Historic Structures

Henry Flagler Mansion - Whitehall, Palm Beach Florida

Date added: April 28, 2022 Categories: Florida House Mansion

Henry Morrison Flagler built Whitehall for his wife-to-be, Mary Lily Kenan, whom he planned to marry after obtaining a divorce from his hopelessly mentally ill wife, Ida Alice Shourds Flagler. The site was surveyed in July 1900, Whitehall plans were begun in June of 1900, and Henry and Mary Lily moved into Whitehall on February 6, 1902. Flagler lived and worked in Whitehall during the winter season from 1902 until May 20, 1913, when he died, partly as the result of injuries suffered from a fall at Whitehall.

Mary Lily married Col. Robert N. Bingham in 1916, and the house was open only for one more season before her own death in 1917. Whitehall and other of Mrs. Flagler's properties went to her niece, Louise Clisby Wise Lewis. Keeping the smaller Flagler house in St. Augustine, Mrs. Lewis sold Whitehall to a group of investors who had built a 300-room, ten-story addition on the west side of the building, obliterating Mr. Flagler's offices, the housekeeper's apartment, and altering the original kitchen and pantry areas. The space in the mansion itself offered hotel reception rooms, ballroom, lounges, card rooms, and luxury suites.

In 1959, the granddaughter of Henry Morrison Flagler, Mrs. Jean Flagler Matthews, formed a foundation which bought the house. Since 1960 the building has functioned as The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum.

In 1963, in preparing the museum for the public, the upper ten stories of the hotel addition were demolished, and the lower floors retained for exhibition space and community affairs. The original organ has been restored and re-installed in the Music Room. Mr. Flagler's private railway car, located and restored, was placed on the museum grounds. Still more work continues on the interior, and on the landscaping.

The history of the Flagler family began with the Reverend Isaac Flagler who married Elizabeth Caldwell. Their son, Henry Morrison Flagler was born January 2, 1830, in New York.

Henry Morrison Flagler first went to work for his mother's relatives in Ohio when he was 14 years of age. This was work in the grain business of the father of his first wife, Mary Harkness. Later Flagler tried salt manufacturing in Michigan, but failed in it, and returned to the grain business.

Flagler married Mary Harkness (the daughter of his first employer) on Nov. 9, 1853, and their children were Jennie Louise, born March 18, 1855; Carrie, born 1858, died in 1861; and Harry Harkness, born December 2, 1870.

In 1867 Flagler joined the partnership of Rockefeller, Andrews, and Flagler in the oil business. When this became the Standard Oil Company in 1870, Flagler was the secretary—treasurer of the company.

The Flagler family came to Florida for the first time in 1878, a trip undertaken to try to regain Mary Harkness Flagler's failing health. In 1885 Flagler began building the Ponce De Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, and on December 31, at the end of that year, Flagler bought the St. Augustine and Halfax [sic] River Railroad (later to become the Florida East Coast Railroad). This was the beginning of Flagler's great railroad and luxury hotel empire in southeast Florida. His system eventually included a railroad system down the Florida Keys to Key West and Cuba. Mary Harkness died in New York on May 18, 1881, and Flagler married Ida Alice Snourds in New York on June 5, 1883. Flagler's daughter, Jennie Louise, died at sea in 1889.

Flagler arrived in the Palm Beach area in March 1893. He stayed three days, in which time he decided upon what land he wanted to built on. When he departed he left Albert Robert with instructions to buy certain lands. Robert bought a good deal of land on both sides of Lake Worth. Brelsford Point, the location of Whitehall, and part of the northern section of the Brelsford estate, was bought for Flagler by Robert. Flagler paid $50,000 for this parcel of land. The Brelsford Brothers built a store on the western tip of Brelsford Point in 1884. On October 1887 this became the first location of the Palm Beach Post Office.

Work on Flagler's Royal Poinciana Hotel was also begun in 1893, in May, two months after Flagler's visit to Palm Beach. The hotel was completed in February 1894, slightly northeast of where Whitehall was to be located, also on the edge of Lake Worth, in 1902. That summer of 1894 work was begun on the original Breakers Hotel on the ocean, originally called The Palm Beach Inn.

Ida Alice Shourds Flagler became delusional, and was declared legally insane and institutionalized in 1895.

On August 17, 1901, Flagler obtained a divorce, and married Mary Lily Kenan (b. 1864, d. 1917) August 24, 1901, in Kenansville, North Carolina. It was for her, the beautiful and accomplished Mary Lily Kenan, that Flagler is reported to have instructed architects Carrere & Hastings, "build me the finest house you can think of."

Flagler's life at Whitehall barely exceeded ten years, but during those years Flagler built his railroad extension from Miami to Key West, and shared a social life with his wife at Whitehall which contributed to the reputation of this period for being one of lavish, private entertainment and hospitality.

The Flagler's gave weekly musical programs for which they called on their own resident organist, as well as many professional artists. There were afternoon teas also, on the south porch overlooking Lake Worth, for Palm Beach society, and the Flagler's hospitality extended to famous people of the day, such as the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, opera stars Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso, Admiral and Mrs. George Dewey, actor Joseph Jefferson, and such other notable figures as Woodrow Wilson, Elihu Root, and John Jacob Astor.

Meanwhile, with all the work entailed in creating Whitehall, Flagler had also undertaken other projects, and the railroad bridge across Lake Worth, between Whitehall and the Royal Poinciana, was moved north of the hotel, and the north extension of the Royal Poinciana was built.

After Flagler's death, the result of injuries suffered in a fall at the mansions, Mary Lily married Col. Robert N. Bingham in 1916. The mansion was open for one more season only before Mary Lily died, and the house went to the heir. There followed the sale of the property to the hotel developers, the close of the hotel business, the creation of the foundation, and its purchase of the Mansion for a museum in memory of this enterprising man, Henry Morrison Flagler.