Just one visit to the Town of Lake Park is all it takes to understand why it’s been called “The Jewel of the Palm Beaches.” Lush landscaping throughout the Town, sails flapping in the breeze at the Marina, service-oriented Town staff, and a revitalized downtown all contribute to the desirable quality of life that was envisioned by Town founders in 1923.
Before becoming Lake Park, the town had several titles: Kelsey City, The Miracle City of Florida, A New City in the Making, The Courtesy City of Florida, and The Gateway to the World’s Winter Playground. The town evolved through four distinct periods: the Kelsey Period (1920-1928, the Depression, the World War II Period, and the Present.
Harry Seymour Kelsey of Boston, MA, the 40-year old president of Waldorf Systems, Inc., a national restaurant chain, founded and developed Kelsey City as a resort mecca and winter playground. Kelsey sold his restaurants, bakeries, and a farm, reportedly worth $3.5 million (approximately $39 million at today’s value) before moving to Florida.
During Kelsey’s first trip to Florida to recuperate from pneumonia, he started purchasing ocean front, lakefront and in-land acreage in the Palm Beach County area, and ultimately owned over 100,000 acres by 1919. He chose his favorite spot on Lake Worth to start Kelsey City, and called the Olmsted Brothers and Dr. John Nolan to plan and design the first zoned municipality south of Washington, D.C. S.J. (Sam) Blakely from Massachusetts, was hired to landscape the community. He moved to the area and started Kelsey City Nurseries, which survives today as Blakely Landscaping. The recently restored and enhanced Kelsey Park was his first project.
The Olmstead brothers, Frederick Law Jr. and John Charles, were, respectively, the son and nephew/adopted son of Frederick Law Olmstead, the acknowledged founder of landscape architecture. Some of the brothers more notable projects include the National Mall, White House grounds, Jefferson Memorial, Cornell University, 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, 1906 Lewis * Clark Centennial Exposition, New York’s Central Park, and the Bok Tower in Lake Wales, FL.
The complete town site was conceived as 900 acres with an 18-hole golf course and a resort named Palm Harbor on Munyon Island, which was then part of the Town. Early advertisements proclaimed: “It is ideal from every standpoint; a perfect climate, sanitation the best, land high and rolling, a great transportation center, fronting on Lake Worth.”
Town plans called for three sections: residential from Lake Worth to 5th Street; retail business from 5th Street to the FEC Railroad tracks; and manufacturing and wholesale west of Dixie Highway. A giant arch was erected as the entrance to the Town on Dixie Highway saying, “Welcome to Kelsey City Gateway to the World’s Winter Playground.” Only two of the pillars remain today.
Kelsey invested more than $3 million within a few years, and acquired 60,000 more acres for farming. He built three houses on Park Avenue so people could enjoy the wonders of the town on their own. The Florida Land Boom was on. Businesses on Park Avenue and 10th Street and manufacturing enterprises thrived.
In 1920, Kelsey City attracted nationwide attention as a revolutionary town and so began unprecedented activity. The phenomenal growth trend continued through 1922 and 1923. In 1923, electric lights were installed along the streets and the Town was formally incorporated.
As the Land Boom started slowing at the end of 1925, the real estate market significantly declined and many of the Town’s intended improvement never materialized; however, Town Hall was constructed in 1927, and not only survived the devastating 1928 hurricane that destroyed much of the Florida East Coast and sheltered the Town residents during the storm, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The 1928 hurricane caused so much damage that it would take decades for Kelsey City to recover. The stock market crash of 1929 added to the woes, and led many residents to abandon their houses and businesses and move out of Florida. Harry Kelsey was suffering from his own financial problems and was unable to assist the struggling community, and returned to Massachusetts in 1929. In 1930, when the city directory listed about 75 residents and businesses, the state asserted that the town was no longer functional and nullified its charter.
By the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had paved roads in the town and 80% of the property was purchased by the Tesdem Company, headed by Sir Harry Oakes, who planned to create an exclusive residential community. Tragically, the millionaire was murdered in 1943 before most of his plans could be implemented, but he did build a few homes in the southeast part of town and combined existing 25-foot lots into larger 75-foot lots.
As part of the effort to revitalize the community, the local garden club petitioned the state in 1939 to change the town’s name to Lake Park. They also persuaded the local government to change from lettered and numbered street names to the use of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees, a change that remains today. By 1940, the population had grown to 379 residents, and a new rattan furniture factory, yacht basin, docks, recreation building in the park, and apartment buildings for workers were built. World War II led to an influx of military personnel and their families in the area, which introduced post-war prosperity and another building boom to Lake Park. In the nid-1950s, John D. McArthur, multimillionaire owner of Bankers Life & Casualty Company, bought the Tesdem holdings and invested large amounts of money in the area, which included a new water system, and a private utility company to handle sewage treatment. Pratt & Whitney, aircraft engine manufacture, led to yet another population increase. While the Town has struggled with the lingering effects of natural and man-made challenges, it is now experiencing a resurgence that celebrates its history and welcomes a bright new future filled with opportunity and potential. Come visit historic Lake Park, and then take a look into the future of Lake Park
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