square-foot masterpiece embraces the ocean with its crescent shape and provides a whimsical backdrop with theatrically-inspired ornamentation characteristic of the Urbanesque touch.  Closely tied to the town’s origins as a winter retreat and playground for the nation’s prominent families, the club continues as a gathering place for generations of Palm Beach families.  Welcoming lounges, a magnificent ballroom, an oceanfront cafeteria, beach cabanas, tennis courts, and a saltwater pool all contribute to the club’s uniqueness.

Early History

The construction of the $1,250,000 Mediterranean Revival style Bath & Tennis Club, just two short years after the club’s formation during the winter season of 1924-1925, is symbolic of a growing and changing community.  During its early years, the winter residents of Palm Beach were transitioning from a lifestyle focused around Henry Flagler’s hotels to one of greater independence from his massive resorts.  Architect Addison Mizner had popularized the Mediterranean Revival style, a combination of Spanish, Italian and Moorish architecture, and many were commissioning private homes in the style.  The club’s first location was just south of Flagler’s Breakers hotel and was comprised of thirty-nine cabanas and two tennis courts.  Club members were served simple fare: sandwiches, milk, and pancakes cooked over an open fire pit. 

Mr. and Mrs. E. F. Hutton were instrumental in not only the formation of the club but also the acquisition of its new location and the commissioning of Austrian architect Joseph Urban.  The new club was constructed adjacent to the Hutton’s Mar-a-Lago estate and both were designed by Urban.  The architect acquired recognition abroad through designs for Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, the Khedive of Egypt, and the Czar of Russia.  Working in these countries influenced his later designs with Egypt in particular having a profound effect.  Here he felt he developed an acute awareness and appreciation of color, stating: “I think the indescribable blue of the Egyptian sky created my life-long love of blue.”  His time designing stage sets for the Paris Opera eventually led to his emigration to the United States.  The whimsical architectural details of the Bath & Tennis Club are a reflection of Urban’s past work with the Boston Opera as a production manager and as a set designer for the Metropolitan Opera and Ziegfeld Follies. 

The vision of a small group of individuals led to the formation and construction of what is considered one of the finest beach club’s in the world.  The natural beauty of the club’s location and the magnificent architecture of the building itself contribute to the Bath & Tennis Club’s status as one of Palm Beach’s most noteworthy landmarks.  With interiors that make a dramatic impression, the building stands as a testament to Joseph Urban’s extraordinary talent.  Later contributions by architect John Volk add to the building’s importance.  The dedication of generations of prominent American families has and will continue to ensure the Bath & Tennis Club’s importance in Palm Beach society and the island’s architectural legacy.

A Unique Perspective: The work of Joseph Urban

According to famed architectural critic Paul Goldberger: “The half century since Urban’s death [in 1933] has produced no designer who was quite like him.  His designs never shrank away meekly, yet they never overdid it, either.  They were strong, vibrant, and had just the right degree of presence: a world poised precisely between fantasy and reality.

After decades of trying to describe Urban’s signature style, architects and critics began to define his theatrically-inspired ornamentation as “Urbanesque”. The siting of the club itself, with its two wings flanking the entrance, greets visitors with a dramatic view of the Atlantic Ocean as the structure embraces the beachfront.  An Islamic star made of Cypress on the lobby ceiling references Moorish architecture and lends an air of the exotic to the entrance and throughout the building where the pattern is repeated.  The Living Room features a beamed ceiling decorated with colorful stenciling and the ballroom has a dramatic buttressed ceiling reminiscent of a ship’s interior.  Clam-shell sconces, colorful tilework, intricate ironwork by Eugene Lanfranchi, and murals by Urban’s daughter charm visitors at every turn.  Columns topped with capitals suggestive of Ancient Greek theatre masks are utilized throughout the interior and exterior of the building.


Architectural Evolution

The exterior of the Bath & Tennis Club embodies quintessential features of the Mediterranean Revival style with its stuccoed walls, red-clay barrel tile roof, wooden rafter tails and arched windows.  Urban expressed a fondness for wooden rejas in the design of this building and the spindle shape can also be seen in the balustrades of the nearby Paramount Theatre. 

The central portion of the building is punctuated by two sets of paired towers that once flanked a shaped parapet resembling a bell tower that was lost in a hurricane.  These towers along with cloisters and broad terraces adapt the Baroque detailing of Spanish missions.  Well-suited to the Florida climate, loggias and courtyards provide the outdoor living spaces associated with the style.  In particular, the interior courtyard has served many different uses over the years, including an open-air dining area in the 1920s, a putting green in the 1930s, an indoor pool, and a dance floor.  

Undergoing numerous changes over the years, another Austrian architect named John Volk also left his mark on the Bath & Tennis Club.  Hurricanes in 1928 and 1947 required significant reconstruction with the latter hurricane resulting in changes made by Volk.  He was originally commissioned to upgrade the downstairs cafeteria but ended up widening the scope of work when a hurricane flooded the first floor and eroded the beachfront.  To protect the building from future storms, he designed an interlocking copper bearing steel sheet piling to secure the terraces to the bedrock and restored the beachfront through the use of drag lines.  He also oversaw the construction of two-story cabanas and the enclosure of the second-floor terrace with glass windows. Volk continued to be the architect of choice for later designs including the addition of a heated saltwater pool at the south end of the property and two tennis courts on top of the parking garage. 

Monumental Restoration

Bath & Tennis Club members began restoration of the building in 2008 and completed the work, along with necessary renovations, in three phases.  Architect Keith Spina of Glidden Spina & Partners oversaw all three phases including the addressing of structural deficiencies in the building itself and on the beach level.  Kemble Interiors used Joseph Urban’s original designs and color schemes as reference points for the décor. 

During the work, three pools were removed from under the floor of the interior courtyard.  Renovation of the lobby ceiling to accommodate new electrical and mechanical systems led to the discovery of the Moorish star-shaped ceiling designed by Joseph Urban.  An arched transom window was also discovered under a layer of stucco near a staircase descending to the beach level.  A new fireplace was added in the ballroom to disguise the entrance to the kitchen with special care taken in its design to differentiate the addition from the original fireplace. 

The Bath & Tennis Club received the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach’s prestigious Ballinger Award in 2011.  First presented in 1987, the award commemorates a restoration or renovation that best exemplifies the traditions of Palm Beach’s original houses and the architects who designed them.


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