Every Friday just before dusk, drummers and artists meet at a West Palm Beach home that looks like Salvador Dalí and Dr. Seuss collaborated on the architecture. The crowd that meets at the house, just across the railroad tracks from the Disney-like atmosphere of CityPlace, shares casseroles and goulash before spending a few hours banging on bongos and picking sitars. The creator of this festival of free spirits goes by Ullaloba, who rents the eye-catching center of artistic expression.
"My intention when I came was to create a fantasy world," she says. Then, pointing accusatorily over her shoulder at CityPlace, she adds: "But a real fantasy world, not like that thing over there." The bizarre house is clearly more Alice in Wonderland than Mickey Mouse. Ulla, as most people call her, rented part of the home three years ago, and friends helped convert it into two stories of inspiration. Pedestals holding wood-and-fiberglass light fixtures pop up like dandelions from the unkempt yard. Stumps carved into faces and gigantic canvasses of abstract art sometimes line the parking lot. A fence of crooked driftwood rings the place. "I didn't realize it," she says, "but I've turned it into a place for the people."
But Ulla's island of oddness among the pressure-washed perfection of CityPlace may not have much of a future. The home's landlord, like many property owners in downtown West Palm, is marketing the property to developers who would likely use the land for something more conventional: high-rise condos, like the overbearing, 20-story structure that's about to sprout next door.
It's a scenario that occurs frequently near CityPlace, which, since opening in December 2000, has become West Palm's cultural and entertainment core. Ironically, this imposing revenue generator is indirectly spreading urban decay. As patrons fill CityPlace cash registers with money, nearby property owners are letting historic homes rot. Take a close look at the down-at-the-heels neighborhood and you'll notice a pattern of decaying siding, falling porches, and yards strewn with more trash than grass. There's really no reason to keep the homes up, owners say, when the houses will likely be torn down for condos -- the destiny of much of the land surrounding CityPlace.
West Palm officials, for the most part, concur. Using downtown property for single-family homes doesn't make for the best use of the land, they say. Mayor Lois Frankel maintains that the city benefits more from condos that could provide much-needed housing in downtown. "Are we better off with those properties or something with more density?" she asks. "Perhaps we need to have a discussion on it."
Former Mayor Nancy Graham, who now serves as executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, would like to see homes like Ulla's saved from the wrecking ball. "That place adds a lot of funk and fun to downtown, and it ought to be something we preserve," Graham says. "Having every single block in downtown become a high-rise condominium is not what's best."
For the most part, the city's well-meaning preservation measures appear to have backfired. The worst concentration of deteriorating historic properties is the 600 block of Evernia Street, just two blocks from CityPlace. Many of the block's storied homes, with wraparound porches and plantation-style pillars, were built by the founders of West Palm Beach. The two-story houses sit on a coastal ridge that affords panoramic views of downtown and the Intracoastal. But the crumbling homes have been split into apartments, and the block suggests creeping decay.
Evernia is one of the only streets in downtown where high-rises are forbidden. Jerry Meitz Jr., a general contractor, has owned several of the Evernia homes since 1988. Because he can't build a high-rise on the block and because it's not the best place for a single-family home, he says, his only option is to keep renting his buildings as apartments. "There's a little bit of big brotherism going on there," he says. "The city has stepped in and messed up the whole block."
Real estate prospector and Palm Beach resident Richard Limehouse, owner of Ulla's home at 427 Iris St., bought the property seven years ago for about $300,000. CityPlace ("Unlike anyplace," according to its slogan) opened three years later, and his property would likely now sell for millions. The value isn't based on the 83-year-old home, which Limehouse considers worthless. "I don't think there's anything historic about that house." He says he's not actively trying to sell the property but figures a developer will come knocking soon. "I'm not trying to maintain that house in the meantime."
Ulla took over the place from a drug treatment program, which left it in general disrepair. Limehouse agreed to let her use it as a live-in studio, and she filled the yard with her artwork: sculptures of scrap metal, driftwood, and painted fiberglass. With a prime location across Quadrille Boulevard from CityPlace, Ulla soon found that the home could be used as a showcase for artwork, and she agreed to put her friends' works on display outside. Soon, artists and musicians began frequenting the place, and the drum circles formed. "There's something in this house that captures everybody," she says. "This house has a good energy that people are attracted to."
At the start of a recent night of drumming, Ulla sat on a lawn chair below a jacaranda tree and watched musicians file in. A lawyer who stopped by, giving only the name Eric, brought his own set of drums. "There's people I know who know people who, at the Delray drum circle, heard about Ulla's thing going on here," he said while searching for a corkscrew in the kitchen. "All I know is that it's a good thing she has here."
Ulla lives in what was once the living room and kitchen of the home. The floors are handmade tile, and the closed-off staircase has ornate pillars running to the ceiling. She talked about moving out recently and even put up signs advertising a moving sale. She held what was supposed to be a final drum circle, but friends talked her into staying. Now she's trying to raise money to either buy the place or rent it out to a group of musicians and artists who could use the space for some kind of school. Ulla's plans are still far from final. "People say, 'What are you going to do?' It changes every day, but I know I need to keep this house in the hands of artists."
Recently, Miami Beach developer Willy Bermello announced plans to construct a 20-story condo on vacant land just south of Ulla's home. The new development will be a sister property to the condo Bermello's building nearby on property that once held a flophouse. The land will be worth even more with the condo next door -- and the continued existence of Ulla's drum circle will be that much more in jeopardy.
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