By: Diane Feen Contributing Writer
Very few people remember when Delray Beach had a Western Union, a Southern Bell and a Piggly Wiggly on Atlantic Avenue. Fewer know that Linton Avenue was named after Mr. Linton who purchased 184 acres of land from Colonial Gleason in 1889.
But Roy Simon does.
The reason is simply that Simon is from one of the earliest settlers in Delray Beach. “My father’s father came to Delray in 1911 from Lebanon to open a dry goods store. He lived above the store right near the railroad station,” said Simon, who has been an architect in Delray Beach for the past 59 years.
The land where his family lived (and eventually bought) is currently the Buddha Bar. All the pizazz and sizzle that intersects reality on that corner was a far cry from what the Simon family remembers.
“My grandfather came to Delray from Rhode Island. He sold clothing out of a suitcase along Dixie Highway because it followed the railroad connecting Jacksonville to Miami,” said Simon, who builds and remodels homes, commercial structures and churches in South Florida.
Not only was there little action in (and around) Delray Beach in those days, but it was truly a little village by the sea. According to Simon, there were only 2,000 people living in Delray in 1930. The Simon family lived at 216 East First Ave., which is four blocks from where his office is today.
Simon is one of the most visible and oldest working architects in Delray Beach of the Simon boys and is one of four siblings in his family. There is brother Ernie, a lawyer; Charles, a retired dentist and Sandy, a retired real estate executive.
They also have cousins who grew up in the same neighborhood, the John Remus family and the Sam Simon family, his mother’s sisters.
The Simon name may not mean much to newcomers to this tropical terrain, but to those who remember it as fertile farmland, the Simon name stood for righteousness and exemplary citizenship.
“My father built a reputation on ethics and trust,” he said. “You could go into any bank and do business if you were the son of Alexander Simon.”
That reputation – and outstanding ethos – can still be seen if you meet the Simon men and their families. Roy Simon is a tall Southern gentleman who says, “yes ma’am” with the ease of a statesman. When in his presence it’s easy to feel that all is right in the world. He is calm and steady with a knowledge of Delray Beach that is both precious and profound.
His brother Ernie, whose law practice is for family members at this stage in his life, he’s 91, is equally as gentle and upstanding. Both men exemplify the genuine roots of Delray history and honor from the land that most of us could never imagine ended at Swinton Avenue.
“George Morikami (of the Museum fame) taught my father how to grow pineapples and my dad taught him to grow vegetables,” said Roy Simon, who sold pineapples on the street as a nine-year-old.
According to Roy and Ernie Simon their father built the first department store in Boynton Beach. But the three-story building was destroyed in the hurricane of 1928 and the inventory and building were decimated.
Not one to dwell on misfortune their father, Alexander, started a cooperative with farmers, who were abundant in Boca, Boynton and Delray, selling, packing and shipping produce. Their father, a consummate overachiever, continued to farm on the 24 acres of land he bought in Boca Raton along US-1.
“My father taught himself construction, bought law books to learn law and played violin. When he was farming in Boca Raton some people were against it in the 70’s,” adds Simon, who learned about construction from his father.
Simon folklore has it that his mother Linda, who was raised in Boston and Canton, Ohio, took a train to Delray with her husband, Alexander. When they exited the train on Atlantic Avenue she stepped onto a dirt road.
“My mother, who was used to a cosmopolitan city, got off the train and looked for a taxi,” Simon said. “When she saw the dirt roads she cried for years. It wasn’t quite what she had in mind.”
Apparently, Linda Zaine (Roy’s mom) got used to the terrain and her new tropical homeland quite quickly. She told a reporter, “When I first set eyes on it, I really didn`t like it because I`d always lived in a big city. When I left to visit my parents, I missed it.”
Their first home was an upstairs apartment near the railroad tracks, where the Buddha Bar is today. Roy’s aunt, his mom’s sister Julia, married Alexander’s uncle Sam Simon. Sam Simon’s family grew up on the same street in Delray as Roy’s and remain part of the sociological infrastructure of the Simon clan.
All that is history now – but it’s about as interesting a history lesson as one could get about a town that has ebbed and flowed over the years. There may be lots of coffee shops and five-star eateries in the Delray terrain now, but to the Simon clan it’s always history, home and hearth.
Roy has been a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for over 80 years and has served as Vestry, Junior Warden, Lay Reader, Chalice Bearer, Choir Member and Sunday School teacher.
His community involvement is a rather grass roots effort as well. The reason is simply that Simon grew up on the soil he still inhabits. He was the Vice President and President two times of the Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and received the “Service Above Self” Award for Outstanding and Devoted Service to the community from the Rotary Club.
But that’s not all. Roy was a charter Board Member and served as a board member for 42 years of the Delray Historical Society, past Trustee and Board Member of the Old School Square- Historic Preservation Project of Old School Square and Chairman twice of the Delray Beach Downtown Development Authority.
There’s a lot more to his resume, and organizational involvement, but it’s only part and parcel of a man who has quietly been a force for good in Delray Beach. When speaking about his family – and the historical reference points of Delray – he picks up photos of Atlantic Avenue from the 20s and 30s. He points out buildings that lined A1A and remembers when you could locate your loved ones with a simple request.
“My cousins (and my brothers) and I would walk to the beach in the summer,” he said. “It was safe and you couldn’t get in trouble. Everyone looked out for each other. If I needed to speak to my mother I would go up to the switchboard operator at the Southern Bell office and say, ‘Can you get my mother for me.’”
Those days were a reference point for old movies and family folklore, but for Simon they were as real as if they were happening yesterday. He vividly remembers his grandfather building homes for migrant workers on West Fourth and Fifth avenues, which was called Frog Alley. The rent was $5 a week.
He also has fond recollections of a summer internship in 1949 working with architect Kenneth Jacobson where Deck 84 is now. When he was a Captain in the US Air Force stationed in Scotland he was instrumental in designing and construction the Prestwick Air Force base facilities.
“There were 135 buildings that needed to be built on the base and we had to submit our budgets to Congress and lease the land from England,” he said. “My secretary was the highest paid person and she made $45 a month.”
When you visit his office – that brings you back to another time and space in Delray history – the walls are lined with photos of homes, shopping centers like Atlantic Plaza, offices, churches and other structures he has designed and built.
They include private homes that span 11,000-square-feet (in NJ), Multi-family developments (Villas of Pine Tree, Palm Trail Place and Waterway North), Delray Beach Public Library, Town Hall in Highland Beach and dozens of other distinctive structures.
His accomplishments are many – but his humility is exactly where it should be – in his heart. If you’ve gone to a dentist or doctor at 2628 South Seacrest, then you’ve seen his handiwork in the medical arena. He built Pompey Park Recreation Center, Law Enforcement Complex in Delray and the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre additions in Jupiter.
Simon and his wife Mary Elizabeth have three children who each carry on the Simon legacy. Laura is Executive Director of Delray DDA, son Michael is Director of the Boynton Beach CRA and son Christopher is a landscape architect in Palm Beach.
When you listen to Simon talk about Delray Beach you’ll hear about the Arcade Tap Room where the Polo players from Gulfstream would mingle, his cousin Dudley Remus, who went to Hollywood and befriended Burt Reynolds and George Hamilton.
His father also had a ranch in Hidden Valley where he kept 200 cows. The sad part is that a wrangler left the gate open one night and the cows disappeared.
But one thing for sure, the Simon family has left its legacy on a town that has very few footprints from the past. The dirt roads are paved and the Arcade Tap Room is a memory. But for the Simon’s it’s still the best place to call home.