Requiem for a Preservationist

The political and real-estate power brokers of West Palm Beach won't have Lawrence Corning to kick around anymore

"I should have offered them more," Corning says of the nuns. "But they wouldn't have moved. They're a business machine. With that waterfront view, it's awfully expensive to die in that place. You pay through the nose."

The residue of these political battles was the ill will of West Palm Beach's powers that be, Corning claims, and they cut him out of critical grant money. "It's walnuts and peas," he says cryptically. "Like three-card monte," he explains when asked to clarify. "If they want you to find the peas, you will." Then, leaning forward, he mock-whispers, "They have the money."

Corning's idiosyncratic -- some would say quixotic -- outlook stems from an unusual background. Born in San Diego, on October 21, 1954, to a social-register couple, he attended boarding schools from the age of six, when his parents divorced, first at the Fessenden School, outside Boston, then at the Salisbury School, in Salisbury, Connecticut.

Lawrence Corning is tired of fighting to save old Florida treasures like this one
Michael McElroy
Lawrence Corning is tired of fighting to save old Florida treasures like this one

"They were the kind of schools you go to if you want to be an Episcopal priest," he says. "Which I probably should have done. I probably would have been happier."

Corning's introduction to the pleasures of historic landscapes came on childhood visits to the two parents' homes. Father lived in the New England fishing town of Manchester, Massachusetts, with the traditional village green and white-steepled church at its center. Mother's home was genteel Palm Beach, where one walked to shop and bicycled everywhere else.

But young Corning had a wild streak, as well. In summer 1979, after graduating with a degree in English from Lake Forest College, a small, Chicago-area liberal arts school, Corning, vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, flipped the Jeep he was driving and lost his right arm. Was he drunk? "I wasn't sober," he says ruefully.

He proved to be a bit of a bohemian too. While recuperating that fall, he visited friends in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of whom had a crate full of punk and new wave records, a sound then in its infancy. ""What the fuck is this?' was my first reaction," Corning says. "But after a while, it seemed so fresh and great."

That discovery lured Corning to New York City, where he worked in the credit department of a bank by day and did the clubland of CBGB and Danceteria by night. "New York was a gas," he says.

Corning lived in Europe for two years beginning in 1985, dividing his time among Geneva, Oslo, and Paris, where his vision of urban life deepened. "You go to the café for your morning coffee," he says. "You stop at the bakery on your way home. The uses of those neighborhoods are filtered down over time, and you get just the right number and location of each shop. It's organic development."

The thriving artist communities of the European cities were another of Corning's inspirations. He returned to West Palm Beach in 1987 and set about educating himself on urban redevelopment -- reading intensively, attending seminars, and organizing the Downtown Group. His first (some would say only) successful real estate venture was the Professional Arts Building, a block-long collection of artists' galleries with overhead living lofts.

Corning hoped to use the galleries as the centerpiece of a city arts district, but that, he says, would have taken government help. "If they liked it, they would have gotten behind it," he says. "Other places incorporate the arts into normal city maintenance. Maybe they figured, "Why help somebody who's so committed anyway?'"

Corning patronized the arts in other ways too. His advertising dollars underwrote The Flo, Kris Kemp's early '90s fanzine, which spawned West Palm Beach's annual alternative film festival of the same name. When another West Palm Beach-based alternative publication, the Free Press, ran aground last year, it was Corning who came up with the financial transfusions that kept it going for a few more issues. [Editor's note: The writer worked on both of those publications.]

When it looked as if it all might come together -- the buildings and the arts -- Corning was at his happiest. He remembers the early days, in 1993, when he lived in an upstairs apartment in the 500 block of Clematis Street and downtown had just been discovered by a new generation of alternative types. With drumming circles on the sidewalks and music in the clubs and bars, the block was so crowded some nights, the cops had to come through and clear it out.

"That was great -- a spontaneous street party," Corning says. "I'd look downstairs and you'd think there were fires and tents to the horizon."

Though his best hopes went unrealized, Corning will surely land on his feet. He won't disclose precise numbers, but he says he bought into most of his properties at distressed values, and he's selling not much past their recent peak. He's not sure what to do next except spend more time with his wife, Nina, and their two young children, Olaf, age 4, and Bjorn, age 3.

He still has some bitterness, most of it directed at West Palm Beach Mayor Daves ("He squandered all the energy here") and the director of the city's Downtown Development Authority, Bill Fountain ("If he were a banker, he'd be bankrupt").

The steam goes out of his fury quickly, though. "The what-could-have-beens suck you dry," he says. "I'm tired of running around town wearing a black hat."

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