Sunday, February 16, 2020
The Flagler Museum is the former Palm Beach Florida winter home of Henry Flagler and his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler. The 75 room mansion, named Whitehall by the Flaglers, was completed in 1902. Henry Flagler is best known for two accomplishments. First, he was one of three Standard Oil Company founders and was fabulously wealthy from that venture.
Secondly, in 1912, he completed a railroad system down Florida’s east coast all the way to Key West. The last rail segment called Flagler’s Folly or Over-Sea Railroad, connected the Florida mainland to the Florida Keys. A system of viaducts connected individual keys. Some of the viaducts were as long as 11 miles. At the time, this was considered an immense engineering feat. Parts of the viaduct system were destroyed in a 1935 Category 5 Hurricane and the struggling railroad company lacked the funds to restore service. Eventually, the State of Florida took over and the remaining viaducts were converted to highway.
Remnants of Flagler’s railroad viaducts can still be seen on the drive through the Florida Keys on the way to Key West, the southernmost terminus of the original rail line.
Flagler died at the age of 83 in 1913.
On arrival, as the museum was opening, the large parking lot had few cars. At an imposing coal black iron gate, there was a line to purchase entrance tickets.
Once up the steps across the Portico and into the front door, the immense scale and richness of Whitehall becomes apparent. The space seemed less like someone’s home and more like a convention center. It was that big and formal looking.
Whitehall’s first floor ceilings were ornate. This ceiling section in the Grand Hall is one example.
Today, it would be odd for a modern industrialist to have a throne room. But here was a throne on the Drawing Room side of the Grand Hall.
Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lily, had a gown befit for a queen in which she sat for her portrait. What does this say about the people who lived here during the time Teddy Roosevelt was President?
Impressions: Certainly Whitehall is a grand house in the tradition of the Gilded Age but it felt cold and impersonal. Much too much in scale and riches. Built more to impress and govern than invite and love.
In its heyday, Whitehall, Flagler’s last home, was quite the palace. The home has been restored with the interior consistent with the original furnishings the home had before Flagler passed away.
Whitehall’s first floor rooms served public functions.
There are sixteen chairs around the dining room table. The room’s size allows the table to expand out to serve even more guests.
The Grand Ballroom was smaller than the Grand Hall. Not sure why the largest room wasn’t used for a ballroom.
The library looked inviting until…
The Library looked inviting until it filled up with a docent led tour group. The docent was a good and interesting speaker so it made sense to tag along.
The Music Room had more art on the walls than musical instruments. At the far end of the room, behind the docent facing the camera, was a piano and an organ.
In front of the piano was a machine that could play the piano based on paper scrolls that had holes in them. The paper scroll was a representation of the music to play. The paper would move through the mechanism. Holes in the paper allowed conductors to make contact which in turn caused actuators to fire. Notes were played.
The pipe organ was similar to what might be found in a church.
The Billiard Room had a decent looking pool table. Not much else to recommend it.
On first seeing the West Room, visitors might be wondering if this is the Ball Room. It has a perfect place for an orchestra and when combined with the Lake Room on the left side of the picture, this is the largest open space in Whitehall.
It turns out, the West and Lake Rooms were part of the ground floor of a ten story 300 room hotel added onto the back of the house in 1925, years after Flagler passed. Then in 1959, one of Flagler’s granddaughters created a non-profit that subsequently purchased the property, tore down the eyesore hotel addition and began Whitehall’s restoration in the 1960’s.
One of Whitehall’s more endearing features is the Courtyard, located in the center of the house. The courtyard, protected on all sides by a two-story massive office building sized house, provides a nice refuge from the hustle and bustle of inside goings on.
Visitors entering the Grand Hall through the front door will see the grand staircase directly in front of them. This staircase (not counting the elevator), provides public access to the second floor.
The master bedroom suite includes a huge bedroom adjacent to an over-sized bathroom.
The master bath had sink, toilet, bathtub and shower.
While the master suite seemed cold and inaccessible, other rooms on the second floor felt warm and inviting. The above bedroom is one example.
In fact, the first floor would have seemed less cold and industrial if it had rooms full of comfortable furniture like the family room shown above, a great place to just hang out.
To Whitehall’s side is the Flagler Kenan Pavilion housing Flagler’s personal railcar, additional restrooms and the Cafe des Beaux-Arts. The folks seated in the cafe looked happy to be there. The railcar was much more interesting.
Flagler was well known for connecting Florida’s East Coast by rail. He used his private railcar when traveling the USA.
In some sense, Flagler’s personal railcar is half office and half Pullman Car. Office in terms of the above sitting room area.
Pullman Car in terms of the sleeping accommodations.
The museum is true to its mission. The house and grounds are lovely. However, you may or may not be a Flagler fan after walking through Whitehall. The house seems a touch sterile and uninviting. It is hard to imagine living in this house with these furnishings. Cold and uninviting.
I’m glad we went to the Flagler Museum and the entrance fees seemed reasonable given the upkeep needed to keep such a grand place in good order. Definitely top notch. Definitely worth this visit.
However, I don’t see myself coming back to the Flagler Museum. Something about the Flagler’s turns me off. We are not friends.
Hope to see you on the road ahead!