Historic Fatio-Era Palm Beach Mansion

Restores Heaven & Earth

By Kristen Mager

Marie and Rick Wackenhut

Marie and Rick Wackenhut

When Rick and Marie Wackenhut bought their oceanfront winter home on Palm Beach in 2011, they never dreamed they’d uncover so many treasures behind the walls. But, during the five-and-a-half month renovation, they unveiled one priceless gem after another—including a more-than-decade-old Palm Beach Post clipping that brought special meaning to ‘home sweet home.’

exteriorThe Coquina-stone mansion, located at 930 S. Ocean Boulevard, was built by noted society architect Maurice Fatio in 1929. The two-story, L-shaped home has four expansive bedrooms in the main house with a guest house off the pool, a gourmet cook’s kitchen, and a beautiful outdoor retreat complete with private pool and loggia.

A Swiss immigrant who took a bite of the Big Apple before moving to South Florida, Fatio was one of a small crop of architectural innovators who cultured the Palm Beach style while living and working among the island’s elite. Fatio had a symmetrical and refined style compared to fellow bohemian architect Addison Mizner. Rather than engineering homes with modern elements of the time like steel and glass, Fatio designed with earthy materials and native stones.

With archived photos as their guide and a renowned crew, the Wackenhuts returned their home to the Fatio era, putting the finishing touches on just hours before 175 guests arrived for Rick’s epic birthday bash on 11/11/11.  The architectural and time-inspired labor of love earned the couple the prestigious Institute of American Architect’s Addison Mizner Award of America for the best historical restoration in the southeastern U.S. and the Caribbean.

The renovation also caught the attention of Fatio’s daughter Alexandra (Alex), who visited the Wackenhuts home and signed over a book she’d penned about her father. ”We have a beautiful note from Alex expressing her gratitude for us returning the house back to her father’s vision,” said Marie.

interior

When Marie and Rick were antique shopping in St. Simon Island, they found a painting of a woman with such a striking resemblance to Eleanor Fatio, the wife of their home’s architect, they felt compelled to buy it (shown above). To them, it was one more sign they were destined to buy the Palm Beach home.

From Old to New
The overhaul of the home started from the outside in. Over the years, the Coquina exterior—made from porous ocean coral—had taken in moisture, so steel columns and a wall of sealed brick were added to protect the home from the salty, tropical ocean elements. All of the electrical, plumbing, and cooling/heating systems were replaced, and a commercial roof was installed.

The prior residents had covered the pecky-Cypress painted ceilings with snow-white cardboard panels that were starting to fall and reveal the art beneath. The original ceilings were delicately restored to their gorgeous teal and cream palettes. Below, the oak floors were refinished and exposed all through the downstairs living space. Cuban-style tile in the solarium and entryway was replicated, as were windows and doors that mimicked the bronze ones from decades before that couldn’t be replaced due to hurricane building code. Ceilings that had been lowered were raised back to display gorgeous arched windows curved like the seashore.

Rick’s office facing the ocean was updated from Kelly green and leopard deco. A bar was custom built in a nook by the window and panels and arches were added throughout. The dining room was also taken back to its elegant roots.

“We refashioned the dining room right down to the decorative painting on the wood beams,” said Marie. “All in all, we removed 60 huge containers of extra materials that had been added to the house over the years.”

The home has a basement that once led to a secret tunnel under A1A. The Wackenhuts converted it to a wine cellar.

If Walls Could Talk
As with every major renovation, one can expect some surprises, and the Palm Beach structure was no exception. The most exciting reveal was a unique and nearly-erased fresco mural below seven layers of paint in the archway leading into the house.

“This is the one element in the home that truly represents Maurice Fatio,” said Marie. “We believe he meant for it to be heaven and earth.”

A restorative artist used a solvent and tools—including fine dental ones—to gently and meticulously remove layer by layer of paint. “With the help of archive photos he was able to replicate the drawing with the exact watercolor hues,” Rick said.

Another historical find under the paint was a coat of arms, which Alex confirmed was the Fatio family crest.

“We were so delighted and it gave our entire project integrity,” said Marie about the historical gem that greets you as you enter the doorways leading into the main living spaces.

Features Galore
The sprawling gourmet cook’s kitchen was not part of the historical restoration but was still designed to match the Fatio era. Striking features include a boardroom-sized island made of reclaimed, hand-planed European oak, antique-white cabinets, and a charmingly painted and carved wood table and chairs. Outside the kitchen, a breakfast patio overlooks the pool tucked between lush Florida foliage and lemon trees.

In the loggia and entire exterior, the Coquina stone is numbered and assembled in the exact order Fatio intended when he quarried the stones in the early 1920s.

“On top of the history, the master terrace overlooking the ocean is the most beautiful spot in the house,” said Marie. Panoramic views of the turquoise Atlantic Ocean await you on the balcony as well as from an outdoor terrace off of the new master sitting room.

The master suite features expansive ceilings and his and her bathrooms—a vintage fireplace providing the focal point for Marie’s pampering space. Outside the master suite, the Wackenhuts added a guest wing complete with a coffee/juice bar and TV area for the grandkids. Following the roofline, they designed a new guest bathroom that winds down curved steps and creates a seamless flow to the ocean.

The home has a basement that once led to a secret tunnel under A1A. The Wackenhuts converted it to a wine cellar.

The home has a basement that once led to a secret tunnel under A1A. The Wackenhuts converted it to a wine cellar.

Underground Discovery
Like many homes on the island, the Wackenhuts’ has a basement that once led to a tunnel under A1A.

“You’d go through a submarine door that seals the water from coming in and the tunnel would take you into the beachfront cabana,” said Marie.

When Fatio sold his home, the next homeowner fell onto hard times due to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and sold the cabana, so the tunnel is now sealed off. Rick and Marie used the space to create a climate-controlled wine room that has a floating wall revealing an original and still working 1920s elevator encased in bronze.

An old metal army desk that remained in the concrete basement when the Wackenhuts bought the home held a secret charm no one could’ve expected.

“Our builder decided to go through the desk before throwing it out,” said Rick. “Inside the drawer, there was one section of the paper from 13 years earlier—way before we owned the home and just a point in time. It was an article about me in 1998 when I chaired a local walk for the cure to prevent childhood diabetes. We couldn’t believe it had been in that desk for all those years, right in this room. We felt like it was a sure sign that this house was meant to be ours.”

The article sits framed among the wine bottles now and serves as a reminder about the history of the home and the homeowners.

About the entire renovation process, Marie said, “It was nice to bring it back to the original. We feel like we contributed to Palm Beach and this house will stand for a long time.”

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Historic Fatio-Era Palm Beach Mansion