Arts + Culture

Going Places: Flagler Museum in Palm Beach

Despite its grand look and feel, the Flagler Museum makes people feel right at home.

BY February 6, 2017


As I drove up to the front gates of Palm Beach’s Flagler Museum—a 75-room Beaux-Arts estate built in 1902 by  industrialist Henry Flagler—my friend in the passenger seat pointed out his window and said, “Um, the parking lot is over there.”

“I know, I know.” I waved him off with an imperious hand. “But I want to see what it’s like to drive up to the front door. You know, like I own the place.”

The Flagler mansion, known as Whitehall, is like other famous residences now open to the masses (here I’m thinking of Miami’s Vizcaya and the Frick in New York City) in that it provides a look at a space formerly off-limits to all but an elite few. Yet unlike Vizcaya or the Frick, there’s something particularly accessible about this museum. Part of it has to do with the mansion’s design, with lowered ceilings and smaller rooms meant to make the space feel more intimate. And part of it has to do with the crowds—notably absent on the day of my visit. My friend and I were able to walk for long stretches without encountering other visitors, and that allowed us to explore the museum in a way that felt personal. Almost too personal. Sometimes we forgot that we did not, in fact, own the place.

Flagler was married three times—his first wife died young, his second was committed to an asylum, and the third, Mary (34 when she wed Flagler, who was 72), received Whitehall as a wedding present. And what a present. My friend and I began our tour in the grand hall, a room outfitted with seven varieties of marble, a ceiling painted in the fresco style and a sweeping staircase. From there we moved through the library to the music room and on to the ballroom, one decadent space after the next, each appointed with rich accents—silk wallpaper, lavish oil paintings, 24-karat gold leaf on the molded plaster ceilings. In an open portico, we stood in front of a series of glass-fronted cabinets housing all the accoutrements necessary for a Gilded Age dinner party: place settings of Sevres porcelain, silver salt shakers, napkin rings, brandy warmers, a demitasse set with matching spoons, sugar casters, tankards and flatware with crystal handles.

My friend stood with his hands clasped behind his back, his face up close to the glass. “It’s all just so—” He searched for the right word.

“Grand,” I said.

Upstairs, that feeling of grandeur continued as we walked from bedroom to bedroom, from the Gold Room to the Louis XV Room to the Pink Room. When we stopped in the Blue Room, my friend reached out a hand to stroke the silk wallpaper.

“Is this—”

I grabbed his fingers before they could touch the wall.

“This is a museum,” I scolded.

He sheepishly dropped his hand. In his defense, it was easy to forget.

From there, we made our way to an exhibit on exquisite lace. There were two women already in the room looking at patterns of handmade lace arranged under glass. Beneath the display case sat a series of metal drawers. Without thinking I reached to open one of the drawers, but my friend stopped me with a hiss.

“This is a museum,” he whispered.

I pulled back my hand. But the two women already in the room must not have had the same compunctions.

“Open the drawers,” one said to the other.

The second woman glanced around nervously before reaching for one of the drawers. I looked at my friend, and he shook his head. But when the woman pulled, the drawer slid open easily and had its own display of lace under glass. She gave a delighted gasp. Apparently, the Flagler Museum is used to visitors making themselves right at home.


If You Go …

  • At the Flagler Museum (,  Café des Beaux-Arts serves tea and light lunch fare in the Flagler Kenan Pavilion next to Whitehall. The pavilion is made to look like a Gilded Age railway palace and houses Flagler’s private rail car. Take note of the cafe’s seasonal hours, open Thanksgiving to Easter.
  • On Sunday afternoons at 3:30 p.m., visitors have the chance to hear Whitehall’s original J.H. & C.S. Odell Co. organ played in the music room and the Steinway Model B art-case piano played in the drawing room. The Gilded Age music transforms the space, making the mansion feel even more intimate.
  • The interior courtyard of the museum is especially beautiful but easy to overlook. Don’t skip this lush space with its cool white marble and tropical banana trees, jasmine, gardenias and bromeliads, all anchored by a bubbling fountain.


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