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Making Decorating Memories at The Breakers in Palm Beach

Posted on February 04 2022

By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News

This year is the 126th anniversary of the founding of The Breakers. Some years ago, my staff and I served as decorators for the property.

Then as now, the resort was privately owned by the Kenan family. The Kenans are descendants, of course, of Mary Lily Kenan, widow of hotel-and-railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, who in the 1890s began transforming Palm Beach into America’s premier winter resort. 

I remember the old Beach Club, which was an indoor space that was torn down and replaced by the facility so many enjoy today. 

Among the areas I decorated at the hotel was the Venetian Ballroom, the venue for so many charity galas and events. We used yards and yards of Venetian damask for draperies and wall coverings. Artist Michael Peck executed the over-door murals, and I had the ceiling painted a lovely Venetian blue with soft clouds. 

One memory that stands out was when I presented the new look for the lobby and the hotel corridors — one corridor leading to the meeting rooms and the other to the beach bar. I remember being on a stage at the hotel to make the presentation. Tom Wicky, then the resort’s general manager, was not thrilled — and said so — when I unveiled my plan to carpet the lobby. At the time, it had a bare stone floor. 

Of course, I was concerned because I didn’t want the clients to feel that I was doing something that they didn’t want to do. But I sincerely believed that stone floor should be carpeted. 

Thinking of my time at The Breakers, I am proud to have overseen the restoration of the domed ceiling in the magnificent Circle Dining Room. When we took on the project, the ceiling had been painted over and re-frescoed. I had all the over-painting carefully removed. We restored the original ceiling in Venetian turquoise and gold, which you can still see today. 

I also am proud that our firm created for the Seafood Bar its famous “fish counter” — a long aquarium filled with live fish and sea life. It's such a whimsical spot.

Working on that counter and restoring the ceiling in the Circle Dining Room remain among my happiest memories. 

To The Breakers and the Keenan family, I wish a happy birthday year. I am so proud to be a part of the rich history of Palm Beach’s most famous resort. 

6 comments

  • Barbara Black-Melone: March 01, 2022

    I thank you for sharing your style, knowledge, boldness, and most of all your freedom of spirit!

  • Ingrid Butler Draper: February 22, 2022

    I adore the red piano. Dorothy would approve.

  • Erik Wagner: February 07, 2022

    I have admired and enjoyed the Circle DR ceiling many times. Great job.

    I had no idea that you had come up with the fish bar. It’s always talked about. Needs more fish, however. I can’t remember the lobby floor and you leave the reader in suspense. I’d probably go for original. Who won out?
  • Donna Whitmire: February 07, 2022

    Good morning Mr Varney,
    I love how you transform a room into such a happy positive spot to relax and enjoy just being there.
    Your fabric patterns and furniture placement just make people feel good and we sure need more of that now.
    Years ago I was fortunate to buy a set of your bed sheets. After using on a daily basis the quality remains and only a little fraying on some edges thanks to my delinquent washing machine!
    I would like to request that you start making bedding again. Please consider! Once someone uses your sheets they are hooked and no others will do!
    Thanks ! Donna Whitmire

  • Lynn Taylor: February 07, 2022

    Thank you for your ongoing contributions to make this world of ours a more colorful and beautiful place! 🌴

  • Christophe PILAIRE: February 07, 2022

    You did a beautiful job at the Breakers and
    contributed to make it what we enjoy today !
    Thank you !

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