Although the Flager Museum located in Palm Beach, charges a lot for admission, it was so highly recommended, we decided to bite the bullet. We've been in a lot of restored mansions over the years, but this one lived up to its reputation.
Henry Flager is not as well known today as his primary business partner, John D. Rockefeller, but here in Florida he is far more famous. He was born poor in 1844 and left school at the age of 14 to pursue his fortune. He was a salt merchant until the Civil War ruined his business and left him $40,000 in debt. Then he started a grain business, but when he became a founding partner of the Standard Oil Company, the money really stated pouring in.
He discovered Florida when his first wife's physician recommended a warmer climate for her failing health. He built a a hotel while in St. Augustine so his friends who visited would have somewhere to stay. It was so large, today it houses a college today. As Flagler extended the railroad south into Florida, he built lavish hotels long the way that would make northerners want to take his railroad to stay in them.
When his second wife was institutionalized for mental illness the Florida legislature passed a special law that made insanity grounds for him to divorce her and he built the mansion in Palm Beach for his third wife as a wedding present in 1902. At the time it was located on a fresh water lake, but now it is part of the inltercoastal waterway system. Many modern conveniences that we take for granted were being built invented during this time - electric light, indoor plumbing, and telephones - all of them were in the house. The first floor of the home was designed to entertain guests and the 5,000 square foot reception hall (large enough to contain two typical family homes) was the largest and grandest of any room in a Gilded Age private home. The upstairs had fourteen guest rooms and less lavish rooms to house the servants that came with his guests. At the time their visits would last for weeks. It took a while to get down there and there was nowhere else to go.
After Flagler lived in the mansion here he called Whitehall, he looked further south. The Panama Canal was being built and he saw Key West as a spot with major potential as a port for trade with South America and for the west coast once the canal was finished. The final project of his productive life was the building of a 150 mile railroad track over the Florida Keys from Miami. It was a project fraught with mishaps and taxed the engineering capabilities of the day. When it finally finished in 1912 he took his private rail car to Key West over his new creation. But by 1935 the railroad was badly damaged in a hurricane, and was unusable. The state of Florida purchased and repaired it; after the Depression few men were left who had a fortune large enough to build their own railroad track dotted with lavish hotels. At the age of 83 Flagler fell down the polished steps we walked on today and met his end.
Flagler's niece inherited Whitehall and large quantities of shares in oil stock, but she still had trouble keeping the house up. It was purchased by a company that built eight floors above the original house and made it into a hotel. The hotel did well until the 1950's, when it was about to be knocked down for the value of the land it sat on.
Flagler's granddaughter sprang into action and bought the house. It was in horrible condition so she created a foundation managed by her wealthy friends and sank many of her own funds into the preservation. She also brought the private railroad car to the grounds and built a huge pavilion over it after it was restored, so it will never suffer from the elements again. Today the complex is one of the most lavishly restored and completely furnished mansions we have ever seen. Much of the furniture is original and the repairs were done using the same materials that were used originally. The guide said if the Flaglers were to come back today, they would never guess that any alternations had been made to their grand design.