The History of Worth Avenue

There’s always something special about a jaunt down Worth Avenue on a pleasant Palm Beach day. Whether popping into Il Papiro for paper goods or enjoying a casual slice and salad at Al Fresco, the glitz and undeniable charm enchant. As one of the most recognized shopping destinations in the world (it predates Rodeo Drive!), Worth Avenue stretches just three blocks between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean and is home to over 200 galleries, shops, and restaurants. Much of the tradition that we so fondly revere Worth Avenue for all began in 1923—this prestigious promenade has quite a fabulous past. 

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor on Worth Avenue. Image via State Library and Archives of Florida.

Originally a dirt road developed by Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner, it served as a residential area with homes including Mizner’s own five-story apartment. In 1918, the addition of the tony Everglades Club at the foot of the street and escalating rents at the Beaux Arts Building on the island drove residents and shopkeepers alike to Worth Avenue. The Club would host fashion show luncheons and throngs of the who’s who would attend, literally bringing traffic to a halt with long runways and delighted crowds. Neighboring stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Elizabeth Arden, and Bonwit Teller would outfit models with the latest styles, inspiring attendees to shop post show. Famous names including Bill Blass and Valentino received early praise during this exciting Worth Avenue epoch. 

A postcard of Worth Avenue, 1945. Image via the State Library and Archives of Florida.

On a typical day, one would see Mizner ambling around with Johnnie Brown, his spider monkey, atop his shoulder or Mrs. John Phipps out for a drive on the Avenue with her two German Shepherds in tow (one sitting shotgun!). Three historic vias, Via Mizner, Via Amore, and Via Parigi, maintained Worth Avenue’s European influence and created the sense of a pedestrian village. In 1938, shopkeepers founded the Worth Avenue Association to reinforce regulations that presided over aesthetic features such as flowers and window displays as well as parking and delivery times. During World War II, Ta-boo brought Las Vegas flair to Florida with slot machines and neon signs—this must have flown under the Association’s radar! 

Mrs. John Maguire Jr. Christmas shopping on Worth Avenue, 1970. Image via State Library and Archives of Florida.

Over the years, many shops have come and gone but Kassatly’s Linens, opened in 1923, still stands as a Worth Avenue mainstay today. In 1926, Saks Fifth Avenue opened its first store outside of New York City amongst the Avenue’s rows of coconut palms and tiled fountains. Luxury retailers like Neiman Marcus, Hermes, Cartier, and Chanel followed suit and played neighbor to local purveyors like the beloved Prep Shop and Lullabye Shop. The art scene arrived in Palm Beach when Mary Duggett Benson founded her gallery, Worth Avenue Gallery (1942-65), with Emily Rayner, sister of dealer and artist Betty Parsons, as director. 

The Lullabye Shop, a Palm Beach staple of yesteryear. Image via State Library and Archives of Florida.

During the off-season, local stores would close up shop and migrate north to Hyannis or Newport where they had their summer outposts ready to welcome customers. Around the 1970s, Worth Avenue became a year-round destination as Palm Beach established a population that resided there full-time. Chain stores jumped at the opportunity to serve the elegant Palm Beach crowd and in the 1980s, Worth Avenue was home to brands typically reserved for shopping malls like The Limited and Banana Republic. “We’re getting a certain percentage of customers who aren’t the gentle kind we’ve always had. In a few years there won’t be any stores like me,” lamented Virginia T. Shiver, the Prep Shop’s owner, in a 1986 New York Times story. 

The clock tower, Worth Avenue’s most recent addition. Image via Burkhardt Construction.

As it turned out, fast fashion on Worth Avenue wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and after two or three years, those stores turned over in favor of antique shops and charming restaurants. The splendor of Worth Avenue that we enjoy today is due to a 2010 $15.8 million improvement project to revive the iconic street to its original grandeur. No detail was spared, from the tabby seashell colored sidewalks to the quarried stone clock tower and fountain plaza. One thing is for certain, the fabled Avenue has seen the fanciest shopping sprees, most fabulous fetes, and, arguably the very best people watching!

The view from a Via, 1967. Image via State Library and Archives of Florida.

For some of Lycette’s favorite Palm Beach haunts, including Worth Avenue spots, peruse Jessica’s picks here.

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