The development of Florida as a place for avoiding the cold temperatures of winter in the north of the US cannot be separated from Henry Flagler. Who you ask? Have you ever heard of John D. Rockefeller? Henry Flagler was a founding partner in the creation of Standard Oil, the most profitable corporation in history. While less famous than Rockefeller, Flagler was a leader in the business life of America during the Gilded Age, the period from the end of the Civil War until the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
His dates are 1830-1913. He married and when his dearly loved wife began to have health issues which could be helped by being in a warmer climate during the cold winter in New York, Flagler began to explore Florida. He first brought her to St. Augustine and when he could not find accommodation which met his standards he built a hotel called the Ponce de Leon. It was very grand, with windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the large dining room. Reservations were only taken for the entire winter season. Today that hotel is Flagler College in St. Augustine.
Realizing that his guests had to get to Florida he combined three railroads into a line which stretched from New York to St Augustine. Later he expanded the rail line from New York to Miami, this was the very first development of a rail line in what was to become America’s earliest winter playground.
Flagler began this work at the age of 70, in 1900, and continued it until his death in 1913. He also built a hotel in Palm Beach which still runs today called the Breakers. In fact, it may be stated that Henry Flagler built modern Florida.
He had employed two architects to build his Hotel Ponce de Leon in St Augustine, John Carrere and Thomas Hastings. These two architects went on to design the New York Public Library and the offices of the Senate and the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Ultimately they designed Whitehall, Flagler’s Palm Beach residence. Today, Whitehall has become a museum in Palm Beach.
It is remarkable for having survived until the present day. It presents an image of the Gilded Age mansion of one of the homes of an American original, a self made man who had very clear ideas about what he wanted as a residence.
The New York design firm of Potter and Stymus was selected to create the interiors of Whitehall. In typical Gilded Age fashion, they designed the rooms in period styles such as Louis XIV, Louis XV and Italian Renaissance. Elements of earlier Western cultures were melded with the latest in American technology. Nineteenth century American innovations such as steel beam construction and cast plaster ceilings allowed workers to complete Whitehall in only 18 months.
It is a wonderful museum with a calendar of lectures and concerts which can be seen and appreciated today. It is an absolute must see in a visit to Florida.