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The Gilded Age hits Florida

By Michael Schuman

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Jan. 18 2014 12:00 p.m. MST

The Grand Ballroom, scene of some of the most lavish social affairs that took place in Gilded Age Florida

Courtesy of Flagler Museum

The grand ballroom is a welcoming, open space. The decor is in Louis XV style with 15 doors and window and lunette paintings alternating between pastoral landscapes and pudgy cupids. On the dome of the music room is a copy of Baroque-era painter Guido Reni’s “Aurora,” with the goddess sailing on golden clouds, and a 1,249-pipe organ on the west wall.

So where are we? Paris? Florence? Or in New York in the Hudson Valley?

No, we’re in Florida.

Yes, that Florida, most often associated with mouse ears, tanning lotion, alligator farms and cheap trinkets.

The Gilded Age made its mark in Florida as well as in the Northern United States, and the setting described is Whitehall — the Palm Beach mansion entrepreneur Henry Flagler built as a wedding present for his third wife, Mary Lily, in 1902.

It did not take long for Whitehall to become a fixture in Florida high society. In 1903, its grand ballroom was the setting for the legendary and lavish Bal Poudre, thrown in honor of George Washington’s birthday, and called by the Florida Times-Union “the most brilliant social function in fair Florida’s history.” Whitehall is open to the public today under the name the Flagler Museum.

To those outside Florida, the name Henry Flagler might be as anonymous as the name of your cousin’s dentist. But in his day, he was a corporate tycoon similar to those named Rockefeller, Astor and Vanderbilt. In fact, he cofounded Standard Oil, today Exxon Mobil, with John D. Rockefeller in 1870, but he is best known today as Florida’s Cornelius Vanderbilt. Flagler built the railroad connecting the state all the way to Key West, and in the Sunshine State Flagler is a household name.

In addition to making it big with petroleum and railroads, Flagler had a knack of building new or buying and remodeling existing hotels and turning them into tony resorts. No wonder Flagler is known today as the man who brought tourism to Florida.

With Floridian touches like a Spanish tile roof and a white exterior, Whitehall looks like a frosted wedding cake and is one of the nation’s most palatial museum houses. When it was opened in 1902, the New York Herald said Whitehall was “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the country.” Spokesperson David Carson says that even now when visitors first walk through the front door, they are “overwhelmed by the size, lavishness and beauty of the building.”

And why not? The sprawling Grand Hall, first room seen by visitors, measures in at 5,000 square feet. A typical suburban home today would fit comfortably inside it. But it might not seem as big as it actually is, which is exactly what Flagler had in mind when he told the designers to drop the ceiling height eight feet from its original design to give the room a more intimate feel.

While there is a multitude of artworks, including oils, frescoes, sculptures and exquisite furniture inside Whitehall, the building itself is a work of art. Seven varieties of marble were used in crafting the floors, stairs and walls, and just about every ceiling in every room is decked with images of mythological figures or other artistic interpretations.

When asked which of the mansion’s many features should not be missed — and it’s easy to miss some — Carson mentions the elaborate and quirky Rococo-style clock, one of six ever made, in the grand hall and the Steinway art case grand piano, with a painting of Erato, muse of love poetry on its lid in the drawing room. The piano was specifically made to blend into the room’s Louis XVI-style décor — above each door and mirror in the room is a cameo of Louis XVI’s unlucky wife, Marie Antoinette, hauntingly looking over the chamber.

Indeed, almost every room open to the public bespeaks class and elegance with the possible exception of the Yellow Roses Room, an upstairs bedroom saturated in a dizzying floral design that may make your eyes melt.

What happened to Whitehall after Flagler’s death in 1913? For 12 years it was in the hands of Flagler’s widow, then her niece. In 1925, a 10-story, 300-room tower was added to the mansion and the complex served as the Whitehall Hotel for more than three decades, hosting the likes of Walt Disney and Greta Garbo.

With financial woes haunting the hotel’s owners in 1959 and the possibility of the entire complex being leveled, Flagler’s granddaughter bought it, and a year later it opened to the public. The tower is gone today, but Flagler’s mansion and his legacy are still here to be explored.

If you go …

Flagler Museum, Cocoanut Row and Whitehall Way in Palm Beach, open year round, Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.-5p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m.; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission: $18 for adults, $10 for ages 13-17, $3 for ages 6-12. Contact 561-655-2833 or visit www.flaglermuseum.us with questions.

Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975, and received a MFA in Professional Writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at mschuman@ne.rr.com .

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