First Words — 29 December 2011

We catch up – barely – with 94-year-old James Ponce just before our 2 o’clock appointment in the hushed and polished North Loggia of The Breakers in Palm Beach.

He’s chatting with the dozen or so other visitors and guests gathering for his Tuesday afternoon Historic Hotel Walking Tour. “There’s no way to add up the number of tours I’ve done here,” he says, answering an early – and common – question. Mr. Ponce – as he’s almost always called – became “resident historian” of the resort when he retired as an assistant manager in 1982. Fifteen years later, the Town Council proclaimed him “Palm Beach’s only two-legged historical landmark.” And now 30 years on, he still is.

With more than 116 years of history of its own, The Breakers has back stories to its back stories. Presidential and royal visits. High-society soirées. Celebrity sightings in the lobby, by the pools, along the oceanfront promenade. The hurricanes, the fires, the feats of engineering – if these walls could only talk.

But they don’t have to.

When Mr. Ponce gestures to the Italian Renaissance ceilings or 15th century tapestries, or notes to the tour crowd that, “All this on the ground floor is exactly the way it was in 1926,” we believe him. He may have started work at The Breakers as a relief room clerk in 1952, but it seems he’s been here longer – that maybe he’s always been here.

“He is one of those salt-of-the-earth kind of people and we have great affection for him,” says Paul Leone, president of The Breakers since 1994. “Outside of our family owners, we know no other living person with as much historical knowledge as Jim Ponce.”

Mr. Ponce, in a royal blue jacket with gray Sansabelt slacks and a floral-patterned tie with pearl stickpin, steps off today for the one-hour tour. He pauses at The Tapestry Bar (“reassembled from an English bar bombed during the Blitz”), steps into The Circle dining room (“this is a breathtaking room”), doubles back to the North Loggia and then breezes into the Mediterranean ballroom. We could have heard a pearl stickpin drop on the terrazzo dance floor as he remembers the November night in 1985 when Prince Charles and Princess Diana dined and danced on her first trip to America. He can still see the princess stopping to talk with some children who’d lined up in the North Loggia with welcome flowers.

“I tell you, Miss Diana took those flowers and almost threw them at her lady in waiting. And she said, ‘I’d like to meet the children!’ Well, children today — we tell them not to speak to strangers, and I guess she was a stranger to them. But I tell you, she didn’t stop till she got the names out of all of them.”

The tour picks up again through the oceanfront Venetian ballroom (an addition opened in 1968 to entice convention business), out along the landmark brick promenade (“see that dark blur under the water? That’s what’s left of Henry Flagler’s pier, destroyed by storms” in the 1920s) and into the celebrated Gold Room, where the gleaming ceiling is an exact duplicate of the Galleria dell’Accademia’s on the Grand Canal in Venice.

“Looking up you’ll realize the center of each square is a cupid’s head,” he says. “Well, that’s very appropriate for Venice, the city of love. And that’s why we have so many weddings in this room.”

The crowd follows, hanging on every word, nodding in appreciation. Almost seeing what he sees, and has seen.

Back in the Mediterranean Ballroom, looking over the terrazzo dance floor still gleaming under the Venetian chandeliers, Mr. Ponce pauses to remember the parties and dances that have swirled through these rooms.

“We used to have so many dances here,” he says toward the end of the tour, with a little sigh. “People today, they don’t dance anymore.”

But they still come to walk.

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The Historic Hotel Walking Tour is complimentary for resort guests, and $15 for everyone else. Reservations are required. The Breakers, One South County Road, Palm Beach, 561-655-6611, www.thebreakers.com.

—Mark Gauert

mgauert@sun-sentinel.com

Watch a short video of Mr. Ponce’s tour.

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