Set on the edge of Lake Worth, in Palm Beach, Florida, Whitehall was Henry Flagler‘s wedding gift to his new bride Mary Lily in 1902. Today it is on the National Historic Register and pays tribute to one of the great leaders of industry and the man who created modern Florida from Jacksonville to Key West — after retiring as one of the founders of a little company called Standard Oil.
Although the ornamentation is way over the top, this is a house I could imagine being quiet cozy when it’s filled with family and friends. Maybe not the Great Hall. At 5,000 square feet it is the largest room in any American home. It is merely awe-inspiring with ancient gods and goddesses looking down upon visitors from the hand-paints ceiling.
But the rest was built for comfort. the dining room, with its dark colors and relatively small table, seems intimate. The bedrooms are smartly laid out with a gigantic walk-in closet and bathroom right by the hall so those sleeping soundly inside aren’t disturbed. The music room and living room are bright and airy and the I considered moving into the courtyard with all its leafy coolness. (The fountain, not to my taste, would have to go. Sorry Henry and Mary Lily.)
This is a house for fun. There’s a billiards room, the ballroom, a music room, and plenty of places to enjoy the great outdoors. In all, there are 75 rooms in this Gilded Age masterpiece.
Visitors see plenty of them, including maids’ rooms, guest rooms and the bedroom of the lord and lady of this American manor. The kitchen was demolished when the house was turned into a hotel but there are exhibits from the kitchen, as well as the hotel — which served as a set for a Bette Davis mini-series. “Little Gloria, Happy at Last.”
From the moldings on the ceilings and walls to the electric chandeliers to the paintings and sculptures and fountains, this house pays tribute to all the artists and artisans who produce homes of great beauty in near obscurity.
My favorite spot may be the Flagler Kenan Pavilion
outside. Built long after the Flaglers had passed on, the pavilion houses the railcar built in 1886 that Flagler used to survey his Florida railroad empire. The glass pavilion has wonderful views of the lake and a small cafe for those who are feeling peckish at lunchtime. And then climb aboard Railcar No. 91 to see this Palace on Wheels, as it once was called. The railroad stretched all the way to Key West and made development of the state’s east coast possible. Not good for the Everglades perhaps, but all the people who make the Keys, Miami and Palm Springs their home or winter playground must be grateful indeed.
ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman