Courtesy of Janet DeVries
on its final day of business Sept. 21. Smith was photographed in the same spot in 1967,
when she came from Chicago to stay at the inn with her family.
Mark Bishop, right, with his brother, Mike, at the Horizon East condo, just south of the Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn, which employed 27.
Photos by Willie Howard and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Willie Howard
Oh, the stories the walls of the Palm Beach Oceanfront Inn could tell.
The 58-room hotel — a 1960s-era motel that lured tourists, glitterati and locals alike with its Polynesian-style winged roof, an ocean-side pool and drinks at the Tides Bar & Grill — was the last commercial business in South Palm Beach, a town of about 3,000 condo-dwelling residents along a short stretch of State Road A1A nestled between Lantana and Palm Beach.
It closed Sept. 22 to make way for a six-story condo, but not before a proper farewell.
“How many other places can you go where there’s a bar on the beach?” said Patrick Owens of West Palm Beach, who was sharing drinks and stories by the pool with friends on the final day. “All the locals used to come here every afternoon after work for happy hour.”
“It’s terrible, terrible,” said Mary Smith of Lantana, who used to stay at the inn with her family in the 1960s. “It doesn’t surprise me, but it saddens me.”
Known to locals by its former name, the Hawaiian Inn, the two-story motel lost most of its beach during Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and was showing signs of age, with rotting wood and crumbling concrete in places.
Yet in its heyday, patrons included the high-pitched ukulele-playing Tiny Tim (who got married on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show), former television anchorman Chet Huntley and baseball Hall-of-Famer Joe Torre, who spent time at the inn with his family during spring training with the Atlanta Braves.
More notoriously, perhaps, the Hawaiian, and its popular tiki bar, served as the temporary home and chief watering hole for many who worked — or were trying to get jobs — at the then-Lantana-based tabloid, the National Enquirer, during the ’70s and ’80s.
Lantana Councilman Malcolm Balfour remembers those times well. He was an editor at the Enquirer and played a pivotal role in connecting the tabloid and the Hawaiian.
Back then, the Enquirer would have tryouts that lasted a week, and while most applicants tried to make it (the salaries were enviable), some just looked at the experience as a free Florida vacation, Balfour said. At first, the paper put up applicants at either of two Holiday Inns on A1A, or at the Howard Johnson near Lake Worth Beach.
Balfour had become chummy with the owner of the Hawaiian, his neighbor on Hypoluxo Island. He suggested to Enquirer owner Generoso Pope that the Hawaiian would be a good place to put up job candidates.
“This guy (the motel owner) gave us fabulous rates,” Balfour said. “It was like $35 a night. Of course, they made it up in booze.”
Even those who didn’t get a job would come back over and over, Balfour said. “”It was really a rat-bag place, but it had character.”
Many of the tabloid newspaper’s applicants came from England and would play cricket on the beach, Balfour said. “The beach went out 30 or 40 yards, we had so much more sand then,” he said.
“It really was a fun place,” he said. And one time, Pope even considered buying the motel, Balfour said. After all, he spent a lot of money putting up job applicants there, sometimes 20 or 25 at a time.
After seven or eight years at the Enquirer, Balfour became a freelancer. One of his first stories came from a woman who walked the beach in front of the Hawaiian.
“The movie 10 was such a big hit then,” he said. “The woman changed her name to Bo Derek. Of course, she looked nothing like Bo Derek, but she posed for pictures on the beach as if she did, and it was very funny.” The story was carried all over the world.
Even in recent years, the Tides Bar & Grill remained something of a local watering hole, offering karaoke on Tuesday nights, trivia night on Wednesdays and live steel drum music on the pool deck on Sunday afternoons.
Mark Bishop, who lives in the Horizon East condo just south of the Oceanfront Inn, said he’ll miss the food, drinks and entertainment next door.
But Bishop said he realizes the old motel has seen better days and needs to be updated.
“It just looks run-down,” he said.
Bishop’s brother, Mike, who visits him frequently, said the karaoke was bothersome at times.
“It wasn’t necessarily the karaoke,” Mike Bishop said. “It was just the singers.”
The last guests to spend the night at the Oceanfront Inn checked out Sept. 22. By the next day, a chain and no-trespassing sign were draped across the entrance at 3550 S. Ocean Blvd.
Future as a condo
For years the hotel had operated as a grandfathered-in, nonconforming commercial use on land zoned for multifamily residential.
After many failed attempts by previous owners to build a 10-story condo on the motel site, the Paragon Acquisition Group of Boca Raton bought the motel in November 2012 for $8.25 million from the Paloka family’s Kosova Realty, which had bought it 10 years earlier for $3.3 million.
In August, the town’s Architectural Review Board approved Paragon’s plan to build a six-story, 30-unit condo over a parking garage on the 1.2-acre oceanfront site.
South Palm Beach Mayor Donald Clayman said the old motel was nice when it was newer, but had fallen into disrepair. Noise from the motel’s bar and grill bothered some residents at night, he said.
The Inn will be torn down within six months, said Paragon CEO Gary Cohen. Work on a sea wall is expected to begin next year. The new condominium, still unnamed, should be complete by late 2016.
“Everybody will have a view of the water,” Clayman said. “It’s going to be good for the whole town.”
Mary Thurwachter contributed to this story.