Monday, May 19, 2014

The Flagler Estate and Museum – Palm Beach Florida

During our winter break in southeast Florida, we visited many attractions and several of them were museums… This time Laurie, Dawn Marie and I headed up to Palm Beach to check out the former home of one of Florida’s most historically important citizens.

Whitehall, the former home of Henry Flagler, is located in Palm Beach on the Intracoastal Waterway.  The home and its setting are magnificent!

In 1902, the New York Herald printed a story describing Whitehall as, "More wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world..."  Flagler built the 75-room, 100,000-square-foot Gilded Age mansion as a wedding present for his wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler.  The couple used the home as a winter retreat from 1902 until Flagler's death in 1913.  In doing so, they established “the Palm Beach season” for the wealthy of the Gilded Age.

How’s this for a reception foyer!?  It might just be a little over the top…  In actuality, the main purpose of the overwhelming facade and first floor of these gilded age homes was to serve as a not so subtle means of communication.  The message communicated was that these buildings did in fact represent the highest and best in literature and the arts.  They indicate that their builders were not simply business titans, but society's leaders, or as Andrew Carnegie liked to point out, they were society's "trustees."

It should be noted that Henry Flagler was not ‘just’ a co-founder of Standard Oil.  He was also a key figure in the development of the Atlantic coast of Florida, the founder of what became the Florida East Coast Railway, the father of Miami and the founder of the city of Palm Beach.  At the time of his death, Flagler was worth the equivalent of a little over $1,400,000,000 in today’s currency.

This is definitely a desk intended to dominate and impress any business associates… This photo is from Whitehall’s library.

Henry Morrison Flagler was born on January 2, 1830 in Hopewell, New York.  At the age of 14, after completing the eighth grade, Flagler moved to Bellevue, Ohio where he found work with his cousins in a grain store at a salary of $5 per month plus room and board.  After organizing and operating a grain company with a half-brother, Flagler and a brother-in-law founded the Flagler and York Salt Company, a salt mining business in Saginaw, Michigan. When the Civil War ended, salt, a key preservative during wartime was no longer in high demand and Flagler lost everything! 

Then Flagler re-entered the grain business and paid off his debts.  During this time, he became acquainted with John D. Rockefeller, who was also in the Grain business.  Rockefeller decided to leave the grain business to start his own oil refinery.  In need of capital for his new venture, Rockefeller approached Henry Flagler, with whom he had business dealings for many years.  Flagler secured $100,000 from a relative on the condition that he be made a partner in the new venture…owning 25% of the shares.   The rest, as they say, is history!  In 1870, the company was organized into a new corporation…Standard Oil.  In just two years Standard Oil became the leader in the American oil refining industry.

Built around the central courtyard, the house consists of two floors, an attic and a basement. Besides the grand public rooms on the first floor there are twelve guestrooms, house servants rooms on the west side of the second floor and guests servants rooms in the attic along the east side.  Also included were a pantry and kitchen as well as private offices for Mr. Flagler and his secretary.

In 1900, when the construction of Whitehall began, Palm Beach was one of the least developed and most remote locations in the United States.  It was arguably America's last frontier. However, with 22 bathrooms, electric lighting, central heating, and a telephone system, Whitehall was not only an impressive statement of high culture, but perhaps the most technologically advanced home in America.

This is the Breakfast Room.  It was used daily by the Flaglers for less formal meals.  Henry and Mary Lily Flagler ate breakfast in this room each morning. Servants had direct access to the Breakfast Room through a door that connected to the butler’s pantry and kitchen area.  The room's elaborate décor and color palette are modeled after the State Dining Room in Warwick Castle, England.

White Hall’s Dining Room was designed in the French Renaissance style.  This is where the Flaglers entertained large parties.  These dinners were not only elegant, they were lengthy.  The rug was specially made for the room and it’s recessed into the parquet floor. The wall coverings are green silk. The ceiling is cast plaster painted to look like wood. 

The fireplace mantle is one of the Dining Room’s most outstanding features.  Craftsmen created a piece that boasts elaborately carved culinary references such as shells, crabs, and fruit.

During the winters the Flaglers spent at Whitehall, the couple entertained constantly.  When Henry Flagler died in 1913, the house remained closed until the season of 1916.  His wife visited the home only once more in 1917 and then she died later that year.  Whitehall was left to her niece, Louise Clisby Wise Lewis.  She sold Whitehall to a group of investors who added a ten-story 300-room tower on the west side and converted the entire structure into a hotel.  The hotel operated from 1925-1959.  During that time, the original portion of the house was used for lobbies, card rooms, lounges, a bar and guest suites.

In 1959, the entire building was in danger of being torn down.  Henry Flagler's granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews learned of this and formed a nonprofit corporation to purchase the property.  The following year, Whitehall was opened to the public with a grand "Restoration Ball" on February 6, 1960.

Then there is Whitehall’s Ballroom!  Above the 15 doors and windows in the Louis XV-style Grand Ballroom are paintings created specifically for Whitehall.  These canvas paintings alternate between pastoral scenes and scenes featuring Cupids. The chandeliers are hung with Baccarat crystals.

In 1903, the Grand Ballroom was the scene of the ‘Bal Poudré’, a lavish party given in honor of George Washington's birthday. The Florida Times-Union called the Bal Poudré "the most brilliant social function in fair Florida's history," while the New York Herald described the event as "one of the most sumptuous social affairs ever attempted south of Washington." Guests danced the Minuet and the Virginia Reel.

After dinner, the ladies would retire to the Drawing Room for conversation and music… The gentlemen often gathered in the Billiard Room for entertainment.  During the Gilded Age, interest in sport was heightened and billiards became popular with men of that period.  Most estates included similar game rooms.  A Caen Stone mantle with Swiss-style decoration is the predominate feature of this room.

The Billiard Room's molded plaster ceiling is painted to reflect the Swiss design of the room, with plain panels painted to look like zebra oak, popular at the time.

Can you guess which bedroom and which bathroom belongs to the Mr. and Mrs. Flagler?  The other one…which at least had a sink in the bedroom…was used by a couple of the house servants.  A regular staff of servants accompanied the Flaglers to Whitehall each winter. 

Mr. and Mrs. Flagler shared the Master Suite.  This was uncommon at the turn-of-the-century.  Their suite included two separate dressing rooms, the large bath area, and the bedroom. The bedroom, which was decorated in the Louis XIV style, is furnished with the original bedroom furniture.  The fabrics are reproductions.

This 18-karat gold box and Western Union telegram are replicas of the ones that were sent to Flagler to announce the completion of the Key West extension of his Over-Sea Railway in 1912.  It is on display in the Flagler Kenan History Room.  This room is designed to give visitors a sense of Flagler’s extensive accomplishments as a founding partner in the Standard Oil Company and as Florida’s most important developer.

The original gold telegram and gold jeweled box and these replacements were made by Tiffany and Co.  The original was a gift from the employees to Flagler during the dedication of this rail link.  For several decades after Flagler’s death, the original artifacts were kept on display at the Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine Florida.  When the hotel was sold to Flagler College in 1966, these items were transferred to the museum.  However, despite being under lock and key, the originals were stolen in April of 1974.

Note: The Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway was completed in 1912.  It continued to operate until it was basically destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.  The state of Florida bought the remaining bridges and roadbeds and they are the foundation of today’s Overseas Highway (US Rte. 1) to Key West.

Parts of Whitehall are used for changing exhibits or for the display of items of interest from back in the Gilded Age.  Among the items we viewed were an extensive display of hand-made lace from around the world, some colorful high-end glassware and a very large display of sterling silver items.

The Brandywine Bowl (ca. 1700) was made by Benjamin Wynkoop. (1675 – 1751) These bowls are associated with the Dutch ritual of “kindermaal”, a celebratory feast held in honor of a mother and her newborn.  Guests sipped a potent mixture of brandy and raisins from the communal bowl.
The Art Nouveau trophy was completed in 1907.  It was presented to an early aeronautical pioneer, Alan Hawley.  In 1910, Hawley set a record by making a balloon flight from St. Louis Missouri to a spot in Quebec Canada…a distance of over 1,172 miles.

For those of you who would like to spend a little more time in this classy atmosphere, a pavilion adjoins Whitehall.  It was built in the style of the times and it features a restaurant…Café des Beaux-Arts.  For $22.00 per person, you can partake of a luncheon that fits the Gilded Age…tea, lemonade, tea sandwiches and sweets.  To see the menu, you can go to  However, we opted for the local diner just down US Hwy.1 that I’d previously reported on…

This is the view from the lawn behind Whitehall looking west across the Intracoastal Waterway to West Palm Beach.

I took this photo of Laurie and Dawn Marie…flowers against flowers… We definitely enjoyed our tour of this outstanding museum.
To learn more about the Flagler Museum, go to  To read about Henry Flagler, his life and accomplishment, you can go to

This is more our style… This beautiful ‘cottage’ sits just outside the Flagler museum property.  Sea Gull Cottage was originally built by R.R. McCormick, a Denver based railroad developer.  Henry Flagler bought the cottage in 1893 and it served as his first winter residence in Palm Beach. 

The cottage now serves as the Parish House for the Royal Poinciana Chapel…a ‘post-denominational” congregation.  I had to check… Post-denominationalism is the attitude that the Body of Christ extends to born again Christians in other denominations, and is not limited just to one's own religious group.  I learn something new every day…

Just click on any of the photographs to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by for the tour!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Maybe it's the bathroom with the big mirror? The pictures are gorgeous! I love Florida, I stayed there for one month a few years ago, visiting my mom's friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing valuable information. Nice post. I  am very impressed to read this post. The whole blog is very nice I found some information here Thanks..Also visit my site Hotel furniture  Curvehospitality provides extensive range of Casegoods.

  3. I'm in mansion withdraw as I just read about the Hearst Castle from another blogger. I'm glad you posted this as I notice the Flagler name seems to be prevalent around East Florida, but I didn't know why until now.

  4. Dave, in fact I was going to ask you if you've ever seen a steak this big! It's only a picture, steaks here are not so good as this one in the picture. I remember eating delicious steaks in New York. These pictures of Florida are so impressive, they make me want to go there. If only I werent afraid of planes!

  5. Wow!! That is a beautiful house! I can just imagine with wonderful meals that were served at their dinner parties! or any night of the week.
    It really was quite a time in history. Thank you Dave for sharing.
    Laurie and Dawn look very happy.
    Blessings, Catherine

  6. Having lived on the east coast and been visiting Palm Beach for almost twenty years I was familiar with the Flagler name. You did an outstanding job with his history and I enjoyed it very much. I may have missed it in your post, but believe he also built the Breakers Hotel. His home is over-the-top and much more elaborate than even the Biltmore Estate of the Vanderbuilts in Asheville. The pavilion seems to have a nice atmosphere for a leisurely lunch. Looks like another nice day in south Florida.

  7. What a stunning place! But I'm with you Dave, I prefer the cozy, country cottage. The ladies look beautiful. Fantastic photos!