Requiem for a Preservationist

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

It's a bright, sunny day on Rosemary Avenue in West Palm Beach, and Lawrence Corning, a scion of the Listerine fortune and, since 1993, a central figure in the city's downtown revival, is leading a walking tour of his real estate portfolio. He's selling it all, and the prospect of unloading it seems to have taken a burden off his shoulders.

A roly-poly man of 47 years, with a full blond beard and an aging cherub's face, Corning has taken a lot of heat over the years for his unorthodox business methods and his questioning of authority. Now, with the end in sight, he's chipper and, for the first time in months, indulging an impish sense of humor.

"Look at that beauty!" he says, pointing with his left (and only) arm to a 100-year-old, Old Florida frame vernacular building across the street, a gabled, multiporched affair with a wealth of loving detail in the design. It's one of a pair of buildings Corning rescued and relocated several years ago -- orphans of the ill-fated development scheme that, on the land where megamall CityPlace now stands, ripped out the heart of the city's oldest residential neighborhood.

"See that leaded glass in the windows?" he says, like a proud papa with his baby. Then, in gleeful mockery, "Wouldn't you just love to take a sledgehammer to her? Think of the power. Make you feel like a manly man."

If there's darkness in his laughter, it's because Corning feels if not betrayed at least unappreciated. Because many of his projects have never come to fruition -- either renovated at a snail's pace or standing interminably vacant -- the rap on him is that he's a dilettante, only dabbling in real estate. Former West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham clashed with him repeatedly on development issues. Current Mayor Joel Daves has publicly trashed him over the condition of his properties. The Palm Beach Post,piling on,has suggested he's paranoid.

But the critics have it wrong. Corning wasn't a dilettante; he was, in the truest sense, an amateur -- one who acts out of love. His approach to development -- his philosophy, if you will -- was primarily aesthetic and social rather than financial.

Corning says the criticism is unfair anyway. "They say I was spread too thin -- and that I wasn't doing enough. How can they have it both ways?" he asks. Now, with the national recession cooling South Florida's real estate boom and the stock market's troubles undercutting the trust fund that has fueled Corning's work, he's throwing in the towel.

Corning came to West Palm Beach real estate with a vision: historic preservation as an integral part of urban renewal. His firm, the Downtown Group, had as its original motto "Traditional Downtowns and the Established Neighborhoods They Serve." It was an idea to which many paid lip service in the early '90s, when the city's current wave of development began, and it was codified in the city's 1994 master plan.

Corning put his money where his heart was, amassing a collection of almost a dozen downtown West Palm Beach buildings in the mid-1990s at a cost of several million dollars. All of them had fallen into disrepair and seemed slated for destruction when white-knight Corning swooped them up, saved them from the wrecker's ball, and struggled to get them rehabilitated and occupied.

Some of these relics of the city's pre-World War II heyday are fairly ordinary, but others are absolute jewels, like 114 S. Olive Ave.'s 1921 American National Bank Building, by architects Harvey & Clark, with a terra cotta-tiled façade of papyrus reed columns and intricate decorative inlay in classic Second Egyptian Revival style.

Yet Corning's inability to compromise prevented him from reshaping these properties to match his vision. He locked horns repeatedly through the years with real estate speculators and city officials, whom he saw favoring a policy of development at any cost. "It's called "highest and best use,'" he says. "Since it doesn't get you the most taxes for government coffers, there's no interest here in historic preservation."

However Corning might downplay his role ("I was just another schmuck in the room," he says), he was a figure in numerous West Palm Beach development controversies:

He was an originator of Historic West Palm Beach, the grassroots preservation group that, in the early '90s, made historical consciousness a citywide affair.

He was a major supporter of the successful effort to pass the city's 1996 building heights limitation ordinance (a measure as much honored in the breach as in the observance).

He supported a 1998 referendum blocking the city's sale of its municipal auditorium to the Jehovah's Witnesses. A unified front of most of the city's power brokers -- who opposed the measure and favored the sale -- defeated the referendum, though only narrowly.

Corning's most heart-rending struggle -- and perhaps a portent of what was to come -- was the 1994 fight to save from destruction the Pennsylvania Hotel, a 1920s structure that was the last remaining building of historic and architectural significance on West Palm Beach's Intracoastal waterfront.

Corning offered to buy the hotel and renovate it, but its owners, the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm, who operate a nursing home on the premises, claimed the hotel was unsalvageable and preferred to tear it down and replace it with a pastel simulacrum. The hotel fell to the wrecker's ball on Christmas weekend 1994.

"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.

"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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