Worth Avenue Clock Tower – Palm Beach, Florida - Atlas Obscura

Worth Avenue Clock Tower

This 25-foot tall clock tower commemorates the start of one of America's foremost shopping districts and the end of the historic Palm Beach Pier. 

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Palm Beach, Florida’s Worth Avenue is one of the ritziest and most famous high-end shopping districts in America. Each year, thousands of tourists cross the Intracoastal Waterway to visit the island’s luxury houses, pristine beaches, and retail stores. At the end of Worth Avenue, framed against the Atlantic Ocean, sits a clock tower, dedicated in 2010. This modern landmark has become a symbol of both Worth Avenue’s opulence and the former site of the Palm Beach Pier.

The pier’s beginning was the work of a swashbuckling Danish immigrant named Peter Gustav Jordahn, known widely as “Captain Gus” for his love of the sea. A notable athlete and summer lifeguard at New York’s Coney Island Beach, Captain Gus would work winters at the Breakers in Palm Beach, America’s first resort community. He managed the pools and eventually opened a pool complex of his own, known as Gus’s Baths.By 1924, Captain Gus was intent on expanding his empire. He began to directly compete with the owner of the Breakers, legendary Florida developer Henry Morrison Flagler, in constructing a new pier. The Rainbo Pier opened on Labor Day 1925 at the east end of Worth Avenue, jutting out more than 1,000 feet into the ocean. Captain Gus would charge a dime to access the pier for fishing, sightseeing, and his new pool complex. In 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane struck Palm Beach directly, destroying Flagler’s pier. Captain Gus’s pier withstood the hit and now stood alone.

As a former seaman and military veteran, Captain Gus enjoyed showing off his prowess. Having saved more than 25 people in a day working as a lifeguard, he now managed the “Cowboys of the Sea,” a beach patrol stationed on his pier. He sold the pier during the Great Depression, and it would be renamed the Palm Beach Pier, reaching new heights in the 1950s and ’60s. Historian James Ponce said, “After the balls on New Year’s Eve, you’d see couples in their tuxedos and black dresses dancing.” Unfortunately, a series of hurricanes in the 1960s eventually did in the Palm Beach Pier as well, and the city ordered it demolished in 1969.

At the same time, Worth Avenue had become a destination in its own right. Worth Avenue is the result of a development deal by South Florida architect Addison Mizner, who brought iconic Mediterranean architecture to the strip in 1918. A ritzy destination from the early days of the Everglades Club, by the 1960s, the street was the height of fashion, as Lilly Pulitzer’s cotton dresses spread to resort communities around the world. Worth Avenue would attract both rich locals, such as Donald Trump, who had bought the nearby Mar-A-Lago resort, as well as countless tourists. At the same time, the street itself had begun to decay, and the rows of coconut trees succumbed to yellowing disease.

In 2010, the Town of Palm Beach, with the help of the local business community, began a $15.8 million renovation to restore the street to grandeur. In addition to new trees, new sidewalks, and other improvements, the town planned a grand entrance to Worth Avenue in the form of a new clock tower. The tower would rise 25 feet, costing more than $600,000, made from quarried stone and coral sourced from the Dominican Republic. It was designed in the Moorish Revival architectural style favored by Addison Mizner, and it would be placed by the beach, where Palm Beach Pier once stood.

Although the clock tower looks historic, it is actually one of the town’s newest landmarks. A plaque on the inside of the tower notes the history of the Palm Beach Pier and the Cowboys of the Sea. And although it is relatively nascent, the tower has developed some traditions of its own. Every New Year’s Day, at sunrise, crowds of early-rising locals gather at the clock tower for an annual town photo. While it may not involve people dancing through the night, in many ways, it still recalls the dreams of Captain Gus and his fabulous pier.

Know Before You Go

The Worth Avenue Clock Tower is free and open to the public. At night, the tower's clock is backlit by moonglow.

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