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Kelsey City (Lake Park)

Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City.

Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City.

On his first visit to Palm Beach County in 1919, Boston entrepreneur Harry Seymour Kelsey (1879–1957) joined the Florida land boom when he bought 30,000 acres north of West Palm Beach. Kelsey then sold his interest in the Waldorf restaurant chain he had created for $3 million, set up the East Coast Finance Corporation, and soon owned more than 100,000 acres, more real estate than anyone else in Palm Beach County.

Kelsey planned many agricultural industries for Kelsey City: sugar cane farms, demonstration and stock raising farms, hog and poultry farms, citrus groves, truck and dairy farms. The Kelsey Model Dairy Farm, south of the Earman River between today’s Alt. A1A and Prosperity Farms Road, was established by 1925 and one of the first dairies to offer delivery in Palm Beach County.

Kelsey chose the scrub ridge on Lake Worth for the town site and hired the firm Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Dr. John Nolan of Boston to lay it out. Kelsey City was designed for working people, rather than the wealthy or retirees. Its plan is believed to be Florida’s first zoned community, with residential from the lake west to 5th Street; commercial, from 5th Street west to the Florida East Coast Railway tracks; and industrial, west of the tracks and Dixie Highway, which then ran along the west side of the tracks. 

Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects

The firm Olmsted Brothers, Landscape Architects, was originally founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Calvert Vaux when they entered into the park design competition for New York’s Central Park in 1857. When the partnership dissolved in 1872, Olmsted founded Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect and moved to Massachusetts. The firm’s name changed as new family members joined the firm. Frederick married Mary Cleveland Perkins Olmsted, his brother John’s widow, and adopted his three nephews, among them John Charles Olmsted. Frederick and Mary also had three children. The first died in fancy while the other two, daughter Marion and son Frederick Law, Jr. survived.

In adulthood, half-brothers, John Charles and Frederick Law, Jr. joined their father’s landscape architect firm. When Frederick Law, Sr. retired, the two brothers formed Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects in 1898. They continued their father’s work designing parks, cities, and landscapes including Kelsey City, now known as Lake Park, Florida. Harry Kelsey, founder of Kelsey City, had hired the Olmsteds along with Dr. John Nolan of Boston to design the new venture. Other notable projects include the National Mall, the Jefferson Memorial, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and Bok Tower in Lake Wales, Florida.

The Collie family at the Kelsey City gate, 1920s

Collie family at the Kelsey City gate, 1920s.

Above a giant arch at the city’s entrance on now-Old Dixie Highway, a welcome  sign read, “Gateway to the World’s Winter Playground.” In 1921, a post office was established; Kelsey had invested a million dollars in improvements when the first lots were offered at auction in what is now Kelsey Park. He added a golf course on U.S. 1 and a town hall on Dixie Way (now Park Avenue), which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. By 1922, property sales ranged from $250,000 to $500,000 per day, and in 1923 the Town of Kelsey City was incorporated. White children of residents attended the Prosperity school until 1923, when Kelsey City Elementary School opened, now Lake Park Elementary; thereafter the Prosperity children were bused to Kelsey City. 

Downtown Kelsey City, mid-1920s

Downtown Kelsey City, mid-1920s.

The industrial area included some of the Mizner Industries businesses, a lumber mill, and brick and tire factories. Kelsey’s friend Samuel James Blakely joined him from Boston to manage the public grounds and started a city nursery, which became Kelsey City Landscape and Nurseries Company with Blakely as president. In November 1925, Kelsey purchased the bankrupt

An aerial view of the Palm Beach Winter Club

The Palm Beach Winter Club.

Florida East Coast Canal (today’s Intracoastal Waterway) with plans to improve it for the city’s industries. The Kelsey City Chamber of Commerce had a hundred members by 1926. That year, Harry Kelsey and Paris Singer spent $500,000 to build the Palm Beach Winter Club and 18-hole golf course, now the North Palm Beach Country Club. When U.S. 1 was completed in 1927, the club ran a shuttle bus to bring tourists from Palm Beach

The real estate boom began its decline after the 1926 hurricane, but the 1928 hurricane caused an estimated $1 million damage to Kelsey City, and the subsequent economic collapse hit the town hard. The residents of Kelsey City pulled together through their service organizations, such as the Garden Club, Community Church, and PTA. But Kelsey’s problems started before 1928, as he was heavily in debt to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). When he sold the Florida East Coast Canal to the State of Florida in 1927, the IRS seized the proceeds. In an attempt to protect his holdings, Kelsey put them in the hands of a receiver, but finally, he later said, he “had to let the whole thing go.” 

Sir Harry Oakes’ Tesdem Company, Inc. bought about 80% of Kelsey City. In 1939 the residents, wanting a fresh start, obtained approval to change the name of Kelsey City to Lake Park. Sir Harry Oakes was murdered in Nassau in 1943. Due to the terms of his will, his widow could not sell Tesdem’s assets, such as undeveloped land, for many years, while Tesdem continued to spend millions on improvements to Lake Park. In honor of its founder, the waterfront park was named Kelsey Park, where the 1920s Evergreen House is preserved today.

 

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