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Flagler Museum celebrates 120 years of Whitehall

The view of Whitehall from the Royal Poinciana in Palm Beach, 1905.

Photo by E.W. Hazard via Flagler Museum Archives.

Whitehall, the Palm Beach mansion completed by Henry Flagler in 1902 as a wedding present to his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, has been on display as the Flagler Museum’s fall exhibit since Oct. 18 and runs through the end of 2022.

“The Story of Whitehall: 120 Years in the Making” showcases the 75-room, 100,000-square-foot house-turned-club-turned-hotel-turned-museum, showing it to be a figurative structure for all seasons.

Architectural rendering of Whitehall from American Architect magazine, published in May 1901.

Photo by Flagler Museum Archives.

The exhibit displays hundreds of objects and photographs from the museum’s extensive archives and collections to show the 120-year metamorphosis. When Whitehall opened, Palm Beach was one of the more remote locations in the United States, yet the mansion displayed advanced technology and decorative features that put it at the forefront of domestic living.

Whitehall Grand Hall ceiling art depicting Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi.

Photo by Flagler Museum Collection.

Designed in the Beaux-Arts style by rising young architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings, Whitehall’s special features range from marble steps and bronze doors to symbolic sculptures and a customized needle shower.

This brass needle shower was designed to direct needle-thin jets of water through small holes in the shower’s curved pipes. Few Gilded Age homes had showers because they were expensive to purchase and maintain.

Photo by Flagler Museum Collection.

“Whitehall is one giant communication device,” says the museum’s executive director, John Blades. “Once you start to see it, then you become hungry for more.”

Despite falling out of favor as a commercial property in 1959, Whitehall has become one of America’s top house museums, visited by millions from around the globe. The ornate structure has been designated a National Historic Landmark and received accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums and the Ross Merrill Award for Outstanding Commitment to the Preservation and Care of Collections.

After opening as the Flaglers’ winter retreat more than a century ago, Whitehall soon drew rave reviews in the press.

“More wonderful than any palace in Europe,” described a writer for the New York Herald in a March 30, 1902, story, “grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”

In his essay “Gospel of Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie described Whitehall as a home “for all that is highest and best in literature and arts, and for all the refinements of civilization.”

Early 19th century bust of Augustus of Prima Porta displays a carved Siena marble armor breastplate with sphinxes and homage to Apollo.

Photo by the Flagler Museum via Cedric Dupont Antiques.

The Gilded Age mansion became a private club where the Flaglers entertained constantly until 1913, when the oil, hotel and railroad baron died at age 83 from the effects of a fall down a flight of stairs within it. The year before his death, he saw the completion of his then-futuristic Florida East Coast Railway System, which allowed train travel from Jacksonville south across multiple aquatic channels to Key West.

A native of Hopewell, New York, Flagler and his ailing first wife, Mary Harkness, took her physician’s advice and first visited warmer Jacksonville during the winter of 1878. She died in 1881 at age 47. Flagler and his second wife, Ida Alice Shourds, married in 1883 and visited St. Augustine shortly thereafter, furthering his interest in tourism, hotel and railroad possibilities. She suffered from mental illness, was institutionalized in 1895 and died shortly afterward.

Whitehall stayed mostly vacant through 1917, the year Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lily Kenan Flagler, died. Left to her niece, Louise Clisby Wise Lewis, it was then sold to a group of investors who turned it into a hotel. Adding an 11-story bedroom tower on Whitehall’s west side, the luxurious facility opened in 1925 and functioned through 1959, with additional lounges, guest suites, lobbies, cardrooms and a bar.

These cocktail and juice glasses were part of the glassware used at Whitehall Hotel. Each piece of glass is engraved with the Whitehall Hotel image and name, 1926-1959.

Photo by Flagler Museum Collection.

In danger of being razed after the hotel closed, Whitehall was saved by Flagler’s granddaughter Jean Flagler Matthews. The nonprofit corporation she formed, the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, purchased the property. With many of its original furnishings and contents repatriated, the museum opened with a “Restoration Ball” on Feb. 6, 1960.

Nearly 100,000 people visit Whitehall annually.

Henry Flagler’s granddaughter and founder of the Museum, Jean Flagler Matthews, with Palm Beach Mayor Claude Dimick Reese.

Photo by Flagler Museum Archives.

“The Story of Whitehall: 120 Years in the Making” runs through Dec. 31 at the Henry Morrison Flagler Museum, One Whitehall Way, Palm Beach. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. It’s closed on Mondays and on Christmas Day.

Admission is $26 for ages 13 and up, $13 for ages 6 to 12, and free for ages 5 and under and for Flagler Museum members. For further information, call 561-655-2833, or visit


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