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Requiem for a Preservationist

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.

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Steve Ellman

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