Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Whitehall, Palm Beach

Whitehall, Flagler Museum, December 2014.
Photo by John J. Tackett for The Devoted Classicist.
One of the great American mansions of the Gilded Age is Whitehall, built as a wedding gift from Standard Oil tycoon, Henry Flagler, to his third wife.  Inspired by the neoclassical architecture of The White City, as the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893, Chicago, was called, Whitehall was built as an example of Western Culture brought to its full glory in America.

Whitehall, now the Flagler Museum, Palm Beach.
Image: Historic American Building Survey

Flagler, a self-made man with an eighth grade education, had both failures and successes as a businessman before borrowing money from a relative to join Samuel Andrews in becoming one of three founding partners in John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company in 1870.  Flagler was Secretary and Treasurer, helping to establish the company as a multi-state corporation, establishing a foundation for a new business template that developed into the format used today.  This was a time of great economical growth, with industrialization increasing productivity and general wealth increasing the standards of living across the population.  But it also created a new, super-wealthy class with the top 10% owning roughly three-fourths of the nation's wealth.  Standard Oil became the most prosperous and monopolizing oil empire of the time and Flagler, in these years before federal income tax, became one of the richest men in the world.
Flagler's Hotel Ponce de Leon, St. Augustine, Florida.
Image:  Flagler Museum
By 1876, Flagler's wife, the former Mary Harkness, was essentially an invalid, and the couple went to Florida for recuperation.  But Florida was undeveloped at the time, except for a few coastal towns, but with substandard lodgings and little entertainment.  The warm weather helped temporarily and the Flaglers returned to New York with Mrs. Flagler dying in 1881.  In 1883, Flagler married Ida Alice Shourds, a young woman who had attended the first Mrs. during her illness.  St. Augustine, Florida, was their honeymoon destination.  Flagler was so captivated by the city and its potential as a resort that he decided to take its development as a new challenge and adventure.  Flagler hired architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, who had just established their own firm after working together at McKim, Mead, and White, to design the Hotel Ponce de Leon which opened to great success in 1888.  Followed by two others around the same plaza, the three hotels made St. Augustine a destination for the day's rich and famous.

Courtyard Entrance to the Hotel Ponce de Leon.
Image via Archimaps.
Flagler was determined to make the east coast of Florida into the American Riviera.  Convenient transportation, of course, was essential;  Flagler bought and improved railroads so that it was possible to travel the whole distance by Pullman (sleeping) car from New York City without changing trains.  Flagler expanded to Daytona, and then on to West Palm Beach where he built a bridge to the barrier island of Palm Beach where he built the 1,150-room Hotel Royal Poinciana, the world's largest wooden structure at the time.  (It opened in 1894 and was enlarged twice, doubling in size each time). 

Flagler's Hotel Royal Poinciana, Palm Beach.
Image: Wikipedia
The Poinciana was on the shore of Lake Worth, and The Palm Beach Inn (later renamed The Breakers) was built just across the narrow island on the Atlantic coast in 1896.  These two hotels with the railroad access helped make Palm Beach a winter destination for the wealthiest of society during America's Gilded Age.
A 1926 map of the Florida East Coast Railroad
showing resort locations.
Image: Flagler Museum.
As a side note, there is a lot more to the story of Flagler's contributions to the development of south Florida than most may realize.  Flagler consolidated his various railroads into the Florida East Coast Railway in 1895.  When a freeze hit Palm Beach that year, but not the area 60 miles to the sough, Flagler extended the railroad to the settlement at the mouth of the Miami River where Julia Tuttle, an acquaintance of John D. Rockefeller owned 640 acres.  With the extension, Tuttle had promised to share half her land;  she divided it into small lots and gave Flagler every other lot, forcing him to purchase her plots. Flagler built the Royal Palm hotel in Miami plus a waterworks and sewage system, founded an electric power company, and donated land for the first public school in Miami.  Additionally, he helped start the first hospital and gave contributions to churches.  Flagler also extended his railroad to Key West, the closest deep-water American port for ships carrying supplies for the building of the Panama Canal.  But that is another story.
An advertisement for the Florida East Coast Railway and Hotels.
Image:  Flagler Museum
In addition to bringing in tourists, Flagler's railroads also brought in supplies for farmers and helped them ship their produce out of Florida.  By creating these new supporting facilities for both tourism and agriculture, the state really began to develop at a faster pace.  Flagler's contributions never wen unnoticed with the state's politicians, however;  as wife Ida Alice had to be institutionalized for mental illness in 1895, and New York did not allow divorce on the grounds of insanity, a change in Florida legislature allowed Flagler to be married a third time, to Mary Lily Kenan in 1901.
Mary Lily and Henry Flagler, 1910.
Image: Flagler Museum
Carrère and Hastings, who were the architects for the Standard Oil building in addition to having designed a library extension to Flagler's house in Mamaroneck, Long Island, and the previously mentioned Hotel Ponce de Leon, are best known for public buildings such as the New York Public Library, 1911. 

The monumental urns at the entrance to the New York Public Library
also designed by Carrère and Hastings.
But the firm was also noteworthy for their contributions to the country house & garden movement of the early 1900s, including Blairsden, 1898, in Peapack, New Jersey, and Nemours, 1910, in Wilmington, Delaware.  For city houses, few could compare to the Fifth Avenue home of Henry Clay Fick, 1912-14, now the Frick Collection and currently the subject of a controversial proposed museum expansion.

The World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago.
Image: Flagler Museum
Both John Carrère and Thomas Hastings had worked in the office of McKim, Mead & White, architects that epitomized The Gilded Age.  The World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, with several buildings by McKim, Mead & White, was dominated by monumental, white, neoclassical buildings washed with electric light.  Since the fair was sponsored by the captains of industry, it is not a surprise that it inspired design of their new mansions.  The house as a symbol of the owner's appreciation of the arts was the goal of these homeowners wanting to express their social standing in Gilded Age Society.  Flager's desire to represent western culture as the ultimate expression could hardly have been better realized than it was with his building of Whitehall.

Whitehall under construction.
Image: Flagler Museum
The site, bought in 1893, was surveyed in July 1900 for the house completed for the arrival of Flagler and his third wife on February 6, 1902.  It was a time when European markets were filled with antiques, making it possible to create a vogue for Period Rooms.  That many of the purchases were new instead of old is beside the point in this case;  the intent was to express the belief in America as the culmination of western culture, and that did not require an authentic duplication.  Whitehall illustrates that combination of the classical tradition with the benefits of late nineteenth-century technology that was indicative of the times.  The Flaglers used Whitehall as a winter retreat during the months of January and February, traveling to Palm Beach by private railroad car.

The First Floor Plan of Whitehall
redrawn from the original 1/8 inch scale documents
to approximate 'as built' drawings.
Historic American Building Survey.
The Grand Hall essentially occupies the entire main block of the house, the whole length of the main floor behind the portico.  It is an impressive space, entered through ornate bronze and glass doors originally attended by a uniformed doorman 24 hours a day.  Amounting to 5,000 square feet of floor space according to the docent, the floor and walls are covered with seven varieties of marble. 
The Grand Hall, Whitehall.
Image:  Flagler Museum
There is no mistaking that it is a twentieth-century and not an eighteenth-century interior, however, because of the proportions.  The tour guides claim that Flagler asked that the ornate plaster ornamented and painted ceiling be dropped eight feet from the originally intended height to better relate to human scale.  That favoring of the horizontal was a characteristic of the period.  Not unusual during this time, the architects created the entrance hall, but the decoration of the other rooms was left to Pottier and Stymus, a New York City furniture and design firm prominent in the last half of the nineteenth century.

The Library, Whitehall.
Image:  Flagler Museum
At the south end of the Grand Hall, the Library in the Italian Renaissance style was decorated as a masculine space for Flagler to greet guests and business associates.  The lower half of the walls is covered with wood paneling or bookcases with glass doors and the upper half is covered with red damask.  The coffered ceiling is plaster, painted to match the wood.

The Music Room, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
The Music Room doubles as an art gallery, and also used for less formal functions such as bridge parties in addition to regular musical performances.  There was a resident organist each season to play the 1,249 pipe organ by J.H. & C.S. Odell Company, suppliers for many prominent churches.  The use of indirect electric lighting illuminating the copy of Guido Remi's "Aurora" in the central dome is an early use of that technology. 

The South Hall, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
Indirect lighting in the South Hall is also used to wash the ornate barrel vault ceiling.  Such subtle electric lighting was not common during this period.

The Courtyard, Whitehall, in 1972.
Photo: Historic American Building Survey.
The Courtyard, Whitehall,
as it appeared December, 2014.
Photo by John J. Tackett for The Devoted Classicist.
The central Courtyard was a critical feature for air circulation.  Here, the European tradition in the Caribbean, notably in Cuba, is observed.  The Flaglers sometimes used the space for open-air dinner parties.  The marble fountain portrays Venus, after the sculpture by Giovanni da Bologna for the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

The Grand Ballroom, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
A temporary fitted carpet covered the parquet floor of the Grand Ballroom at the time of my visit before New Year's Eve.  (There are now other rooms better suited for dancing, so this space is currently used on occassion for formal dinners).  Edward F. Caldwell & Co. made most of the light fixtures for Whitehall, including these chandeliers with Baccarat crystals and twelve sconces with fruit shaped crystals.

The Bal Poudre, March 5, 1903, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
The most famous party in the room occurred in 1903, the Bal Poudre given in honor of George Washington's birthday.  The New York Herald wrote that it was "one of the most sumptuous social affairs ever attempted south of Washington."

The Billiard Room, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
The Billiard Room was a popular gathering spot for gentlemen after dinner.  The interest in sport was a characteristic of the Gilded Age, making a masculine game room popular in mansion during this time.  Here the influence of the Arts & Crafts movement is evident in the decoration of the quarter-sawn oak wainscot and plaster beams painted to match.  The chimneypiece and window surrounds are Caen stone.  There is a record of the 1901 letter from Flagler to Stymus stating, "I have enlarged the billiard room considerably from the original plans."  In another letter, he asked for two spittoons for the Billiard Room, one for each of the Offices, and one for the Library.  But "Mrs. Flagler says she doesn't want any elsewhere in the house."

Mr. Flagler's Office, Whilehall.
Originally occupying the southwest corner of the house
adjacent to an office for his assistant, that space
was altered and is now used for the museum library.
The original Kitchen and Butler's Pantry were altered and that area is now used as business offices for the museum.

The Breakfast Room, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
The Breakfast Room, inspired by the State Dining Room at Warwick Castle, was used for everyday dining.

The Dining Room, Whitehall.
Image: Flagler Museum
The French Renaissance Revival style for the Dining Room was more appropriate than one might first imagine; a masculine décor was chosen because the room was often used by Flagler to entertain men prominent in financial and literary circles.  The parquet border was designed to the frame the carpet set in a recess.  The existing silk wallcovering is a reproduction of the original.
The Drawing Room, Whitehall
Image: Flagler Museum
The Drawing Room, at the north end of the Grand Hall and adjacent to the Dining Room, was designed in the Louis XVI Revival style just as one would expect in a neoclassical mansion of the early twentieth-century.  Mary Lily Flagler would entertain her friends here with music and conversation.  The Steinway piano was made especially for the room.  Panels of silk fabric that match the curtains are set within the painted paneling accented with aluminum leaf, a costly and rare material at the time.  (A coating of shellac has yellowed, giving it the appearance of Dutch leaf, however).
Returning to the Grand Hall, the excellent docent-led tour ends here.  The Second Floor of Whitehall along with the alterations and additions after the Flaglers' deaths will be presented in Part II, the next post of The Devoted Classicist.


  1. John,a most fascinating post. The history, philanthropy, and provenance of Flagler's accomplishment is phenomenal. I truly appreciate all of your work on this feature.

    French Artist Frederique Chemin

    1. Thanks, Karena. I recommend a visit to Whitehall to all interested in the Gilded Age.

  2. Flagler was a smart thinker, if he wanted to make the east coast of Florida into the American Riviera. But who would have thought of, and funded the new railway lines, bridges, stations etc that could make it all happen? I cannot think of other individuals who have single handedly changed the landscape like that.

    That 1903 ball looked fantastic. The Edwardians with money lived well, didn't they?

    1. Yes, Hels, the idea to make one's own paradise and social domain is an interesting one that has a history of notable successes. Now that we are in another era with a few possessing enormous wealth, will there be a repeat? The Edwardians did indeed live well, and some of the oligarchs of today certainly live extravagantly, but it is not necessarily the same is it?

    2. indeed! One reason I think; they don't bring their friends, and they don't share. One oligarch does not make a community.
      In fact; quite the opposite in many cases.

  3. As I have probably mentioned before, I spent a week in the house preparing it for the annual New Year's Eve Red Cross Ball. It's a wonderful space, and nicely maintained. Are you going to talk about the private railway car?

    1. Cynthia, yes the railway car is coming in Part II, the next post. Thank you for commenting.

    2. Oh! I have the "can't waits"!!!!!

  4. I am just about to begin reading "Last Train to Paradise". Your posting provided some excellent background information priorate my reading! Looking forward to Part II.


    1. Thank you for commenting. I do not know how fictionalized LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE actually is, but there is not much of a need to make up a story to make it interesting. Perhaps there will be a film version.

  5. I love Whitehall. It is always a fun tour and I notice new things every time I visit. I took a bunch of detail photos, listed under Palm Beach on my blog, if you're every bored. Palm Beach is a place with many happy memories for me so it makes me smile whenever I see photos and bloggers writing about it! Thanks for such a fun post!

    1. Ann; I love Palm Beach and have been visiting friends there since my early twenties.....what is your blog?

  6. A glitch in Subcribe By Mail has repeated this post from January, 2015.


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