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National Perspective | AMERICAN ALBUM

Jupiter Island has quaintness, and out-of-this-world wealth

June 22, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JUPITER ISLAND, Fla. — Money talks here, but oh-so softly.

Hidden behind tall hedges, in seafront villas at the end of long driveways, quietly live some of the nation's wealthiest families. Some names are found on discreet markers outside the gates. Those of other current and recent residents come straight from the pages of American history: Mellon, DuPont, Ford, Whitney, Field, Bush, Duke, Doubleday.

Sure, there is new money here too. Singer Celine Dion and pro golfers Greg Norman and Nick Price have estates on this narrow barrier island, located about 50 miles north of Palm Beach. But most who have homes here made their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it.

"This is the most beautiful island in Florida," said Nathaniel Reed, a former undersecretary in the U.S. Interior Department and son of the community's founders. "There is a very genteel aspect to life here."

Indeed, it's so genteel here that most residents prefer not to talk about it at all. That reticence has made Jupiter Island one of the nation's best-kept secrets. "People are here for the privacy," said real estate agent and resident Holly Powell. "Most of those who pass by have no idea about Jupiter Island."

Each year about this time, however, Jupiter Island's understated cover gets blown with the publication of annual lists that rank U.S. cities by wealth. And for the second year in a row, this town of about 1,000 residents--during the winter high season, that is--comes out on top in Worth magazine's rankings of richest cities based on home prices. A median sale price of $1.9 million puts Jupiter Island ahead of Aspen, Colo., and six California communities, including Rancho Santa Fe, Belvedere and Los Altos Hills.

"Inventory is low, demand is high and property values are terrific," said Powell, whose listings range from $695,000 to $20 million. "And there is lots of new construction."

Jupiter Island is no Palm Beach. There are no shops or restaurants here, no hotels and guest houses, and thus no reason for outsiders to drop in. There is a highway running through town--the coastal road A1A--but the locals are more likely to travel from home to the golf course, tennis courts or the club by electric cart than luxury car.

The club is the Jupiter Island Club, a former hotel that Permelia and Joseph Reed bought in 1933 and turned into the epicenter of one of the most exclusive social scenes south of Manhattan. Its restaurant, bar and guest suites are private.

For 60 years, Permelia Reed presided over the club--and the island--with a velvet fist, deciding which residents got in and which did not. In addition to organizing seasonal activities--croquet competitions, garden club speakers, art classes--she also set standards of decorum governing behavior, dress and language.

In one legendary incident, Reed offered her sweater to a young visitor displaying too much brio and too much decolletage at a beach party. The exuberant woman was never seen here again.

Two years after Permelia Reed's death in 1994, her survivors sold their 60% share of the club to its 290 members for $23 million.

Incorporated as a town in 1953, Jupiter Island is less than 11 miles long, and in places yards wide, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Indian River to the west. North of the town line is the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge, and the Nature Conservancy's Blowing Rock Preserve is to the south.

While the island is insular--both geographically and socially--crime can still find its way to paradise. Last summer a thief nabbed two sets of golf clubs from Norman's garage. And a few weeks before that, news broke out when President Clinton, in town for a fund-raiser, tripped on Norman's steps and tore up his knee.

In recent years, newcomers with more money than historical sensitivity have erected sprawling beachfront homes that offend some longtime residents. Others have been forced to leave by economics. "Property values have gone through the ceiling, and taxes have skyrocketed," Nathaniel Reed said. "When taxes reach $250,000 a year, that drives people out."

But for the few who can afford it, life here can be serene, an idyll interrupted only by periodic flare-ups of publicity. "I hate it," Reed, 66, a noted environmentalist, said of media attention. "All we can do when we get it is grin and bear it, and hope it just lasts for one day."

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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