Iconic Palm Beach Colony Reimagined
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
Carleton Varney, proprietor of Dorothy Draper & Co., one of the oldest design firms in the U.S., named after its famous founder, executed the massive makeover using a playful palette of hues to brighten the six-story hotel. He and Brinsley Matthews, director of design and operations, “used bright colors and rejected all that is impractical, uncomfortable and drab” in the 91 guest rooms and three penthouses.
Matthews put it another way. “There are no sad rooms” at the remodeled Colony, which stands on golden turf, about a block from the ocean and steps from affluent Worth Avenue, a shopping mecca for folks with deep pockets.
The exterior walls, which had been finished in many shades from brown to yellow over six decades, are now painted Wolcott Salmon – Dorothy Draper’s favorite – at Varney’s direction. The color is named for her ancestor, Oliver Wolcott, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
The entryway is much brighter than the old lobby, with vividly painted corridors leading to the Polo Steaks & Seafood Restaurant, the Royal Palm Room, the expansive check-in desk and the new 1,300-pound chandelier with 637 individually hand-hung crystal pendants.
Delayed a few years by World War II, the British Colonial-design boutique hotel was built in 1947, said Jim Ponce, an executive assistant manager at the Colony in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Now 96 years of age, he is still a hotel tour guide. His memories of the Colony are fond. The original owner, he said, “lived in a mansion across the street.” Years later, the hotel acquired his 1928 residence called Casa Manana and converted it into seven spacious villas that are still in use. In the early days, said quick-witted Ponce, “right behind the Colony was the Ocean View Hotel.” He quipped: “You had to have a long neck to see the ocean from there.”
The elder hotelier’s first job was at the Breakers, but he moved to the Colony because it stayed open all year. Most Florida businesses close for the slow, hot summers. Even stores on Worth Avenue were “boarded up like two picket fences.”
The Colony, he said, “was never empty.” And celebs found it a fortuitous spot to spend leisure time without being hounded. “I can still hear the laughter of Liza Minnelli running in the lobby” when her mother, Judy Garland, was a guest. While she was staying there, President John F. Kennedy invited her to a White House function. “In her haste, she forgot a blue sequin dress in her suite. I had to rush the outfit to the airport in West Palm Beach where a fighter jet landed to pick it up.”
The venerable Mr. Ponce still recalls “the deliciously wicked sense of humor of Victor Borge and then-little known Bill Blass. There was the eternal smile and joie de vivre of Liberace. The young George Hamilton, whose charm and playfulness remain untouched. A witty and delightful Phyllis Diller, whom I had the pleasure of picking up at Miami International Airport.”
Ponce delivered cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her new husband to the airport so they could fly to a honeymoon spot aboard her Lear Jet. (He had one, too.)
And then there were the duke and duchess of Windsor. He can picture Wallis Simpson walking through the lobby a few steps ahead of the man who gave up the British throne to marry her. The penthouse where they stayed is named for the Windsors. And a framed check for $1,000 signed by the duke hangs in the lobby.
General Manager Roger Everingham now presides over operations at the grand hotel. He has added his own touches, including candlelit cabaret dinner shows Saturday nights in the Royal Palm Room and Motown Friday nights in the Polo Restaurant. He also created Café 155 in the hotel at 155 Hammon Ave. The popular New York-style deli “has good food, good coffee and a friendly atmosphere,” said the GM.
Everingham and Varney are old friends, which helped make the overhaul manageable, even pleasant. They both have an abiding affection for the hotel that locals call “the center of Palm Beach society.”
“I have known and loved this property for years and it is truly the one iconic hotel in Palm Beach,” said Varney. “From the day Roger and I started talking about this project, my goal has been to enhance and continue the Colony’s classic tradition by celebrating the glamor and charm of yesterday while simultaneously integrating the high-tech convenience of tomorrow.”
The hotel’s metamorphosis is a tribute to that transformation.