Henry Flagler Museum in West Palm Beach

Friday, September 27, 2013

Henry Flagler Whitehall Florida blogger

As a native Floridian, I had different friends and heroes growing up. First it was Mickey Mouse. I grew up next door to Mickey and Minnie and Pluto.... Disney World opened two years after I was born. Then my first fictional hero was Jeannie, from the TV series,  I Dream of Jeannie, the setting was my backyard, the Kennedy Space Center and Cocoa Beach. But as grown woman, an educated adult, an entrepreneur, those heroes have changed. (OK secretly I still want to be Jeannie).

Today it's Henry Flagler, Mary Brickell, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, in terms of "Florida heroes". Instead of a Cinderella Castle, today I'm taking you to another white mansion--Whitehall. If you appreciate history, architecture and culture,  then you will appreciate a visit to the Henry Flagler Museum in West Palm Beach, FL.

I often talk about Henry Flagler in sharing the history about Miami and Miami Beach. Flagler is regarded as the "Godfather of Florida development".  But today I finally stepped into the hallowed halls of Flagler's home in the lush and upscale neighborhood of east side West Palm Beach. It was more beautiful than I imagined.

Henry Flagerl home West Palm Beach
My mother and friend outside the gates of Whitehall
 In March 30, 1902, a story in the New York Herald described Whitehall, the Palm Beach home of Henry Flagler as, "More wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world..."

Having visited many palaces in Europe, candidly I would not entirely agree, but Whitehall was still impressive considering Florida was new territory with few inhabitants at the time it was built. It reminded me of the White House on the exterior, but clearly reminiscent of Italian Renaissance and British royalty on the interior design.

Christine sits on stone bench outside Flagler mansion

Below is a limited tour of a few rooms with highlights so not to overwhelm readers as Whitehall has 75 rooms. I encourage you to visit the home and take the full tour for a well-rounded sense of the history and Flagler's influence in the development of South Florida. Although there was one piece of information that the tour left out which I felt was important. Something I share on the Art Deco Tour. Skip to the end if necessary.

 Facing the rising sun, Whitehall’s façade, with its  massive Doric columns, is intended to convey the sense that one is approaching a temple to Apollo, the sun god, where the Muses of Arts and Literature reside. Let's step inside...


Florida history museums

Guests of the Flaglers entered Whitehall through large bronze doors decorated with lions' heads and flanked by uniformed young doormen on duty 24 hours a day. Once inside, guests found themselves in a massive room complete with a grand double staircase leading to the second floor.

Grand Hall Whitehall Henry Flagler

Architects Carrère and Hastings designed the entryway to be the largest and grandest of any room in a private home built during the Gilded Age. To the visitor, the Grand Hall might seem smaller than its impressive 5,000 square feet. But, this is exactly what Flagler intended when he asked Carrère and Hastings to drop the ceiling eight feet below what was originally designed in order to give the room a more intimate feel.

Seven varieties of marble were used in creating the floor, walls, stairs, furniture, and sculpture for the Grand Hall. The deep green marble table in the south end of the Grand Hall was created especially for this room by Pottier and Stymus of verdestella marble from Russia. Atop this table sits a bust of Caesar Augustus, a nineteenth-century copy of an original full-size bronze sculpture. The selection of this bust to adorn the Grand Hall was intentional, for it signaled the nineteenth-century American interest in ancient Rome as a prototype for the great society America was evolving into. Gilded Age individuals, such as Henry Flagler, saw America as the natural culmination of an evolving Western civilization.



In rich colors, 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.

Library with coffer ceiling

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.


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 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 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.

 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.


South Hall at Whitehall

One of my favorite features of many architecture styles including Art Deco  is the rule of  symmetry also seen here in this Edwardian hallway. In the southeast corner of the hall is a door, behind which is a stairway to the second floor bedrooms and master suite. Whitehall's architects designed the door to blend with the walls so as not to upset the hall's symmetry.

One fascination of mine in the world of architecture is something called "coffered ceilings". Defined by Wikipedia as "A coffer (or coffering) in architecture, is a series of sunken panels in the shape of a square, rectangle, or octagon in a ceiling, soffit or vault" the coffered ceiling serves as decoration of a ceiling or vault.

Florida Gilded Age architecture barrel coffered ceiling Whitehall

Originally thought to have started in the Renaissance period, it was recently in 2012, while archaeologists were working in Herculaneum (in the shadows of Mount Vesuvias, today part of Italy), that they discovered wooden beam coffered ceilings originated in Roman Times.

Another sign of advancement in early 1900's was the use of indirect or subtle lighting as shown above.

Other Examples of Coffered Ceilings

Throughout my travels in Europe and Latin America and even the U.S., coffered ceilings are draw your eyes above

To appreciate other fine examples here are a few:

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore (Italy)

Mir Castle (Belarus)
Is it strictly decorative or functional? Actually when incorporating domes and curves, the coffered ceiling was employed to lighten the weight of the dome.

Pantheon dome (Italy)

Closeup of coffered ceiling inside Pantheon dome

Let's return to our tour...


Mr. and Mrs. Flagler shared the Master Suite, a practice uncommon at the turn-of-the-century. The suite included two separate dressing chambers, a large bath area, and a bedroom. The bedroom, decorated in the Louis XIV style, is furnished with the original bedroom furniture. The bed fabric and wallcoverings were reproduced based on samples of the original fabric.


Tiffany and Company Gilded Age Tea Service

The epitome of Gilded Age elegance, this 18 karat gold tea service, was made by Tiffany & Company for Mary Lily in 1904. The set has a tea kettle and warming stand, teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, tea strainer, sugar tongs, serving spoons, teaspoons, and a gold washed sterling serving tray. The tea set and the lace luncheon napkin, are monogrammed with Mary Lily's initials.


Henry Flagler reached many milestones in Florida history. Not only was he a partner of Rockefeller in Standard Oil, he built the world's largest hotel resort in the world in 1894 (Hotel Royal Poinciana on the shores of Lake Worth). To connect his growing hotel empire across Florida, Flagler purchased several railroads and expanded the railway to Miami and Key West.  It became known as the Florida East Coast Railway (FEC).


The museum added a new 8,100 square foot Pavilion, which houses Henry Morrison Flagler's private railcar, designed in the style of a 19th Century railway palace, and the first public Beaux Arts-style building built in the United States in six decades. 

Flagler's private railcar, Railcar No. 91, was built in 1886 by the Jackson and Sharp Company of Wilmington, Delaware. A newspaper article written at the time of its delivery to Flagler heralded the railcar as "A Palace on Wheels" and went on to praise the car's fine appointments such as its oak paneling and desk. The railcar was one of two private railcars Flagler used to survey his railroad empire.

In 1935, the FEC sold Flagler's private railcar to the Georgia Northern Railroad and it was renamed the Moultrie. By 1949 the Railcar had been sold again and was being used as housing for migrant farm workers in Virginia. The Flagler Museum acquired Railcar No. 91 in 1959. The railcar has now been restored to its original appearance. Visitors to the Flagler Kenan Pavilion are able to tour Railcar No. 91's salon, master bedroom, master bathroom, guest quarters, and kitchen restored to their original splendor.


On the tour, it was explained that Flagler had the vision to bring the train to southern Florida. Actually it was a woman who presented that vision, Julia Tuttle, the mother of Miami.  It is documented that Tuttle and Flagler met in Coconut Grove and she offered him parcels of her land in exchange for extending the railway system. This was typical Tuttle, convincing industrialists of the untapped opportunities. She painted the picture. Key West was the closest deep water port city to the Panama Canal and Latin America; and the citrus industry, protected by tropical weather from winter frosts, both presented economic, agriculture and financial gain for Florida and Flagler.

So when Flagler built a bridge for the FEC to Key West, it was named the Over -Sea railway and considered a phenomenal engineering feat.

Following an amazing career as a founding partner and "the brains" behind Standard Oil, which was the largest and most profitable corporation in the world for more than a century, Henry Flagler invested himself in the development of Florida. During the next quarter century, he literally invented modern Florida. The transportation infrastructure and the tourism and agricultural industries he established remain, even today, the very foundation of Florida's economy, while the building of the Over-Sea Railroad remains the most ambitious engineering feat ever undertaken by a private citizen. When Henry Flagler began his work in Florida, it was perhaps the poorest state in the Union. Today, thanks in large part to Henry Flagler, Florida is the third largest state in the Union with an economy larger than 90% of the world's nations. Indeed, no individual has had a greater or more lasting impact on a state than Henry Flagler has had in Florida.

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