for the Ages
Jeffery W. Smith's timeless homes are fresh and
yet rooted in history.
Nancy A. Ruhling
their sweeping waterfront vistas, frescoed loggias,
stone facades and garden courtyards, Jeffery W. Smith's
grand palaces put the Gilded Age of Palm Beach's
past back on a glamorous, golden pedestal that basks
in the reflection of the present and mirrors the fabulous
future of this fabled resort community.
Jeffery W. Smith.
An intricate bronze railing set against stark
shell-stone walls makes a dramatic entrance in
the foyer of this private Italian Renaissance
Palm Beach oceanfront estate.
At Smith's Villa Venezia, which was inspired
by the Doges' Palace in Venice, beautifully
tiled Moorish arches in the garden room lead to
an azure swimming pool.
And if architecture is, indeed, a new, guiding light,
as Smith asserts, his own beacon shines brightly over
the rich landscape, beckoning the viewer to look beyond
the cottages of Newport and the mansions of Jay Gatsby's
Long Island Gold Coast.
“The rebirth of tradition yields architecture
with meaning,” says the 51-year-old award-winning
architect whose work is the subject of Palm Beach
Splendor: The Architecture of Jeffery Smith (Rizzoli,
New York, October 2005, $75), a new book by Joyce C.
Wilson that details 17 of his most magnificent manors.
“My houses embrace the inheritance of our past,
but they are not stuck in the past,” he says.
“They take the lessons of history and adapt them
to today's standards.”
Smith looked to history in 1993 when he built his first
major Palm Beach house. And La Follia – which
pays homage to the 1920s work of Addison Mizner, whose
El Mirasol turned the city into a high-society capital
– made history: It was the first time in seven
decades that an Italian Renaissance grand-scale house
had been built.
It is a prime example, Smith says, of a house that,
room by room, melds the past, present and future. The
timeline trip is most apparent in the morning room,
or orangery, as Smith likes to call it. With its green-and-white-striped
tentlike ceiling and green-and-white-trelliswork walls,
it's a dash-of-the-past daring Elsie DeWolfe.
But its trio of classic Palladian arches put it in the
here and now by inviting in the sweet scent of saltwater
and the soft rustling of palm leaves. A century from
now, it still will be a classic Smith.
With La Follia, Smith had ushered in a contemporary
Gilded Age in Palm Beach. Soon he had made a name for
himself among the household-name crowd, assembling a
roster of clients that reads like a who's who:
Leonard and Evelyn Lauder, Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder,
Kate Ford, Jane Beasley, Ivana Trump, David and Julia
Koch, Terry Allen Kramer, Sydell Miller, George and
DeDe Merck and Lord Anthony and Lady Evelyn Jacobs.
His public projects – including those for Chanel,
Tiffany & Co. and Graff Jewelers – round out
his design history.
“None of my designs is repetitive,” Smith
says. “Everything has to be fresh and new but
rooted in history. It's like haute couture: Nobody
wants to be seen wearing the same thing.”
Smith – who began his career by doing restorations
– always has loved old houses. “I moved
to Palm Beach when I was 16, and I was so drawn to the
magnificent homes that when I turned 18, I got a real
estate license just so I could experience their interiors,”
he says. “I probably was the youngest person in
Florida at that time to get a real estate license.”
Although his work has been compared to Mizner's
Spanish-style Roaring Twenties mansions, his influences
are far more far-flung: He draws from not only Spain
but also from the entire Mediterranean and Central America.
“My main influence is Andrea Palladio, the father
of residential architecture,” he says. “Every
good house can be traced back to him. I also am influenced
by the work of Maurice Fatio.”
One of the challenges of designing a large house –
Smith's French-influenced La Reverie, for example,
is 67,000 square feet – is balancing scale with
comfort. “I don't care how big my houses
get, there's not a room that's overscaled.
I always aim for a sense of proportion, of human scale,
a sense of home and comfort. Everything is organized
very simply around a plan. You always know where you
are. They are classical and rational. They make sense.”
Smith also likes to illuminate his rooms with natural
light, designing them with wings so there are two to
three exposures per room. “One of my signatures
is designing spaces, particularly pools and loggias,
so that at the flick of a switch, glass panels come
up from below to block the breezes, to create an indoor-outdoor
Superb craftsmanship, which starts with the hand-drawn
plans that are just as much artwork as blueprint, is
another Smith hallmark. In one of his Palm Beach houses,
for instance, the loggia takes on an exotic look when
Smith punctuates it with a coffered bamboo ceiling,
bamboo wainscoting and bamboo accents that play around
the classical arches of the Palladian-style French doors.
“I like to incorporate stone in my facades –
particularly coquina stone – because it's
indigenous to Florida and conveys a sense of timelessness,”
Like all great architecture, there is more to Smith's
grand homes than first meets the eye. “The essence
of my designs are the details,” he says. “I
have one client whose house was finished years ago,
and she calls me all the time saying, ‘I just
noticed this detail. I can't believe I've
lived here so long without seeing it.'”
At Villa Venezia, the Palm Beach palazzo that stands
on the shore of the Intracoastal Waterway, Smith's
details, from the pineapples that top the garden room's
arches to the quatrefoils and trefoils in the entry
facade and loggia, pay homage to the Doges' Palace
in Venice. It is whimsy – in the form of frolicking
seahorses nosing their way out of the capitals of stylized
Corinthian columns – that informs the arched colonnade
of another of his Palm Beach designs.
Smith, the builder of manors that are destined for the
history books, calls a more humble house his home. He
and his wife, Nancy, an interior designer, live in an
11-room Bermuda-style house. At 5,000 square feet, the
1945 home, which is landmarked and occupies only a quarter
acre of Palm Beach real estate, would just about fit
in the marble-floored foyer of one of Smith's
“I love my home,” he says. “I don't
have any plans to build a great estate for myself. I
want to continue doing timeless architecture for others
and making my mark.”
A. Ruhling, a freelance writer based in New York City,
frequently writes about art, antiques and interior design.
Image 1: Michael Price; Image 2 and 3: Kim Sargent,
Palm Beach Splendor.