It’s incumbent on the impressively wealthy to build big. Even the summer place, to be occupied only a few weeks a year during “the season,” should have an unmistakable presence. In the U.S., one thinks of Newport, Rhode Island, onetime summer resort of Vanderbilts and Astors; The Hamptons on Long Island, still the weekend and summer getaway for the monied (and would-be) of New York; and other venues ranging from the Biltmore Estate* in North Carolina to the mountains of Colorado and the California coast.
One can travel the length of Florida’s Atlantic coast and scarcely cover a mile without encountering some enclave of the well-to-do. The ur-palace of Floridian wealth may be this place in Palm Beach:
That’s “Whitehall,” built by the co-founder of Standard Oil, Henry Morrison Flagler, also known as “The Father of Miami” and “The Father of Palm Beach,” towns he respectively founded and brought to prominence in the 1880s and 1890s.
Flagler made one immense fortune building Standard Oil into an oil refining monopoly with his partner, John D. Rockefeller, then set out building railroads to Florida and promoting the area as a destination for both development and recreation. He succeeded on a grand scale.
His name may not be as familiar to you as other successful tycoons of his era — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Astor — but the south and east of Florida today owes much of its popularity to tracks he — literally — laid to pave the way for the state’s rampant growth and prosperity as the 20th Century began. Streets, bridges and colleges all bear the name “Flagler.”
Whitehall, which Flagler built in 1902, was, by design, a showplace of the Gilded Age.
He intended Whitehall not only to tout his wealth and prominence, but to demonstrate that the barely-developed, backward swampland on which it sat was a city of the future. It boasted electric lighting, telephones and central heating in 75 rooms, including 22 bathrooms in 60,000 square feet of interior space.
Today, it’s open to the public as the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum after having been saved from demolition in the 1960s. 55 of the rooms are restored, furnished and on display. It is clearly not a place in which many of us could imagine living in any particular comfort. It’s meant for show. For example, few of our dwellings possess a Grand Ballroom:
Flagler was no stranger to construction on a grand scale; he was an ambitious builder of spectacular structures. As he extended his railroad and his development activities south from where he began in St. Augustine, he threw up some of the country’s most iconic hotels: Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach (demolished in 1901) and the Royal Palm in Miami. As his vision for Palm Beach as the focus for his efforts grew, he constructed The Breakers (originally the Palm Beach Inn, 1896, which burned) on the Atlantic coast.
I’ve stayed at The Breakers. It’s worth a look inside when you’re in Palm Beach, to get a glimpse of travel from another era, still extant.
On the “sound” side of the barrier island, just over half a mile to the west of The Breakers (black circle), Flagler built Whitehall (red rectangle).
When one owns the railroad, one travels by private railroad car. Flagler’s personal car, #91, is on display in a pavilion on the grounds. It’s open to tour, pending any special events in the pavilion.
Here is a rapid-fire tour from a series of photographs I shot during an abbreviated inspection of the museum in 2010. Click on the images for full view and captions. Don’t miss the bodacious custom-cased Steinway Model B in the music room:
The Flagler Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, closed Mondays and 3 major holidays. Check the website here for exact times, admission prices and full details. The museum is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, as is The Breakers.
In the interest of local context, it bears stating that 20 years after Flagler built Whitehall, the wealthiest woman in the U.S., Marjorie Merriweather Post (General Foods), built a 126-room, 110,000 square foot mansion, Mar-a-Lago, about 2-1/2 miles south of The Breakers. At her death, it was bequeathed to the United States for use by presidents. Expensive and unwanted, it was returned to the Post estate. It was subsequently sold to another wealthy American, who operates it as a combination hotel and private golf club, as well as a personal residence when he’s not at the White House.
Have a favorite grand residence: Versailles, Beijing’s Summer Palace, Schönbrunn Palace? Leave a comment.
*Biltmore House remains the largest privately-owned residence in the U.S., still held by George Vanderbilt’s descendants: 135,280 square feet of living space, 250 rooms, 33 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms. Open for visits.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Map © Google
Years ago, I wrote descriptions of 2 famous Florida hotels from the 1950s located about an hour south in Miami Beach. Respectively, they are the 2nd and 6th most-viewed posts in the history of Under Western Skies: