Whitehall: a Castle Built for a Trophy Bride
Henry Flagler is an icon of late 19th and early 20th century Florida history. A county, a beach, streets, buildings, museums, businesses, bridges, and a college all bear his name. As a Gilded Age industrialist and speculator, Flagler made and lost several fortunes before uniting with J.D. Rockefeller in the founding of Standard Oil. By 1872 Standard Oil was the largest producer of refined product yielding 10,000 barrels per day. Standard Oil moved its company headquarters from Cleveland to New York City in 1877 and Flagler and his wife, Mary, and their young son took up residence at their grand new home at 509 Fifth Avenue.
Their happiness was not to last, however, for Mary suffered from lifelong ill health, which worsened in 1878. Her doctors prescribed a warmer climate and sunshine, so Henry took his family to Jacksonville, Florida for the winter. Only three years later, Henry was left a widower. He married Mary’s former caregiver, Alice Ida Shrouds, in 1883 and took his new bride to St. Augustine where they found the nation’s oldest city to be charming and quaint, but seriously lacking in adequate lodging facilities and transportation systems. Flagler decided to correct those inadequacies. He became so enamored of the state that he gave up his day-to-day responsibilities at Standard Oil to concentrate on opening Florida’s east coast to development. His foresightedness anticipated the tourist mecca that Florida is today. His greatest contributions to the state’s growth were the building of lavish hotel resorts like The Breakers in Palm
Beach, the founding of agricultural industries, and the acquisition of the Jacksonville, St. Augustine, & Halifax Railroad, which he would rename the Florida East Coast Railway. It is not an exaggeration to call him the father of modern Florida. By extending railway service first to Palm Beach, then on to the saltwater marshes that would become Miami, and ultimately to Key West, he opened south Florida and made possible the Florida Land Boom of the 1910’s and 20’s.
Early in the marriage, Alice Ida began exhibiting signs of mental illness and Henry ultimately had her committed to an institution in 1885. Henry continued his building and development of Florida, bringing jobs and money into the state. He used his wealth and influence to have a bill passed by the Florida Legislature declaring incurable insanity grounds for divorce because he had fallen in love with a young singer and pianist, Mary Lily Kenan. She was 24; he was 70. He married for the third and final time in 1901 during the height of his Florida development and expansion period.
As a wedding gift to his bride, he hired architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings to design and construct Whitehall, a 75 room, 100,000 square foot Beaux Arts mansion that looks west over the bay that separates Palm Beach from West Palm Beach. When the couple moved in on February 6, 1902, the New York Herald declared Whitehall to be “More wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world…”
During their reportedly happy marriage, the Flaglers hosted lavish balls where young Mary would entertain their guests at the piano and the partying would continue into the wee hours. Henry and Mary would observe their guests enjoying the evening from gilded, brocade covered chairs that resembled thrones upon which European monarchs sat. One must assume the allusion was not lost upon their guests. One of the more interesting features of the house is the secret stairway that leads from a hallway just outside the ballroom to the second floor master bedroom. Being so much older than Mary, Henry would tire of festivities long before an evening drew to a close. He would make his escape discreetly via a nearly invisible door opening on the secret staircase. It was down these stairs that he fell, suffering injuries that led to his death on May 20, 1913 at the age of 83.
Whitehall is now the Flagler Museum. The website describes the house as follows.
Carrere and Hastings designed the exterior of Whitehall, the interior layout and completely controlled the design of the marble entrance hall and its grand double staircase. The façade of Whitehall is marked by massive marble columns and topped with a red barrel tiled roof. Built around the central courtyard, the house consists of two floors, an attic and abasement. Besides the grand public rooms on the first floor there are twelve guestrooms, house servants rooms on the west side of the second floor and guests servants rooms in the attic along the east side. Also included were a pantry and kitchen as well as private offices for Mr. Flagler and his secretary.
Whitehall was constructed on Brelsford Point, situated on the eastern bank of Lake Worth with Flagler’s Hotel Royal Poinciana located to the north and The Breakers Hotel to the east. Whitehall is surrounded by a highly decorated wrought iron fence, one of the most impressive fences of its period.
The New York firm of Pottier & Stymus designed and executed the interior look of the home. Pottier & Stymus decorated the interior of the house with period rooms in styles such as Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Italian Renaissance, and Francis I.
Whitehall was built to rival the “cottages” of New Port, but with an aesthetic and design that took into account the pre-air conditioning subtropical climate. The house went through difficult times after Henry’s death. Mary Lily remarried and rarely visited Palm Beach. The house was ultimately sold to a group of investors that operated Whitehall as a hotel 1925-1959. The Whitehall website gives the details of its evolution to museum.
In 1959, the entire building was in danger of being razed. Henry Flagler’s granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews learned of this and formed a nonprofit corporation, the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, to purchase the property in 1959. The following year, Whitehall was opened to the public with a grand “Restoration Ball” on February 6, 1960.
Henry Flagler’s private Railcar No. 91 is exhibited in the Museum’s Flagler Kenan Pavilion. Built in 1886 for Flagler’s personal use, the railcar was acquired by the Museum in 1959 as an artifact of Florida history and an important part of Flagler’s story. In 1967, much research was done to restore Railcar No. 91 to its appearance during Flagler’s day. Since then, new information about the original appearance of the railcar has become available from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, the Delaware State Archives and the Hagley Museum and Library. These documents, including the original shop order for Railcar No. 91, are the basis for its current conservation.
The interior and exterior of Railcar No. 91 car have been restored to the original 1912 appearance, when Flagler traveled by this railcar along the Over-Sea Railroad to celebrate this phenomenal engineering feat and the completion of the FEC Railway from St. Augustine to Key West.
Today, nearly 100,000 people from around the world visit the Flagler Museum each year.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.