The 65-year-old retired waitress is sitting in the middle of a small crowd at West Palm Beach's Art Village Café. The group consists of about a dozen of the friends she has made at the Moose Lodge over the past two decades. They've come to celebrate her recent good fortune. Fiess used to define lucky by the number of times she had taken home the $24 pot from their Thursday-night spades tournaments. "It's a dream come true," she keeps saying. Below her silvery-blond hair is a gentle smile on her face, one that says, You can tell me what's troubling you. It's a smile she probably wore before she became extraordinarily lucky.
It was 22 years ago that Fiess (rhymes with niece) bought the six-bedroom, four-bath, gingerbread-style home that would make her rich. The place, at 403 Sapodilla Ave., had an apartment building behind it with four studios, and she hoped the rental income could support her retirement. For the 15-year mortgage, she put down $500 from money she had made waiting tables at restaurants in Palm Beach. Her husband, Lou, worked as a school janitor. She rented out the apartments for $110 a week and the house for $700 a month. "People who have lived in this neighborhood never had a lot of money," says Fiess, a Lake Worth native. "I knew if I asked for first, last, and security, none of them would have been able to afford it."
The lattice work-covered porch, sloping roof, and pink wood siding reveal a piece of West Palm's history. When the home was built, the neighborhood on a ridge just west of downtown included the city's founders. Judge Edgar C. Thompson bought the place in 1918 and then made headlines when, during Prohibition, he downed the evidence in a bootlegging case. And some of West Palm's most prominent businessmen -- including a farmer, a pharmacist, and a lawyer -- owned it during the town's boom years in the 1930s and 1940s.
But when downtown residents moved west to the suburbs in the 1970s, the neighborhood became home largely to whores and crack dealers. When Fiess discovered the house on Sapodilla Avenue, she snatched it up for $50,000.
The home wasn't worth much more than that until real estate developer David Paladino started buying up West Palm's downtown in 1986, acquiring 26 city blocks to the east of Sapodilla Avenue. He had plans to build a housing and office complex with a price tag that could have reached $1 billion. Fiess hoped Paladino would buy her land, but the entrepreneur went broke before the project was completed. Fiess' gingerbread home was left with a sprawling dirt lot for a neighbor.
That 77-acre lot eventually landed in the lap of the city, which leased it to new developers. The new owners began construction two years ago of the $550 million CityPlace. By then, Fiess figured her property was left out. Her home, she thought, would remain in the shadow of the new, brownstone-style row houses behind Macy's. "We kept thinking they'd passed us by," she recalls.
One of her renters, John Moffa, talked her into putting the place up for sale two years ago. He spent four years in a $110-a-week studio in the apartment building behind the house. He ate the food she made for tenants and had seen how she sometimes did their laundry. Moffa wanted to see Fiess make real money off the place. "I'm from Philadelphia, so I've been in urban renewal," recalls Moffa, who owns a window-treatment business in West Palm. "I told Fay that once this CityPlace was up and running, she'd be in the middle of Society Hill."
Moffa talked Fiess into setting a price of $1.8 million. Fiess thought it was nothing more than a fantasy. She knew the county tax appraiser valued her place at less than $140,000. "I just put a price tag on it, not dreaming what we'd get." She signed a contract about a month ago with Kenco Communities, a West Palm developer. The price: $900,000.
The developer bought the daycare center next door for a still-undisclosed amount and is planning to bulldoze the block to make room for an eight-story condo building called the Metropolitan. It will include 148 units that will go for up to $300,000 each.
The deal Fiess signed was for the land only. So last Wednesday, she invited friends to the Art Village Café just a few hours before construction workers were set to pick up and move her home. Fiess and a few others stuck around until 2 a.m., when they headed out to watch the workers suspend the house on wires between two flatbed trucks. The job was scheduled so late to avoid traffic.
Slowly, they made their way down the hill on Fern Street, the weight of the house nearly pushing the caravan off the road. Fiess watched from the sidewalk as the trucks nearly collided with homes and power poles. "Oh, I was so nervous," Fiess remembered the next day. "We stayed up until 4 a.m. watching them bring it over."
They plopped it down eight blocks away on a double lot at the corner of Third Street and Tamarind Avenue. Fiess bought the land for $70,000. It's a rough part of town. But it's on the northwest side of downtown and just a few blocks from CityPlace. There's a good chance this piece of land could earn her a windfall again in a few years.
Fiess doesn't have plans for most of the money. She's spending about $80,000 to move the home and fix it up a little. "Oh, it doesn't need much," she says. The developer agreed to cut her a check after the house is moved. She's going to give ten grand to Moffa for his good idea. Fiess and husband Lou will likely split the rest among their nine children. "Oh, it's a lot of money," she says, "but we don't need much to get by."