Henry Flagler put Florida on the map and made it accessible by train to all. He started in St. Augustine and worked his way down the coast to Palm Beach. Whitehall was the home he built for his second wife, Mary Lily.
It was a rainy day when I visited Whitehall. I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed when I saw it. It's very nice but it certainly didn't look like it was going to live up to the reputation that had been reported by a New York paper in 1902 as "More wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world...". And it certainly didn't look like it could possibly have 100,000 square feet of living space. Trust me; it does.
Notice the large marble urns at the entrance of the home. Now look at the next picture below which shows how large those urns really are. They are about 8 feet tall and on the pedestals they stand about 12 feet tall. The home is so beautifully proportioned that it fools the eye into seeing it much smaller than it is. As we enter the home you will understand what I'm speaking of.
Step inside this gorgeous home. The foyer or Grand Hall as the Flaglers called it, is breathtaking and occupies 4,000 square feet of the home! I wonder where I should hang my raincoat?
Bust of Caesar Augustus
A priceless clock
A portrait of Henry is at the left side of the Grand Hall at the entrance to his study.
A Venetian wedding chest was part of Mary Lily's wedding present from Henry.
Again, the foyer is just as deceiving as the facade of the house in it's visual intake. Yes, it's grand and makes an artful first impression, but never would one guess that it is 4,000 sq. ft. It takes a master architect to create such a space. The home had such a familiar feeling to me as I looked around. It was then that I learned the same architects, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, that created Whitehall, had also first designed Flagler's Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, Florida (now Flagler College). Well that explains that familiar feeling! Carrere and Hastings were so gifted at creating Gilded Age buildings that were stunning, yet very comfortable and dare I say, homey. How do you accomplish that in a 100,000 sq. ft. house?!?
The entire home is built around a two story courtyard, which was not only for aesthetics but also for cooling the home.
Let's start with Henry's study to the left of the Grand Hall/Foyer.
From Henry's study we go through to the music/art gallery.
great works of art by Italian masters lined the walls
Every chandelier in the home is Baccarat crystal. The small beads that drape from the upper edge down to the bottom center are about 1/2" in diameter and are hand strung. Each chandelier contains thousands of crystals and there are many in the home.
Even the servant's doors were opulent
Now let's continue on to the Grand Ball Room. This is the ceiling that leads to the Ball Room.
To the left in the hallway is the men's lounge, aka the man cave. This is where the men would escape the dancing in the ball room and play pool and smoke cigars.
The ball room is directly across the hall.
The courtyard is through several sets of french doors on the right side of the ball room and the conservatory is through the french doors on the right side of the ball room. Can't you just imagine a summer evening with all the doors flung open and people dancing and mingling?
The Flagler's put on a George Washington Ball annually.
This is the conservatory, which would have been filled with exotic plants and greenery.
Moving on to the dining room!
I'd like you to notice the ceiling. The only time I have seen a ceiling this ornate was in the Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy.
Another interesting fact about Whitehall is everything that looks like gold in the home is actually aluminum! Now before you start thinking 'Ol Henry was cheap, consider this: When Henry built Whitehall, aluminum was much more expensive than gold!
Peeking from the far end of the dining room into the salon. This salon is directly to the right of the Grand Hall where we came in. Dinner guests of the Flaglers would have mingled here until dinner was served.
Of course, there would have been a concert pianist to entertain guests.
I couldn't get a very good picture of it, but inside the lid of the piano was a beautiful hand painted mural.
The ceiling murals in the Salon.
Looks like gold doesn't it?
I was shocked to learn it was aluminum!
As you would expect, the Flaglers had incredible china, silver and service ware. In the Gilded Age there were as many different types of china and silver as there were social events. In 1917 when Mrs. Flagler died, they did an inventory for the estate and there were more than 1,000 plates of china, 500 crystal glasses (including some from Napoleon below), 20 tea and chocolate sets and 2 tea service sets made entirely of solid gold. Oh my!
As we ascend the stairs to the top floor, let's use the right side and start admiring the guest rooms and the Flagler's master suites.
At the top of the stairs I noticed this fascinating molding. Each little archway is about 2" wide. As we turn around and look, that molding goes all around the top of the staircase. There are hundreds of them in the stairways and they are all hand carved.
Of course, in the late 1800's and early 1900's there wasn't air conditioning and the Flaglers came up with a brilliant idea to keep their guests and themselves cool in the warm Florida weather. The windows and french doors on the right side of this stairway picture would have been thrown open to the courtyard down below catching the cool air from the courtyard and also from the inter coastal waterway in the backyard. The guest rooms all on the left side of this hallway and the bedroom windows all face the Atlantic ocean. This would have provided terrific cross breezes in the rooms. Ahh, but what to do about the bugs? Again, Henry's ingenuity, or the architects, we aren't sure, saved the day! Every bedroom had a door with shutters and screens to provide privacy, ventilation and be bug free. Also, when the shutter door wasn't needed there was also a solid wood door on the other side of the jam. Brilliant!
There were two more things that were extremely rare in a guest suite in those days: an en suite bathroom and a walk-in closet. Every guest room in Whitehall has them.
In those days, it was oh so fashionable, to have all your guests rooms be of different color themes. The Flaglers would have directed their servants to put Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller in the Red Suite, for example.
Here are more of the guest rooms.
The other unusual thing about most of the guest suites was these connecting doors. If large families visited they could all be together in connecting rooms without having to go out in the main hallway.
On the south wing of the upstairs are Henry and Mary's suites, including Henry's secretary's suite.
This is Mary's bedroom.
It is gold and gorgeous! I don't know if you have been paying attention to the wall coverings in the home, but almost all the rooms are covered in Italian or French silk brocade or some other sumptuous material. No common paint here...
And now for all of you who covet a large closet, Mary's closet will certainly give you 'closet envy'. It's fabulous even by today's standards!!!
Their bathroom was the size of most people's homes at the time.
Double marble vanity, toilet, separate bath tub,...
...and separate shower with water needle therapy
Mary's vanity and night gown
This is Henry's master suite.
Are you wondering why Henry and Mary, who were madly in love, had separate rooms? Simple. It would have been incredibly inappropriate for Henry's man servant to see Mary dressing and vice versa for Mary's servant who dressed her to see Henry in his undies.
On the other side of Henry's room was his secretary's suite.
Lest you think yellow roses everywhere is garish. This was room was considered the "creme de la creme" for hired help.
On the other side of the secretary's room was Mary's day suite where she wrote letters, played the piano, listened to the Victrola, received guests and took tea.
Next, we will visit the some of the servants quarters. The Flaglers were noted for treating their servants well and I think that shows by how generous their rooms were.
Speaking of servants, how do you let them know you need them? With one of these sophisticated do-hickeys...
If a guest needed towels or tea they pushed a button similar to this in their room. Then a button on this panel in the servant's quarters would light up and they would know who needed assistance. Some important guests would bring their own servants in tow and the Flaglers had several vacant rooms in the servant's quarters for just such a situation.
In one of the rooms was an exquisite collection of lace collected by Jean Flagler, Henry's granddaughter. Several of the samples look very much like the famous lace made by the ladies of Burano, Italy. Nobody makes lace like the women in Burano, although like many art forms it is sadly dying out.
A few miscellaneous items:
Mary Lily's collection of fans.
A menu from the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine
The inlaid floors were works of art, but how do you keep those beautiful carpets centered?
Another ingenious gadget...brass grommets embedded in the floor with a matching peg hidden in the carpet.
If you ever find yourself in Palm Beach, Florida, I encourage you to visit Whitehall. It really is a National Treasure.
Goodbye Henry and Mary, thank you for letting us visit.