The place is so palatial a four-bedroom house could fit in its marble entrance hall, but we aren’t at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum to gawk. We have come in search of tales the tour guides never tell. He never gained the fame of his partner in Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller, but in the end, Henry Flagler`s contribution to American life may turn out to be much greater: Flagler created Florida.
Today that home in Palm Beach is one of the few remaining personal legacies of Flagler in Florida. It is also a remarkable monument to the elegant lifestyle of the period. No question, this place has a history. The turn-of-the-century Palm Beach mansion was built by Henry Flagler, the tycoon whose railroad opened South Florida to civilization. It was a wedding present for his third and last wife, Mary Lily, who called the place Whitehall. But we are after the kind of history that’s not in the books. To put the question bluntly: Is Whitehall haunted? “I wouldn’t be surprised,” museum curator Joan Runkel says, her eyes twinkling. “I can imagine that it might be. Anything’s possible. We’ve had so many crazy things happen.”
The Town of Palm Beach is a place where the extraordinary is commonplace. It is a timeless corner of the tropics where some of America’s most influential families came to play 120 years ago. They left behind a trail of beautiful homes and impressive history that few other communities can claim. At the forefront of this history is the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, a breathtaking and palatial landmark that served as Flagler’s family home for decades. Called “Whitehall”, the story of the iconic building has a story that is both fascinating and intricate.
Whitehall was designed and built-in 18 months, with Flagler, who was 72 then and felt he did not have long to live, sparing any expense to complete the project quickly. The building, a gift to Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, served as the couple’s winter retreat from 1902 until Henry Flagler’s death in 1913.
The press of the day called the home “more wonderful than any palace in Europe,” boasting 75 rooms and 100,000 square feet of space. Here, Flagler entertained the greatest industrialists and thinkers of the Gilded Age, setting the stage to make Palm Beach the destination of world leaders and celebrities for decades to come.
A building of such scale and grandeur is bound to have many secrets and little-known stories. Here is a list of five oddities that make Flagler’s magnificent gift to his wife a fascinating place to visit and explore.
Stand in the enormous entrance hall and you gain some idea of the size and scope of this home. Seven kinds of marble from Italy and Vermont were used in this room, which at 110 by 40 feet is so large that you could put a good-size suburban ranch house in it. The Flagler mansion was built at a time long before the development of household air conditioning. Because of this, the massive structure and its beautiful contents were subject to the effects of tropical moisture. To fight the humidity, the home was built with a central heating system designed to dry the interior air and reduce the chance of mold. Even in the summer, the heating system would be engaged to draw out moisture and preserve the precious contents of Whitehall. The home is now fully air-conditioned for visitors’ comfort, the upgrade has taken place in the late 1990s. That’s right, the building relied on tropical breezes for cooling for more than 80 years!
Many of Whitehall’s first-floor rooms were decorated to have a distinctly masculine or feminine feel, according to who principally used the room. The Library, used by Flagler as a reception area to greet guests and meet with business associates, was decorated in the masculine style of the Italian Renaissance. Artisans molded and painted the Library’s cast plaster and fabric ceiling to look like wooden beams with leather insets. This practice was one of many examples of modern craftsmanship and technology which helped craftsmen complete Whitehall in only eighteen months. Flagler family portraits are mounted on the Library walls, including a painting of Henry Flagler above the fireplace. Also hanging on the walls are portraits of Flagler’s father, Reverend Isaac Flagler, daughter, Jennie Louise Flagler Benedict, and first wife, Mary Harkness Flagler. The Great Florida Marsh by Martin Johnson Heade hangs on the North wall. Heade was an American landscape and floral painter who worked in St. Augustine under Flagler’s patronage. Other notable works of art include a bust of George Washington, whom Gilded Age Americans admired as a great American hero, and two busts of Roman senators.
When the Flagler’s had guests, the men would retire after dinner to the billiard room for liqueur and cigars, while the ladies went to the French salon, another elegant room with gilt furnishings in 18th Century style, where the Flaglers` live-in pianist would perform.
The elevation of The Flagler Museum is truly impressive. Massive white columns and spacious marble floors make for a presentation that rivals any European palace. But what lies below the building’s steps is something rare to see, especially in Florida. If you stay in The Palm Beaches for any length of time, you’ll learn that few homes have basements. The shifting sand and high water table make the needed excavation very difficult and expensive, making it feasible only for high-rises and large commercial buildings. Flagler’s mansion was an exception, with a full basement as part of the initial construction. The basement measures more than 23,000 square feet and contains the plumbing and ducts needed to keep the stately home running.
Surrounding the grounds of the Flagler Museum is a tall, beautiful iron and bronze fence. Intricate in design, the fence is made up of carefully detailed wrought iron pickets with spear finials. The fence is both protective and impressive, adding to the palatial character of the home. What visitors don’t know about the 1,000-foot long fence is that it is original to the mansion, designed by architects Carrere and Hastings in 1901. Careful upkeep has protected the structure from salt air and wind storms for more than 116 years!
The 16-foot tree in the Grand Hall—situated roughly where the Flagler’s arranged their own giant fir tree in the early 20th century—is studded with glass and paper ornaments evoking the Gilded Age, and garlands infuse every room with the festivity of the season. Period Christmas cards are displayed in the ballroom. WHY IS CHRISTMAS SUCH AN IMPORTANT PERIOD OF TIME FOR THE FLAGLER MUSEUM? We tell the story of the house, and Christmas was a holiday that was celebrated here. It has turned out to be an important traditional program, where families come enjoy the beauty of the house. We try to set things up similar to how Mary Lily and Henry Flagler would have set it up when they were here, between 1902 and 1913.
Music was a popular form of entertainment in the early twentieth century and Flagler employed a resident organist each season to play the 1,249-pipe J.H. & C.S. Odell Co. organ installed in the west wall. The furniture selected for the Music Room is easily moved and situated along the north and south walls, making it easy to arrange for musical performances and other occasions. In the Music Room, Mrs. Flagler held meetings of the Fortnightly Club, a group of women who gathered for programs of academic and literary lectures and musicales. Mrs. Flagler also hosted bridge parties in this room.
The Music Room doubled as an art gallery and arranged on the walls are some paintings from Flagler’s collection, including a portrait of Mary Lily painted in 1902. The “Lady in the Veil” marble bust in the southeast corner of the Music Room was sculpted by E. Fiaschi in a style popular in the late nineteenth century. In the dome of the ceiling is a copy of Guido Reni’s “Aurora” painted on canvas. Recessed lighting, an example of Gilded Age technology, illuminates the canvas
Whitehall didn’t have a swimming pool until the 1950s, and doesn’t have one today.
A huge swimming pool seems to be a prerequisite for any impressive mansion. This was not the case for the Flagler mansion. It was built without one and wouldn’t have one for the first five decades of its existence. While the reason for this omission isn’t clear, it could be assumed that easy access to the clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean to the east, as well as Lake Worth Lagoon to the west, made a pool unnecessary. One was eventually installed when the home was part of a larger hotel complex in the 1950s, and it has since been removed. The pool was built alongside the southern edge of the home, the current site of the restored Cocoanut Grove.
Flagler’s railroad, which ran all the way down Florida’s east coast, brought vacationers to The Sunshine State and made possible Florida’s early tourist attractions.
Ten antique clocks in Whitehall are still running today
A building as timeless as Flagler’s home would seem to be a place where time is unimportant, but Whitehall is full of beautifully crafted timepieces. There are ten impressive clocks spread out among the home’s period-accurate rooms, each in complete working order. The clocks require weekly winding, and museum staff must follow a specific procedure to make sure each’s inner workings are kept in tip-top shape.
The Drawing Room was used as a gathering place for music and conversation by Mary Lily and her guests. The room is adorned with silk fabric and light wood decorated in the Louis XVI style. Above each door and mirror is a cameo of Marie Antoinette, the ill-fated wife of Louis XVI. The Steinway art case Model B grand piano was made specifically for this room. Its decorative details match those of the room. The painting on the lid of the piano is of Erato the Muse of Love Poetry. Aluminum leaf highlights the plaster ornaments in the Drawing Room. The process to extract aluminum economically had only recently been perfected and as a result, aluminum was as expensive and as precious as gold during much of the Gilded Age. The leaf was coated with shellac to give it a warmer feeling and a gold tint.
A trip to The Flagler Museum will take you back to the very beginnings of Palm Beach style. Guided tours are available as well as self-guided audio and printed guide tours. Times for guided visits can be reviewed on the Flagler Museum website.