It’s summer in Palm Beach County, that time of year when residents crave cold drinks and culture. There is never any shortage of ice, and now that the area has become a year-round destination, there are plenty of exhibitions and high-minded activities. They bring in visitors and give us locals something to do besides bake. (Though, as many of us know, the worst summer day in New York City is nastier than the worst summer day in South Florida.)
Spend an afternoon – or a weekend – exploring. In addition to the area’s marquee arts attractions, our cities and towns – from the beachfront to the big lake – are home to a wealth of smaller cultural gems.
In Boynton Beach the art is out in the open, along East Ocean Avenue, aka Avenue of the Arts, as part of the city’s Art in Public Places program. The avenue is also home to the Schoolhouse Children’s Museum and Learning Center, housed in the original 1913 schoolhouse. Today, the facility is so interactive kids can feed and milk a cow (not a real one) and then process the “milk.”
In Delray Beach, drive along NW 5th Avenue through the West Settlers Historic District to get a hint of what life was like for the city’s first African American residents. The majority came from the Gullah parts of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, as well as the Bahamas, and worked in agriculture. Solomon D. Spady, who arrived in the ’20s from Virginia, became an educator and a community leader. His Mission Revival-style house, at 170 NW 5th, was built in 1926 – the same year as The Colony Hotel on Atlantic Avenue – and today serves as the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum. Its mission, according to director Charlene Farrington, “is to collect, preserve and share the history of African Americans in Palm Beach County.”
Arts Garage downtown does not go all torpid in summer; its famously eclectic range of offerings – everything from concerts to plays to art exhibitions – continues, perhaps, on the theory that the next best thing to being under the boardwalk is being under the garage. And on a steamy night in South Florida, what could be better than listening to music in an air-conditioned boîte where you sit at a table and – instead of ordering from an expensive menu – eat (and drink) whatever you carried in?
West Palm Beach has the Norton Museum of Art, of course, but there are smaller spaces where you can not only see but also create art. The Armory Art Center consists of three buildings, the main one a 1939 Art Deco beauty built as part of the WPA project and saved in the ’80s by artists who had been taking classes at the Norton. It sits facing a small park in the leafy Flamingo Park neighborhood; students enamored of dappled light need only step outside. The center offers classes to people of all ages 48 weeks a year – in everything from drawing to off-loom weaving – and summer camps for children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Exhibitions are held in the former armory (pastels where military green once ruled) and are free and open to the public.
One block up, on the other side of the street, sits the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. Yes, here in the middle of the city, on its most commercial street, people can enjoy the art of photography. Step inside and check out the exhibition – this summer it’s on Pulitzer back stories (in honor of the prize’s centennial) – or sign up for classes. They’re geared to all levels, and cover everything from black-and-white printing to iPhone photography.
The Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum may seem, at first, like nothing more than a pretext for entering the old county courthouse. How many times have you passed the venerable, palm-fringed, Neo-Classical Revival building and wondered what it’s like inside? The museum is small, occupying only half of the first floor, but interesting and informative. You learn about the county’s luminaries – from Nathan Boynton to Emile Anthony (creator of the “Palm Beach look”) – and you get to stand at a notorious Votomatic Voting Machine, where you’re reminded who Al Gore’s running mate was. (Joe Lieberman. Ralph Nader’s, you discover, was Winona LaDuke.)
North of downtown sits Historic Northwood Village, which has become known for galleries, art walks and trendy dining— so if you’re still hungry for art after a walk, you might want to head to 25th Street and Malakor Thai Café. Housed in what was once the Hurricane Bar & Grill, the restaurant boasts two murals by Phil Brinkman, who made his name during World War II for the nose art he painted on fighter planes. His works at Malakor, considerably less sensuous, show men drinking calmly while a hurricane rages.
With all this art you can forget you’re at the shore. So get back in your car and drive north to one of the county’s most aesthetically pleasing structures. The Jupiter Lighthouse, you’ll learn on your tour, was designed by George Gordon Meade nine years before, as a general, he led Union trips to victory against Robert E. Lee in the Battle of Gettysburg. The Spanish red column, rimmed at the top by a black iron balcony, rises on a hill above a magnificent ficus. Two great works stand side by side: one of man, one of nature; one straightforward, the other sinuously intricate. It’s no surprise that many people choose to be married here. Unless you’re wearing a train, climb the 105 steps, winding your way around and around, and then walk out onto the wrought iron balcony. Land and ocean fan out beneath you, and the breeze is sweeter than a caipirinha on the rocks.
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