About four years ago, Heidi McWilliams, a Manhattan art adviser, and her husband, a financier, decided they might like to rent a furnished apartment in Palm Beach for a month or so. They had spent a significant amount of time over the years visiting the elegant community, with its wide boulevards, genteel tree-lined downtown, and bubbling social scene. McWilliams, who owned an art gallery in New York until 2009, has many clients and friends in the area. Although the couple live much of the year in an Upper East Side building originally designed by socialite and etiquette guru Emily Post and spend summers in an Italianate mansion overlooking the ocean in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, they were hoping to escape the worst of winter.
Their relatively modest plans were soon thwarted. Within days of starting to look for an apartment, they were shown one of the spectacular houses built by the famed architect Marion Sims Wyeth during Palm Beach’s original 1920s heyday, on a bucolic private road in one of the city’s most vaunted neighborhoods. For McWilliams, who is known for her delicate touch in mixing contemporary art with ancient objects, it was kismet. “You can’t help but be entranced by history like this,” she says. “It just draws you in.”
Wyeth was born in Manhattan, trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and designed more than 100 houses in Palm Beach over half a century, including Mar-a-Lago and the 45,000-square-foot, 124-room 1927 Cielito Lindo for five-and-dime heiress Jessie Woolworth Donahue. The 6,000-square-foot residence with which McWilliams and her husband fell in love may be somewhat less sprawling than those grandiose mansions, but it is no less full of Wyethian charm and characteristic detail.
In fact, the house was once half of a larger home, divided by bulldozing a central section in the aftermath of the Great Depression, a move that was common in Palm Beach at the time. “The original homes were comically large and unwieldy,” McWilliams says, “so it made good sense.” Cielito Lindo, for example, was subdivided in the 1940s into five villas of 12 rooms each; the dining room was demolished to make way for a major road laid through the spread.
The McWilliams residence, which is landmarked, has all the hallmarks of Wyeth’s best work. With the help of architect Andrew Scott Kirschner, with whom the couple had worked on other residences, they took the plaster walls down to the studs to refresh the surfaces, but the ceilings, moldings, and floors—where much of Wyeth’s panache and personality can be seen—largely were saved and burnished. “When my feet touch that old wood, I find great meaning,” says McWilliams of the replaned oak boards throughout.
The carved ceiling in the 30-foot-long living room is particularly gobsmacking—beautiful, though challenging from a decorating standpoint, she concedes. With hundreds of octagonal and square coffers, each one elaborately painted like a miniature oil in shades of coral, blue-gray, and pale green, its intensity can make choosing furnishings difficult. To balance that, McWilliams, working with the designer Sam Ewing, chose to keep things simple and uncluttered, with neutral walls and a selection of graceful seating in rich fabrics, including a pair of curvy Rose Tarlow Melrose House chairs she had covered in a deep claret velvet.
She also removed the original fireplace, which was lovely but too large and ornate; now there is a slightly smaller, less imposing one, found in Italy, of 16th-century limestone. In the dining room, the rustic ceiling was replaced with the highest grade of cypress, stained deep red, and painted with trompe l’oeil panels based on the floor-border mosaic in the billiard room at the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, the former Vanderbilt mansion. “This dining room is now one of the most romantic rooms I’ve ever been in,” she says.
In keeping with her vocation, throughout the house McWilliams contrasted the period-perfect architecture with blue-chip contemporary art. Above the fireplace mantel, an Anish Kapoor stainless steel mirror sculpture reflects the vivid ceiling; on side tables nearby sit a small 1960 Henry Moore bronze of a girl’s head and a hefty fragment of one of John Chamberlain’s famed crushed cars. Flanking the curved central staircase—she switched out the stone treads with limestone, but kept the delicate curved wrought-iron railing—are a 1960 Joan Mitchell oil painting, Blue Gentian, and a stacked 2012 bronze by Tony Cragg.
But McWilliams does not believe in simply mixing old architecture with new art—that would be too obvious. Instead, she has also studded the house with antiquities, which add yet another dimension. There is a piece of a Roman sarcophagus in the entrance hall, and several ovoid Egyptian vessels from around 330 B.C. sit next to the Henry Moore bronze in the living room.
“You have to have layers, and you have to have warmth,” she says. “I love the challenge of taking something significant and historic and, while respecting it and deepening it, making it new, making it your own.”
This story originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Siweb.