Gilded Age Mega Mansion

July 31, 2012

This summer vacation I traveled to South Florida. The timing was certainly out of season. However, given the heat wave striking the Midwest, I joked that I was going south to escape the heat. In truth, we found relief on the beach and pool side. Florida is welcome vacation retreat year round, but that wasn’t always the case.

Painting of Mr. Flagler on display in Whitehall

At the beginning of 20th century, Florida was still as swampy backwater. In 1900, the population of Florida was just over half a million; today, it ranks as the 4th largest state with 19 million residents. Much of that growth can be attributed to the efforts of Henry Flagler. The co-founder of Standard Oil, first visited Florida in 1876 on the advice of physician, to help his first wife cope with a respiratory disease. He saw great tourism potential in the sate but recognized that the existing hotels and infrastructure were not adequate to attract the growing moneyed class. Flagler’s first hotel opened in St. Augustine in 1888.

The millionaire purchased rail lines and funded the construction of new bridges enabling his new Florida East Coast Railway to reach down to Palm Beach and eventually all the way to Key West. On Palm Beach, Flagler built two hotels, including the original Breaker’s Hotel. He also constructed a vacation home on the intracoastal side of the barrier island. The elaborate beaux-arts mansion, christened Whitehall, was completed in 1902 and presented to his third wife as a wedding present.

Whitehall main entrance

Comprised of 75 rooms, the Gilded Age landmark, exhibited the finest interior architecture of the day. Various rooms featured different period styles including those of Louis XIV, Italian Renaissance, and Victorian. New York designers Pottier and Stymus oversaw the interior design. As usual, there was little information about the actual structure. In order to achieve the larger spans of the grand entrance and ballroom, it seems that steel beam construction must have been used to some extent. Curiously, many of the more intricate ceilings are actually plaster hand painted to look like timber beams.

Flagler and many of his extremely wealthy peers believed that their homes should be monuments to and showcases of art history. In addition to the interior architecture, Flagler commissioned many works of art from the best artists of the day. He also purchased interesting artifacts from his world travels, including a one of a kind clock displayed at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris.

Grand reception room

Given all the effort and expense invested in Whitehall, it’s remarkable that Flagler only spend two months of the year living here. That may be explained by the lack of air conditioning, perhaps the second major advancement which promoted development of Florida. The designers did find some clever ways to cool the house. The hallways around the central courtyard are literal breezeways. When the windows are opened, air is able to flow freely throughout the entire first floor. Recently, the Flagler Museum has installed a climate control system which provides constant temperature and humidity but requires the windows to be permanently closed.

Elizabethan style ceiling ornament in family dining room

After Flagler’s death in 1913, Whitehall was bequeathed to his third wife. Upon her passing ownership transferred to a cousin who eventually sold the property to a hotel operator. Most of the furnishings were distributed throughout the families while aspects of the home were reconfigured for hotel operation. A ten-story structure was also built in the back yard to house an additional 300 rooms. The hotel was open until 1959. At that time, the entire development faced demolition.

Henry Flagler’s granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews, formed a consortium to repurchase and preserve the property. Eventually, Whitehall was restored and 90% of the original furnishings were recovered. Today, the Flagler Museum offers daily guided tours and hosts many special events. The building continues to serve it’s original purpose as a supreme entertaining space.

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