Did retailing genius J.C. Penney hoodwink Herbert Hoover into hyping Belle Isle real estate?

President-elect Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry, on the grounds at Belle Isle. (J.C. Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University)

In a sense, yes. Like any Florida land sale tale, it’s more complicated than that.

But let’s give you some background before we get to the story.

The history of our island has become a bit of an obsession to your Belle Isle Blog, in part because every time we dig a little, we learn a lot.

Regular blog followers may remember that a couple of months back, we bought a old photo on eBay that showed a Belle Isle mansion. We learned from the caption that photo was shot in November 1928, that the house was owned by retailing legend J.C. Penney —  and that Penney hosted president-elect Herbert Hoover in the place between the time Hoover was elected president in November 1928 and he was inaugurated on March 4, 1929 (yes, back then inaugurations were NOT on Jan. 20.)

As we researched more, we learned that Penney’s personal papers were kept in a large collection at the DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas — and the collection included several files of correspondence and a box of photographs from Penney’s Belle Isle years.

On a trip to Dallas last week, we arranged to review the collection, and this is the first in a series of posts on what was revealed. (Thanks, by the way, to the historians/librarians at SMU; they couldn’t have been more knowledgeable or helpful).

We originally thought there had been a friendship between Penney, who bought his Belle Isle manse in 1921, and Hoover, the Commerce Department secretary who beat Democrat Al Smith in 1928 for the presidency — and that’s why Hoover came to Belle Isle before moving into the White House.

But Penney’s papers tell a different story.

Hoover and Penney were acquainted. Penney was a religious man, and though a Democrat, he backed Hoover in the 1928 election because of Hoover’s support of prohibition.

Penney's sister-in-law, Olga Autenrieth of White Plains, NY, Lou Henry Hoover, Herbert Hoover, Penney confidante Burdette Lewis, at the mansion.(JC Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU)

The notion of hosting Hoover in Penney’s Belle Isle home came from one of Penney’s top aides, a criminologist and economist named Burdette G. Lewis. Lewis who was vice president of the J.C. Penney-Gwinn Corp., which managed many of Penney’s properties. What did Lewis and Penney have in mind?  To make the home more desirable to a future buyer.

On Oct. 30, 1928 — exactly one week before election day — Lewis sent Penney a letter:

“I am writing to suggest that in the event of Mr. Hoover’s election, preferably you personally….leave for Mr.  Hoover’s home in California, offering him the free use of your home at Miami Beach, if possible, for whatever parts of the time he wants to use it between election and inauguration.

“I realize this would be quite a sacrifice for you and Mrs. Penney, but I think it would accomplish great results if it were to come to pass. I recall our several conversations concerning your desire eventually to dispose of that property. Nothing would give it greater value nor saleability than such an occupancy, as has been demonstrated in what happened to Shadowlawn after it was occupied by President-elect Wilson, what has happened in South Dakota to the home occupied by President Coolidge, or the home in Wisconsin occupied by him this year.”

So…Hoover beat Smith on Nov. 7 and two days later Penney and Lewis traveled to Hoover’s home in Palo Alto. The offer was made — and accepted. According to a Penney company account, Hoover “had been offered the use of many other estates but chose Belle Isle for its privacy and for the nearby Gulf Stream fishing.”

Lewis had his hands full preparing the mansion for the president-elect, working with Penney’s wife. A wall had to be built for security. Blemishes in the wood flooring, residue from the great 1926 hurricane, had to be covered with darker stain. Carpets were brought in. Special linens, towels, silver settings were purchased. So was a new stove.

The Penneys traveled to Europe, and the Hoovers had the mansion to themselves — some 30 staffers, secret service and journalists stayed at a neighboring estate — for four weeks starting on Jan. 22, 1929, when they arrived by private train. A motorcade whisked them to No. 8 Belle Isle, the address of the estate.

The estate, which Penney called WhiteHaven, was dubbed the “the official pre-inaugural White House” in press accounts.

Penney sold the Florida estate in 1931, for $150,000.

An flyer touting the sale of the JC Penney estate (JC Penney papers, DeGolyer Library, SMU)

5 responses to “Did retailing genius J.C. Penney hoodwink Herbert Hoover into hyping Belle Isle real estate?

  1. Thank you for giving us a sense of place.

  2. Pingback: Looking at when Belle Isle was Miami Beach’s star island | Belle Isle Blog

  3. Jack Allen Harrington

    A very interesting read…Thanx for posting…

  4. Pingback: Joseph H. Adams, Belle Isle pioneer and inventor, played key role in early island life | Belle Isle Blog

  5. Pingback: Time machine: a Belle Isle mansion at a bargain price | Belle Isle Blog

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