The History Of Palm Beach’s Renowned Flagler Museum

Henry Flagler built Whitehall, a 75-room Gilded Age mansion, as a wedding present for his wife, Mary Lily.

Photography courtesy Flagler Museum

Inside the home of Henry Flagler, you’ll come first to a grand entrance parlor, with two marble staircases in the back, hiding a macabre story in their gleaming white steps.

But first, let’s continue around them, into the home’s European-style central courtyard. Through it, you’ll come to a bank of windows with French panes that curve like waves. Peer in through the glass, foggy with age, and it’s like peering into the past, a grandiose, ostentatious time—a fantasy—like a period piece set in the era when the American industrialist ruled.

Henry Flagler had the Grand Ballroom designed to mimic the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

Flagler, among Florida’s founding fathers, had his Grand Ballroom designed to mimic the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. It looks like a scaled-down replica, replete with elaborately painted ornamentation along the edges and surrounding recessed alcoves. It’s easy to imagine the grand balls once held here, guests in white jackets and lace gowns, a band playing on a balcony.

You probably know that Flagler built most of the railroad along Florida’s eastern coast, leading to the development of the country’s only sub-tropical state as a modern paradise. Maybe you also know that his home on the island of Palm Beach became a place where the aristocrats, new-monied and gentries came for winter galas. And don’t forget that Flagler is celebrated as one of the country’s great visionaries, who saw Florida’s potential when others saw an unlivable jungle, infested with antisocial creatures, and who made his vision reality by building a railroad and hotels along the route. The grand project culminated in what was an engineering marvel—the final overseas leg to Key West and in the creation of the cities that developed along that corridor.

You will hear those stories if you visit Flagler’s grand home today. Whitehall, it’s called, and there you will be asked to marvel at Flagler as a benefactor of Florida, a man so devoted to his wife that he bequeathed upon her at their wedding one of the country’s finest homes.

There exists, however, an alternate story of Flagler that you won’t hear at Whitehall today. It includes true crime-like stories, more than one mysterious death, fights over inheritances, and reputations lost to newspaper headlines.

Perhaps you’ll visit Flagler’s 75-room home this year as part of the 60th anniversary of the museum that runs it. Before you do, here’s an addendum to the story of Henry Flagler.

First, the history of Whitehall. And for that, there’s no better tour guide of the home than Elli Laudicina. She first visited Whitehall not long after retiring from her job as a professor in New Jersey. Laudicina was searching for something that would define her retirement, and when she jumped into a tour of Flagler’s home, she had found it.

“You know how when you retire they tell you to find a passion? I found it here,” Laudicina says with the warmest of smiles. She has been a docent now for three years, leading tours a couple of times a week in the off season and far more in winter months.

The Drawing Room is where women would retire after dinner and was one of Mary Lily’s favorites in the home.

Asked for her favorite room, Laudicina takes a right from the home’s grand entrance and into the Drawing Room. There’s a collection of chairs and what look like secretary desks scattered about a room of a cream color called French gray, with pastel pink and yellow trim on the rug. A matching Steinway with gold ribbon trim sits to one side. Every crease of the room is covered in what looks like gold adornment, but Laudicina explains that it’s actually aluminum, then so expensive it spoke to the homeowner’s wealth. Any watcher of “Downton Abbey” will recognize the room’s purpose: this is where the women would retire after dinner as the men stayed behind to smoke and talk industry.

Photographer unidentified, Mary Lily and Henry Flagler, ca. 1910

“It has such an elegance to it,” Laudicina says, her wide smile showing her excitement for the space. “It was very much part of Mary Lily’s life.”

Mary Lily was Henry Flagler’s third and final wife, a woman so captivating he was willing to endure scandal for her, a woman he was so infatuated with he built her this spectacular home.

You’ll hear, in a visit to Whitehall, much of the Flaglers’ love story. What you won’t hear is how they met, and how it almost ruined both of them.

They met in 1891 after Mary Lily had fled from her native North Carolina after an affair with a man named Robert Bingham. Her parents had sent her away for a reset, and the 23-year-old met 61-year-old Henry Flagler.

At the time, Flagler was working to build a railroad the length of Florida’s east coast. He had begun working at 14 at a general store, lost a fortune once in the salt business, and then made it back many times over with Standard Oil, a refinery business he started with John D. Rockefeller. He bought railway lines between 1883 to 1902, combining them to become the Florida East Coast Railroad. He forged down the coast of Florida at considerable expense to his workers, with Flagler developing a reputation as both a founder of the state and a robber baron—a term for those early 19th century industrialists who created fortunes from the pre-labor union toil of their workers.

When he met Mary Lily, Flagler was still married to his second wife, the former Ida Alice Shourds, who had become declared legally insane in 1896 after becoming obsessed with a ouija board that told her she should marry the Czar of Russia. When she told friends of plans to kill her husband, Flagler had her institutionalized.

Flagler’s relationship with Mary Lily was so open that newspapers began reporting it. He reportedly gave her $1 million in Standard Oil stock and $1 million in jewelry.

The highly publicized relationship continued as Flagler asked the Florida Legislature and governor to change the law to make insanity grounds for divorce. Flagler became the only person allowed to divorce under the law before it was repealed three years later.

Flagler and Mary Lily married Aug. 24, 1901, just 10 days after his divorce was final. Among his wedding gifts to her, beyond the things he had already lavished upon her as they courted: a check for $1 million, $2 million in bonds, a $500,000 pearl necklace and the promise of a new home he would build in her honor.

Perhaps in the hopes that the place would tone down their colorful past, they would call it Whitehall.

The railcar is housed inside the glass pavilion and is what Henry Flagler used to travel to Palm Beach.

While it’s steamy outside, it’s chilly under the glass pavilion that was built in 2005 next to Flagler’s home. The property is now run by the Flagler Museum, and it constructed the pavilion in part to hold the lavishly appointed railcar that Flagler used to take to Palm Beach. It now sits along the west wall, opposite of where Erin Manning takes a seat on a folding chair.

Manning is the executive director of the museum and came here in 2016 after serving as the executive director of the Historical Society of Princeton. She sees her job as preserving the story of Whitehall. “Henry Flagler lived here for such a little time. The house has had a few lives since then,” she says. “The house itself has become the story.”

After promising to build his new bride a home, Flagler rushed to see it completed. To do so, he had it constructed of concrete and steel beams, a far easier building material to manipulate than the wood typically used in that time. He also had some of the ornate detail work done with molded plaster, quicker than carving shapes from wood. Instead of painting onto ceilings, artisans did frescoes on canvas, cut them into pieces and then glued them up. The shortcuts allowed Whitehall to open in 1902, after just 18 months.

Guests arrived by Flagler’s railroad all winter. They stayed in a collection of second-floor bedrooms, each with their own style, outfitted in wallpapers and ornate furniture in bright color schemes—canary yellow, baby girl pink, red and orange stripes. The museum has opened just two servants’ quarters, the largest of them on the second floor, likely for the head butler and a two-bed space for ladies in waiting. The main space for the servants remains closed off, behind a velvet rope that keeps visitors from the third floor.

Photographer unidentified, The Bal Poudré held at Whitehall, 1903.

For a brief time, Whitehall became the spot for extravagant parties; New York newspapers would cover the affairs. At the Bal Poudré in 1903, the Flaglers asked men to wear white ties and the women wore flowy Colonial-era gowns and powdered wigs.

But the heyday wouldn’t last. Flagler died at the home in 1913 under circumstances that are still vague. Some accounts say he fell on the marble staircase. Wild stories have been repeated in books and newspapers about how Flagler died, including claims that he broke a hip and spent his days suffering at Whitehall. The museum maintains that he was moved to Nautilus Cottage, just north of The Breakers, where it was hoped the sea breeze would help him heal.

“It’s not something we discuss,” Manning says with finality when asked about Flagler’s death. “We would rather celebrate life in this house than its ending.”

The silence on Flagler’s death at his home leaves the visitor to question what it meant and what we might learn from it. Here was a man who had built fortunes, had become perhaps the most influential man in the colonization of what’s now the country’s third most populous state and had—at least during his life—become one of the most well-known characters of the robber baron era.

The death is not something Manning says should be discussed on the property of Whitehall, and she changes the subject to his philanthropy. “Even late in life, you know, he had a desire to achieve great things. It makes him almost superhuman.”

Flagler’s death, though, would almost be the death of Whitehall. It passed to Mary Lily, but she stayed there only once more. By then, she had remarried. She had rekindled her first love, Robert Bingham, who was a widow himself after his wife, just a month before Flagler’s death, had been killed after a car she was riding in stalled on the tracks of a trolley line. Bingham, a judge, had been engulfed in accusations of corruption, and his relationship with Mary Lily would be the talk of gossip columns across the country.

When Mary Lily and Bingham wed in 1916, she gave her new husband a check for $50,000. He gave her a prenuptial agreement that stated he wouldn’t seek her fortune if she passed.

Which would happen mysteriously soon after.

In addition to the Drawing Room, Mary Lily had several rooms in Whitehall that feel like she left her mark on them. There’s the main downstairs parlor, called the Music Room, a garish space straight out of a Victorian-era French château, with a 1,249-pipe organ filling one wall. Then there’s her upstairs sitting room, called the Morning Room, where she would practice piano in a relatively modest space for a home otherwise so focused on pretention.

“The Drawing Room wasn’t made for relaxation,” Laudicina says during her tour. “But here, you get a sense of the tranquility and calm Mary Lily must have experienced here.”

A month after the marriage to her old flame, Mary Lily’s health began to deteriorate, and the morphine her doctor prescribed to her soon became her addiction. When she wanted to open Whitehall for Easter, her husband refused to go, and she was forced to cancel the holiday parties she had planned. By May, she was on 24-hour sedation, and when she changed her will to include her new husband, Mary Lily’s family suspected he had taken advantage of her frail state. “I give and bequeath to my husband, R.W. Bingham, $5 million to be absolutely his,” she wrote in the will written up in her doctor’s office.

Mary Lily died in July 1917, the death certificate listing edema, or brain swelling. Her family, the Kenans of North Carolina, hired a private detective who determined she had been continually drugged. In September, the trustees of the Flagler estate decided to open Mary Lily’s grave.

They did so at midnight. Three hours later, a team of pathologists and physicians determined Mary Lily’s body contained “enormous amounts” of morphine. Newspapers soon treated her death as a murder, with the New York American declaring: “MRS. BINGHAM WAS DRUGGED!”

But for reasons still unknown, the Kenans withdrew their claims, and Bingham received his $5 million from Mary Lily’s estate. Her fortune was split between several relatives, right down to the pearl necklace she got for her wedding, a 5-foot strand that is believed to have been broken up between several inheritors.

Whitehall would find a new owner. Mary Lily left it to her niece, who in 1924 sold it to investors. Most of the furnishings and art work were sold or taken by family members. The investors converted the grand home into a hotel and sold off the furniture, including Mary Lily’s prized Steinway. The investors attached an 11-story tower to the back of the home, the structure lording over the former jewel in Flagler’s real estate crown.

Photographer unidentified, Jean Flagler Mathews, undated.

It stayed that way until the hotel’s owners concluded the property required too much maintenance and closed it in 1958. Flagler’s granddaughter, Jean Flagler Matthews, stepped in and bought the property a year later for a steal, just $1.5 million, far less than its appraised value. She oversaw a restoration, which eventually included chopping the tower to just two stories, and held a Grand Restoration Ball to raise money and mark the opening of the museum.

Since then, the museum has set out to preserve the property. The staff has conducted exhaustive searches for the furniture, including the piano, which was discovered 15 years ago when the owner brought it to Steinway for a restoration. The table currently in the dining room will be replaced within months when the museum rehabs the original dining set, found last year. A museum employee discovered the dining room’s original plush carpet in the attic, where it had been rolled up for 40 years and unbelievably well preserved.

Beyond the restoration of the building and the return of the furniture, Flagler’s descendants—three of his great-grandsons serve on the board—sought to present Whitehall as a gleaming, spotless testament to a man who had become so tarnished late in life. Docents and the audio tour describe a benevolent industrialist who sought to use his fortune to build Florida into a paradise full of grand buildings, all connected by his railroad. It’s a stark contrast to how we think of the oligarchs of our era—it’s hard to imagine one day touring the home of Wayne Huizenga or Jeff Bezos or even Bill Gates, who is giving much of his fortune away to charitable causes.

When asked why the home keeps to a rosier story of Flagler’s life, the museum’s executive director says again that they choose to keep to the good parts. “This house started as a love story, a gift to a new wife, and that’s the story we like to tell.”

Among the newer additions to the property is a grove of coconut trees planted on the south side of Whitehall. Museum employees say they installed it to look how the island of Palm Beach would have looked back then, just a simple grove of trees, not perfectly manicured like the rest of the island today. Besides the sordid Flagler stories, which are decidedly not discussed, it is perhaps the only spot at Whitehall with blemishes.

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