Florida Guide > Days Out
Flagler Museum, Palm Beach
If you visit Florida you cannot fail to hear the name, Henry Flagler, as he was one of the state’s most famous entrepreneurs, who built magnificent luxury hotels, and constructed a railroad from St Augustine to Key West, no mean feat. It was he who first saw the potential of tourism in Florida. Born in 1830, Henry Flagler, together with John D Rockefeller and Samuel Andrews, founded the Standard Oil Corporation in 1870.
He first came to Florida in 1876, to over winter in Jacksonville, on the advice of doctors, as his wife, Mary Lily, was seriously ill. Sadly she later died, but Henry Flagler went on build some of the most prestigious and magnificent hotels in Florida, including ‘The Breakers’ at Palm Beach. His grand estate at Whitehall was completed in 1902, and in the words of the New York Herald was ‘more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.’ Maybe a bit of an exaggeration, as it is certainly not as large and imposing as the Palace at Versailles, for instance, but it is certainly a truly impressive mansion.
It later became a hotel in 1925, which experienced financial difficulties in the late 1950’s, and were it not for the timely intervention of his granddaughter, Jean, would have been destroyed. It was she who created the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in 1959, later to become the Flagler Museum, which has been beautifully restored and which houses thousands of objects. It is also home to an ever-changing range of exhibitions on the history of Florida, and America’s ‘Gilded Age.’
The house, itself is simply stunning. It has 55 rooms, covers 60,000 sq ft, and is reached via an impressive walkway lined with towering palm trees. It was a wedding present to his wife, Mary Lily, and was used as a winter retreat. Built with French and Italian influences, it has a white façade with marble columns along the front of its magnificent entrance, and huge marble urns flanking the flight of steps. Perfectly symmetrical, the entrance has steps leading up to an arched doorway, with wrought iron decorations, behind which are the massive bronze front doors, complete with a lion’s head. The red barrel roof tiles are in stark contrast to the brilliant white of the building. Look up to the ceiling of the portico, it is beautifully detailed. Outlined against an azure Floridian sky it is very impressive.
Inside, the house consists of two floors, and there are some really grand public rooms, as well as guest rooms. The décor is decidedly French and Italian, with furniture in the grand style of Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. There are magnificent chandeliers, an imposing ballroom, a formal dining room, an elegant drawing room with opulent drapes at the tall windows, carpets and delicate furniture, as well as a harpsichord. Look up and you will see many painted circular ceilings, with intricate cornices and plasterwork, mostly gilded, which abound in this lovely mansion – many show typical scenes of chariots pulled by galloping horses with flared nostrils, with cherubs observing the scene from above. The floors are wooden, and as shiny as mirrors, especially in the ballroom, some covered by beautiful carpets. Gold, and gilding can be seen everywhere. Upstairs you will find 14 guest suites with original antique European furnishings.
All around the house you will see fine silver and decadent china displayed in brightly lit cabinets. One of our favourite objects is the heavily decorated Art Deco clock with its bell hanging below. There is an upright piano, heavily decorated with paintings, and standing on gilded legs, as well as an organ, with tall golden pipes, and cherubs atop. The formal dining room is set for dinner with a lace tablecloth, elegant candlesticks, floral displays and silver decorations, such as the pheasant which stands at one end of the table.
Outside there is a central courtyard, overlooked by the many upstairs windows, with a fountain and statue, and complemented by lush tropical planting. One of the most fascinating exhibits is Henry Flagler’s private railcar, which has been restored, and which he travelled in along the Overseas Railroad, which linked St Augustine with Key West. This railway was a phenomenal feat of engineering, and made Henry Flagler even more famous. The museum also houses an extensive lace collection.
When you have seen all you want to see you can eat in the Fixed Menu Fixed Price Café which is only open from Thanksgiving to the end of April. It is quite pricey, and they may run out of food unless you book. They serve lunch and that most British of meals, afternoon tea, with delicate china and cake stands – tea and entrance to the museum is $33. There is a self service café with sandwiches, snacks and of course drinks, open from May to the end of July.
Of course there is a Museum shop with gifts and souvenirs, everything from mugs to train whistles, canvas totes to nightlights, key rings to pens, mouse mats to books and videos, and the inevitable t-shirts and caps, complete with logo.
The Flagler Museum is definitely not a family outing, and I would not inflict it on young children. They do not allow strollers or large bags, so those with infants or toddlers would find it very difficult to get about the site. So it really is an adult venue, though suitable for older children who have a keen interest in history. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for children aged 13–18, and $3 for children 6-12. Those under 6 are free. Note that flash photography is not permitted. You can either take a guided tour or simply wander through the impressive rooms on your own.
The first floor (ground floor) and the outside grounds as well as the Flagler Kenan Pavilion are accessible by wheelchair. There is also disabled parking nearby.
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