When it was completed in 1902, the New York Herald proclaimed that Whitehall, Henry Flagler's home in Palm Beach, was "more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world." As wonderful as Whitehall was in 1902, and remains today, it was built to be, and has always been, so much more than a house. Unlike any of Flagler's other homes, Whitehall was a literal manifestation of Andrew Carnegie's admonition, in his essay titled The Gospel of Wealth, to his fellow titans of business that, "It is well, nay essential, for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization..." Carnegie's description of the kind of houses the business leaders of the Gilded Age should build, is a near-perfect description of a museum. After all, the word museum literally means "a home for the Muses of arts and literature and their works." And, build a museum, Florida's first museum, is exactly what Flagler did.
Having given Beaux Arts trained architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings their first big commission, the Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine a decade and a half earlier, Flagler again turned to them for the design of Whitehall. By then their career had taken off and they were in the midst of designing the New York Public Library. Thomas Hastings would later become one of only four Gilded Age American architects to receive a gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architecture. Carrère and Hastings designed many houses for the wealthy during their careers, but no doubt they understood the commission to design Whitehall was not about just designing another house. They believed architecture was the highest form of artistic endeavor and a powerful cultural influence, and their designs for Whitehall were the fullest expression of that conviction. In fact, John Carrère made perfectly clear his belief in the power of architecture to instruct and influence culture when he said, "The amount of art education which a building can disseminate among the masses is far beyond what we realize." Typically, in the private house museums of the Gilded Age the facade and first floor were filled with symbols. In fact, the main purpose of the facade and first floor of these house museums was to serve as an elaborate communication device. The message communicated was that these buildings did in fact represent the highest and best in literature and the arts and that their builders were not simply business titans, but society's leaders, or as Carnegie pointed out in the same essay, society's "trustees."
Americans of the early 21 century can be forgiven for assuming business leaders might also naturally be society's leaders. After all, it's what we have known for generations. But, the business leaders of the late 19th century were acutely aware that the social model developing in America at that time had no real historical precedent. While businessmen throughout history might have become quite wealthy indeed, society's leadership was in essence the exclusive domain of noble birth. However, a number of critical concepts came together during the Gilded Age to produce a uniquely American view of the world and the American character we take for granted today. Having survived a civil war that in large measure was fought to determine whether Americans would recreate a society dominated by landed gentry, like the societies left behind in Britain and Europe, or whether American society would become the meritocracy dreamed of by each new wave of immigrants, the way was paved to pursue the latter, which as it turns out was better suited to the industrial revolution that was about to shift into overdrive. The Civil War also seemed to confirm for Americans, that this large-scale "experiment" in democracy, and its emphasis on individual freedom, had moved from experiment to genuine viability. At the same time, as the corporate model for doing business of all kinds became more and more common place and capitalism gained momentum during the late 19th century, individual initiative became a much celebrated hallmark of the American character. Meanwhile, the explosion of technology that took place during the Gilded Age was like nothing ever seen in history. It seemed to make significant changes in Americans' lives on an almost daily basis and it produced fortunes the scale of which are nearly impossible to imagine today. For the majority of late 19th century Americans, who were born into a world lit by candlelight and powered by water and wood burning, but who now found themselves in a new world lit by electricity and powered by oil, technology meant a better standard of living and more free time to pursue self improvement of all kinds. And lastly, Darwin's theories of speciation, which were widely misunderstood then, as they still are today, seemed to support the notion that not only survival, but supremacy, belonged to those who demonstrated they were the fittest. Together these critical elements produced an American Character that combined individual freedom, can-do spirit, anyone-can-make-good, and unwavering belief in technology that seemed perfectly suited to the "New World" sought by the first generation of Americans and now finally realized by their decedents and successors.
When seen in the light of the events of the Gilded Age and through the eyes of those who created them, the house museums built by the titans of that age take on new meaning. By looking closely at the symbols these buildings employ, they begin to look less like ostentatious displays of wealth and more like giant messages to that and future generations. The primary message wasn't, "Hey, look at me, I'm rich!", rather, when the symbolism is understood, the message is more like, "Hey, look at us. We Americans are the realization of more than 3,000 years of western cultural evolution and it is in this New World where individual freedom and individual initiative determine merit and where technology has freed us to be our best that the human experience can finally be what it was always meant to be." Now, that's a very big message and from the perspective of the Gilded Age social leaders, the message must necessarily be communicated in a way that one would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss. The preferred and most effective way to communicate messages that are not likely to be missed by anyone has always been through monumental architecture. After all, when we look back through history isn't it the buildings of the great civilizations past that we think of as the most powerful symbols of those societies?
Whitehall, the house museum that Henry Flagler built, may be one of the purest expressions of the Gilded Age trend of building monumental communication devices, and the message is most clear where Carrère and Hastings concentrated the greatest amount of effort, in the facade and the Grand Hall. For Whitehall's facade, Carrère and Hastings designed an entrance framed by massive columns that looks very much like a temple to Apollo, where the Muses would reside. Appropriately, the grounds approaching Whitehall were left relatively unmanicured, a reference to the untamed bacchanalian world found outside the well-ordered world of the gods and muses inside the temple. As one enters Whitehall's massive Grand Hall, overhead is a domed ceiling painting depicting the Oracle of Delphi, a sort of spokesperson for Apollo and everywhere are symbols and references to the works of the Muses and objects that to the 19th century mind represented the "highest and best in literature and the arts" from throughout western history. Atop a marble table near the entrance is a bust of Augustus Caesar, widely viewed by American's at the time as a model for the challenges they faced. Just as the Romans were regarded by the Greeks as technologically talented but deficient in arts and culture, so 19th century Americans were regarded by Europe. The unearthing of the impressive statue of Augustus of the Prima Porta in the 19th century reminded Americans that Augustus led the transformation of Rome from a technologically advanced society, exemplified through its advanced but utilitarian looking, buildings, roads, bridges, and aqueducts, made of bricks and mortar, to a society of high technology and high culture symbolized by monumental marble facades. Deeper into Whitehall's massive Grand Hall is a clock that symbolizes the union between technology and aesthetics that Americans believed, as did the Romans before them, was their destiny to bring about. Designed by cabinet maker Francois Linke, the clock is one of the most aesthetically impressive clocks ever built and a grand statement of the importance that time and technology had assumed as the Industrial Age came into its own. Not far from the Linke clock is a full-length portrait of Henry Flagler by Spanish society painter, Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. The portrait is perhaps the best illustration of Gilded Age Americans' view of themselves. Flagler stands beside a French Louis XV style table and chair, symbols of high culture, with his right hand resting on the table, a symbolic stance hitherto reserved only for those who were deemed fit to lead society by virtue of their birth. Behind Flagler is an open ledger book and newspaper, identifying Flagler as a business leader and behind them are other books, at least one of which is certainly literature. The message is clear. Henry Flagler was being presented to the viewer as a leader in business and society. A leader whose authority was based on the fact that his success proved he was leader. A leader who understood that the ultimate step in society's evolution would be possible only through the union of technology, merit, and culture.
Built in just 18 months, Whitehall was intended to be both a monumental example of high culture and high technology. In 1900, when construction began, Palm Beach was one of the least developed and most remote locations in the United States. It was arguably America's last frontier. However, with 22 bathrooms, electric lighting, central heating, and a telephone system, Whitehall was not only an impressive statement of high culture, but perhaps the most technologically advanced home in America. As huge crews worked around the clock to complete Whitehall in such a short time, Flagler wrote to the furniture and decorating firm of Pottier and Stymus saying, "I too wonder how you have accomplished so much in such a short time... but I trust that when it is finished, you will have the satisfaction of contemplating it as the greatest job of your life."
Today, Whitehall is a National Historic Landmark and a public house museum that has been visited by millions from around the world. It stands as a monument to a time when the American character we celebrate was born from a unique series of events that came together in history only one time and in only one place - here, in America. Florida could not have hoped for a more appropriate or impressive place as its first museum.
One Whitehall Way P.O. Box 969, Palm Beach, FL 33480 (561) 655-2833
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