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How a nudist beach became a revered state park

The area now known as the John D. MacArthur State Beach Park used to be called Air Force Beach, where billionaire John D. MacArthur enjoyed the occasional skinny dip, even at times with his son, Rod.

When Gentleman’s Quarterly singled out Air Force Beach in 1979 as one of the top nude beaches in the world, the landowner in the wake of Mr. MacArthur’s January 1978 death – Bankers Life and Casualty Co. – made clear such behavior would not be tolerated. 

A week later, the billionaire’s son, 58-year-old Rod, told The Palm Beach Post people shouldn’t be arrested for swimming in the nude.

"The whole idea of them arresting even one person seems completely illegal," Rod MacArthur told the newspaper in a June 6, 1979, story. “It's lousy public relations for both the village (of North Palm Beach) and the company and it's probably illegal. You could probably sue them for false arrest."  

Rod said his father, who founded Palm Beach Gardens in 1959, thought it was "great" that nude sunbathers used the beach.

"We always talked about it as a nudist beach, not as Air Force Beach. I have nothing against nude bathing. He and I first swam there nude. We used to swim other places here nude. That was his style." 

The discussion arose as Bankers Life, then controlled by the newly formed John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, pondered what to do with the pristine beach north of Singer Island.

County and state team up to buy Air Force Beach

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation proposed building 600 private homes and villas on part of the pristine beachfront that is now John D. MacArthur Beach State Park.

At the same time, in the fall of 1979, Palm Beach County contemplated taking the land by eminent domain. If the conflicting approaches are viewed in the lens of hardball negotiations, it’s easy to conclude they worked. 

When its initial proposal met stiff political resistance, the foundation offered to donate 1 mile of the beach, 82 acres, but continued to insist on developing the rest.

Critics viewed the gift as an empty gesture because the 82 acres were too close to water to be built upon anyway. 

The development proposal went nowhere, and the Chicago-based foundation soon agreed to sell the remaining 206 acres for $23.1 million to a 50-50 partnership of the county and state.

They also insisted the park be named for Mr. MacArthur, the Chicago insurance magnate who founded Palm Beach Gardens and used to skinny dip there, and that they have representation on a conservation board that would oversee the park’s development. 

When negotiations were over and the deal was struck, Mr. MacArthur’s top attorney who now ran his foundation, William Kirby, dropped all talk of development and said that preservation is what Mr. MacArthur wanted all along.

"John had two thoughts in mind,” Kirby said, according to an Oct. 31, 1980, Palm Beach Post story announcing the sealing of the deal. “People couldn't afford a beach, but he had one they could use. He was luckier than they were. That was his point. He considered himself lucky to have that particular site. 

“John was a very practical dollar man. His question to me, as his lawyer, was how could we do that (make it public)? He wanted to make sure the foundation mechanism could still accomplish this local thing for the local people.”

Air Force Beach packed in crowds before state reined it in

Air Force Beach continued to be used as an unofficial nude beach right up until the state officially took possession of the land in 1982. 

During the period between the time a deal was struck with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to sell the land and when the deal finally closed and the state took over, the beach and the surrounding area remained largely untouched.

And extremely popular. 

The beach had always been secluded with the entrance at the southernmost end of what is now John D. MacArthur Beach State Park. It required a fairly lengthy walk on a makeshift path through brush and mangroves. It never had any official parking, just a few cutouts on the shoulder of A1A.  Any “No Parking” signs that were posted would disappear, most likely removed by beachgoers. 

By 1982 there were as many as 1,000 people visiting the beach over sunny weekends, with as many gawkers as sunbathers. Cars would line both sides of A1A in each direction.

A group known as Florida Free Beaches spearheaded a grassroots effort to get a portion of the state-owned beach designated as clothing optional.  They got the signature of thousands on a petition, but it was not anything the state was ever going to allow.

Eventually fences went up and access was restricted until the fully redesigned park officially opened in 1989.

The park remains pristine to this day, although without nude sunbathers. It features a long boardwalk crossing the water to connect the mainland to the barrier beach, natured-draped parking pods, a nature center and gift shop and, an easily overlooked bust of John D. MacArthur.

— By Joel Engelhardt and Ed Dooley

Originally published in March 2023 as a three-part series

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