Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Quite a Haul at Whitehall

Fresh from the spanking they received at the State of the Union address, the Supreme Court justices must be thrilled to see Jeffrey Skilling’s lawyers skipping up the front steps. Skilling, you may remember, was sentenced in 2006 to a couple dozen years in jail for securities fraud, insider trading and lying to federal investigators.

Now the former Enron executive who directed a company so fundamentally dishonest that its 20,000 employees lost their jobs and an estimated 1.3 billion dollars in its implosion, wants a new trial, his lawyers arguing against a law that requires executives to behave honestly.

Geez . . . and then those brave souls on the Potomac wonder why the average American Joe is just a bit touchy these days.

If you step back, though, and look at this country’s rich history of big guys who loved living large, the Skillings, the Madoffs, Lays and Kozlowskis are pretty poor runners-up.

When it came to making money at the expense of everyone and everything else, you have to go back a century or so. I had the chance to do that in January on a visit to Whitehall, Henry Flagler’s 55-room winter cottage in West Palm Beach.

Flagler was one of the larger-than-life rags-to-riches figures that populated the last quarter of the nineteenth century in this country. Born in New York in 1830, he left school after the eighth grade and moved to Ohio where he ultimately met John D. Rockefeller, a fellow grain merchant.

John D. wanted to get into the oil business and Flagler loaned him a hundred grand to start the partnership that would become Standard Oil in 1872. In an ordinary man this would have been enough to make a legendary career. But Flagler was no ordinary man.

In the mid-1880’s, seeing the warmth of southern Florida as an untapped source of revenue, Flagler scaled back his involvement with Standard Oil and purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad. With a way to get people to the state, he began work in 1885 on the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine.

Less than ten years later Flagler extended the railroad to West Palm Beach and built the 1150-room Royal Ponciana Hotel, followed by the Palm Beach Inn, which is today The Breakers, the most exclusive hotel in the area.

A series of severe freezes in 1894 and 1895 convinced Flagler to extend the railroad south to a warmer area surrounding Biscayne Bay, where he created the infrastructure necessary for a resort city. When the city was incorporated in 1896, its citizens wanted to name the new town "Flagler". The developer nixed the honor, persuading the grateful citizens to use an old Indian name, "Mayaimi". [Henry Morrison Flagler Museum]

Finally in 1902 Flagler contracted with two architects who had begun their careers as draftsmen with the prestigious New York firm of McKinn, Mead and White to design a winter retreat as a wedding present for his third wife, Mary Lily Kenan. John Carrere and Thomas Hastings created Whitehall, a 60,000 square foot mansion that the Flagler clan used for six to eight weeks during “the season,” Finished in just 18 months in one of the most remote locations in the country, the mansion had 22 bathrooms, electric lighting, central heating, and a telephone system. When it was completed the New York Herald called it, “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”

The main entrance of the mansion is reached by strolling through palm trees and orange trees. The two-story entrance portico, on the east side of Whitehall, is 101 feet across and 18 feet deep. It is divided into five bays by grand Doric columns that rest on large plinths. Surrounding the portico are white marble steps interrupted by pedestals in front of the columns. The two pedestals on each side of the main entrance hold large marble Grecian urns. [Historic American Buildings Survey]. The whole thing is a dazzling white that reflects the tropical sun.

The entry hall is of marble, lots and lots and lots of marble, including a blue-veined stone used in the columns that I have never seen before. As near as I can tell, it was shipped from somewhere in South America. The “front hall” is 110 feet long and 40 feet wide, and the ceiling is 20 feet high. A dome in the center represents the “Crowning of Knowledge.” Allegory abounds with medallions, statues and panels representing Earth, Sea, Air and Soil, Peace, Science, Pensiveness, Prosperity and Happiness. Originally a Persian rug was a part of the interior. The Kirmanshah pattern covered a space that measure 42 feet by 27 feet, the largest such carpet in existence. Today a new Kirmanshah 4 x 7 foot rug would cost close to $40,000.

On the south side of the main hall stands a nine-foot high clock, done in bronze. It represents Time riding the world in a cloud. The top is topped by rays of sun, and below the bronze is made to show the earth's bounty. [New York Hearld, March 30, 1900]

Passing through the Library, just to the south of the Main Hall, you enter the Music Room, which measures 66 x 21 feet. The room has a domed ceiling with a canvas painting of the aurora. Elaborate crystal chandeliers hang at each end of the oval dome. The pipe organ was one of the largest ever placed in a private home. It must have rattled the crocodiles in Lake Worth, sunning themselves in back of the home in what they supposed was a wilderness area.

The Grand Dining Room is 41 by 23 feet and is finished in satinwood, a tree native to the Florida Keys and the West Indies. The long table, also of satinwood, occupies the center of the room. Flagler kept a strict timetable, as one would expect of a railroad man, and if you didn’t show up for a meal on time, you didn’t eat. Meals were known to last up to three hours. The carving on the cabinets and the mantel is rich and detailed. Some of it is so fine that “a magnifying glass is needed to see the details of the work.” [New York Herald, March 30, 1900]

Just to the east of the Dining Room is the French Salon, 42 x 30 feet, finished in a Louis XVI design. The grand piano, done in silver and gray, is a commanding presence in the room and one can imagine the guests leaving the table after a three-hour feast and walking a few steps into the salon for the evening’s entertainment.

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, and such other notable figures as Woodrow Wilson, Elihu Root, and John Jacob Astor. [Historic American Buildings Survey] Imagine downing a couple cognacs with that crowd.

On the second level are located at least 17 bedrooms, including the two largest rooms that Mr. and Mrs. Flagler occupied separately. Off Mrs. Flagler’s chamber is a bathroom that measures 11 by 17 feet. The floor is of marble, and the double sink is of onyx. Like her chamber, the bathroom’s windows look out toward Lake Worth, which is now part of the Intercoastal Waterway.

“Helping others is like helping yourself,” Henry Flagler was fond of saying. Flagler opened up the state of Florida, virtually created the city of Miami, and ran a railroad at great expense all the way to the Florida Keys. In the process, from the looks of his winter home at Whitehall, he didn’t do too bad a job at helping himself.


Jill said...

Excellent work. Pictures and information is that of a well trained docent!

Larry said...

Well written as to be expected from an English teacher and docent extrodinaire.

When in the Palm Beach area make sure to take the time to experience one of the lesser known giants American capitalism from the Gilded Age. While he may not be as well known as Carneige, Rockefeller, or Vanderbilt, Flager played a signifcant role in developong Florida and America. A great example of American entrepeneurial spirit and visionary thinking.