Every June 5th, the Flagler Museum celebrates its anniversary by offering to the public a free one-day pass to Whitehall, Henry Morrison Flagler’s formidable Palm Beach home.
What was once an elaborate wedding present for Flagler’s third wife (and what a gift that was!) is now accessible year round, and while Founder’s Day visitors are only granted access to Whitehall’s first floor and Flagler’s private railcar, they’re able to embark on a self-guided tour of the house that leaves them breathless — and a little more conscious of the smallness, or total nonexistence, of their own sitting rooms.
Last summer, I was lucky enough to attend Founder’s Day with my freshman year roommate. Together, we scoured the mansion — she, with an keen eye for the mansion’s Beaux-Arts architectural style; I, with a longing to lose myself in the natural environment of the mega rich.
For those of you not from Florida and thus unfamiliar with our history (or for you Floridians with fuzzy memories of grade school lessons), you might be wondering who exactly was Flagler. In a nutshell, here it is: Henry Morrison Flagler was a key figure in the transformation of Florida from swamp wasteland to playground of the wealthy. Oil tycoon, railroad magnate, and rich developer of the Floridian coast as we know it, Flagler literally paved the way for socialities and New York snowbirds to settle on Palm Beach as the location for their second or third vacation homes.
Immersing myself in the art, culture, and immaculate Gilded Age collections in the mansion, I couldn’t help but think that just as Flagler had been the unofficial monarch of Florida, his Whitehall bore resemblance to the Whitehall in London that housed the English monarchs from 1530 to 1698, give or take a few 1,425 rooms.
Both were grand (one unquestionably grander than the other), both housed visionary men who shaped the course of history, and both endured terrible tragedies: The Palace of Whitehall underwent a massive fire that left only Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House intact, and in a scene eerily similar to Scarlett’s accident in Gone with the Wind, an elderly Flagler fell down a flight of marble stairs and never recovered.
Murderous intentions of the house put aside, Flagler Museum is an elegant and spacious mansion, whose old-school charm rivals the false grandeur of celebrity homes on the Atlantic coast. The rooms are wondrously kept, and I found myself touring the mansion with goosebumps, despite the warm summer weather.
If you happen to live near the area, I strongly encourage you to come down and visit — Founder’s Day or not!